The best lessons from the 'Art of War,' the book Evan Spiegel once bought every Snapchat employee

When Mark Zuckerberg and Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel first met, Spiegel left the meeting feeling unsettled.

According to a Forbes interview with Spiegel, Zuckerberg had said Facebook was working on an app that sounded a lot like Snapchat, Poke, and that the app would be launching soon.

‘It was basically like, ‘We’re going to crush you,'” Spiegel told Forbes’ J.J. Colao.

Spiegel quickly purchased a book, “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, for each member of his six-person team.

The Art of War was written by a Chinese general named Sun Tzu more than 2,500 years ago, possibly in the 6th Century BC. The book has long been heralded for its advice on military success. And this advice has since been co-opted by legions of armchair soldiers and generals in the business world.

The book is composed of 13 chapters, each of which focuses on a different aspect of war. It’s a smart book. It’s also poetic, repetitive, and arcane. So we’ve boiled down the highlights, compiling quotes from throughout the book.

ON MANAGEMENT: Care about your team, but also be tough

There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general:

  • recklessness, which leads to destruction;
  • cowardice, which leads to capture;
  • a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults;
  • a delicacy of honour, which is sensitive to shame;
  • over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.

Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.

If, however, you are indulgent, but unable to make your authority felt; kind-hearted, but unable to enforce your commands; and incapable, moreover, of quelling disorder: then your soldiers must be likened to spoilt children; they are useless for any practical purpose.

When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization.

Based on text from 'The Art of War.'

ON MANAGEMENT: Hire great people, because weak, frustrated subordinates will cripple you.

When the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is insubordination. When the officers are too strong and the common soldiers too weak, the result is collapse.

When the higher officers are angry and insubordinate, and on meeting the enemy give battle on their own account from a feeling of resentment, before the commander-in-chief can tell whether or not he is in a position to fight, the result is ruin.

Based on text from 'The Art of War.'

ON STRATEGY: Know your enemy

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sits for audience questions in an onstage interview for the Atlantic Magazine in Washington, September 18, 2013.

If we know that our own men are in a condition to attack, but are unaware that the enemy is not open to attack, we have gone only halfway towards victory.

In your deliberations, when seeking to determine the military conditions, let them be made the basis of a comparison, in this way:

  • which of the two generals has the most ability?
  • on which side is Discipline most rigorously enforced?
  • which army is stronger?
  • on which side are the officers and men more highly trained?
  • in which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?

Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.

Based on text from 'The Art of War.'

ON TACTICS: All warfare is based on deception

Spanish bullfighter Juan Jose Padilla kneels down in front of a bull during the last bullfight of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, July 14, 2012.

Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

Based on text from 'The Art of War.'

ON TACTICS: Be decisive and quick

Though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.

There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.

The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.

Therefore the good fighter will be terrible in his onset, and prompt in his decision.

Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted...

Rapidity is the essence of war: take advantage of the enemy's unreadiness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots.

Based on text from 'The Art of War.'

ON TACTICS: Don't just do something for the sake of doing something -- make sure it helps you

If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are.

Based on text from 'The Art of War.'

WARNING: Don't attack someone just because they made you mad

No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique.

Based on text from 'The Art of War.'

HOW TO LOSE: Tell your people to do something they can't; promote incapable people; or work your team to death

U.S. Army Parachute Team members conduct their Annual Certification Cycle, March 4, 2014

There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune on his army:

  • By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the army.
  • By attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army. This causes restlessness in the soldiers' minds.
  • By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers.

The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much from individuals. Hence his ability to pick out the right men and use combined energy

When he uses combined energy, his fighting men become as it were like unto rolling logs or stones. For it is the nature of a log or stone to remain motionless on level ground, and to move when on a slope; if four-cornered, to come to a standstill, but if round-shaped to go rolling down.

Based on text from 'The Art of War.'


Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory:

  • He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
  • He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
  • He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.
  • He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.
  • He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.

The good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy.

Hence the saying: One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.

Based on text from 'The Art of War.'


If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Based on text from 'The Art of War.'

You can buy The Art of War here, at Amazon.

Or you can read it for free, here.

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