Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sun Tzu and the Art of Small Words

A long time ago there was a guy named Sun Tzu, who told his friends that if you gave him a group of people--anyone, didn't matter who they were--he could build an army. It'd be the best damned army in the world, he said--well-trained, well-run and efficient.

...and his friends--like friends everywhere--said, yeah, right. If you think you're so damned good, why don't you go to the Emperor and ask for a job? And Sun Tzu said, "damned straight."

He confronts the Emperor of China, and says, "Make me your General."

The Emperor laughs, but Sun Tzu says, "I'm not joking. If you make me your General, I will build you the best army in the world."

The Emperor already had intel on this guy and he says, "If you can, in three days, build an army out of my chosen group of people. I will make you my General. Otherwise..."

To which Sun Tzu says, "give me your people."

So the Emperor gives Sun Tzu his wives and concubines.

They both go out, and look at this group of women. Big group, lots of middle-aged women and pretty girls, chief wives and concubines. And Sun Tzu explains how he's building the Emperor's army, and they're it, and everyone laughs. But he keeps going, saying, "You, you and you--I'm making you my officers." And he picks out a group of chief wives, and he tells them--"when I tell you, I want you to tell everyone to turn right."

He gets his group together. The officers out in front of them all. Big group of women, all dressed up in long silk robes and jewelry, bound feet and makeup, and they can't believe this guy is so damned stupid he expects them to do what he says.

So when Sun Tzu bellows out, "Turn right!!!!" Nobody moves.

Sun Tzu says, "Obviously, I am at fault. I didn't explain my expectations in a clear way using WIFM (known in modern speak as "what's in it for me")" Overnight he talks to his officers, and the next morning, him and the Emperor are back.

And Sun Tzu yells out, "TURN right!!!"

This time, maybe a few women, friends of the chief wives kind of start to turn, but it all dissolves into a snarl and Sun Tzu says. "Ahh." And the Emperor says, "You're trying my patience."

To which Sun Tzu says, "I have tried explaining, I have tried communicating my expectations. In the beginning, the fault was with me. But now--it's obvious my officers are not effective."

So he kills the wives and throws their heads in a pile and in front of the army--over the dead bodies of their former officers, he points to a new group of women and says, "This is what I want you to do."

The next day when he goes out, the group is no longer milling around. They're in neat blocks, and when he says, "TURN RIGHT!!!!!"

Everyone turns right.

"I have made you an army," says Sun Tzu.

He goes on to write the classic "Art of War", start up early military intelligence and logistics. And build much of current management theory.

It's kind of odd that Miyamoto Musashi (the Book of Five Rings), Sun Tzu (the Art of War) and Miccolo Machiavelli (the Prince) would become three of the greatest influences on management theory--but business=war, so it makes sense.

Translations...

James Clavell, in his translation of Sun Tzu's Art of War, brought it down to a level I could instantly relate to, because he used small words, and if there were footnotes, I honestly didn't see them.

I give his book as a Christmas present--

BUT, without knowing it existed, if you picked up a copy with footnotes and addendum, using big words to quadruple the size of what is essentially a damned small pamphlet...Sun Tzu sounds like overly pretentious gibberish.

...in his theory on the use of terrain, within the framework of the current context, which during the reign of--utilizing the abstract ossification of facilitation of predominant...

*see footnote on page nine hundred, index three.

...you'd throw the damned thing down and miss fascinating insights that even current day military theorists like Keegan (yeah, that's where I got the name, lol) still can't better.

Same with writing books. I recently bought a book on psychology for writers. Cost me an arm and a leg, and it was crammed full of footnotes and indexes, reference notes, and pretty pictures, all of which meant nothing--because I couldn't process the theories.

I'm not advocating the Dummies books, but in some ways, they have the right idea. Make it simple, in plain English.

I love the concubine story.

3 comments:

Jennifer McKenzie said...

Amen sistah. Perhaps that's why I like my history packaged in a certain "voice". For example, British History is interesting to me, but DRY DRY DRY. Winston Churchill's version in a five volume set "The Birth Of Britain"? I'm good to go.
Same with Barbara Tuchman who is the ONLY person who could make the nineteenth century palatable.
I can't read indexes.

jodi said...

lol--that's why I like Keegan. He makes everything interesting. hmmm...makes you kind of wonder how far back you start accumalating names, and why.

Eva Gale said...

Jenn-I'm so glad you said that about Churchill's books because Dd has to read his other 4 vol set (me too) for homeschooling soon.

And I have Keegan's book somewhere. I'll have to dig it out and read again.