2023- A Year to Revive the Ancient Wisdom of Sages?

We are still not out of the pandemic although there are signs of its abating. Sun Tzu in his Art of War posits “one must know oneself as much as one knows one’s enemy”.

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Soldiers from the Ming Dynasty Departure Herald, from the Jiajing reign period in China (1522-1566), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Victory comes from finding opportunities in problems. Sun Tzu…The Art Of War

If 2022 was the year in which we misbehaved, 2023 must surely be the year we dust the tomes of past wisdom and seek some relevance and intelligence in our lives. The year past: of folly at war and talk of the use of nuclear weapons; threats of fire and fury; acts leading to economic dominance without any forethought or perception of consequences; pyrrhic victory by violent suppression of protests, can all be subject to cautious reflection and reference to the words of sages of the past.

In the context of the most serious situation in Ukraine, one is reminded of the words of Sun Tzu  (771-256 BC) a Chinese sage, philosopher and strategist who specialized in military wisdom and is credited as the author of The Art of War – a lasting repository of military strategy for winning a war – which is now considered not only influential in military warfare but also used as a manual for corporate competitive strategy.  Sun Tzu said: “ the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting; in the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity; victory is reserved for those who are willing to pay its price; victory comes from finding opportunities in problems”. Sun Tzu also said: “if fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler’s bidding… he will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight… if you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles”.

We are still not out of the pandemic although there are signs of its abating. Sun Tzu in his Art of War posits “one must know oneself as much as one knows one’s enemy”. The problem is that, as Albert Camus reflects in his novel The Plague, we do not seem to know ourselves and our vulnerabilities and choose to ignore red flags not only in the face of epidemics and disease but also when confronted with other existential threats. Politically, grave and ominous threats that portend danger to the global community are ignored as minor irritations that will go away. Covid -19 taught us that we need determination, self-reliance and optimism in the face of hardship. We have to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary, that we could restore a sense of community to a world torn by conflict and that despite all personal tragedy, we have a sense of control over our own destiny.

Most importantly, with the entropic perturbations of 2022 – be it geo-political; economic; or social and communal – individually and collectively we have to get a better handle on our “reason for being” or the sense of direction, purpose, and dignity in our lives. Firstly, we must teach ourselves collective humility. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the bestselling author of The Black Swan, in his book Antifragile introduces us to the intriguing and well-reasoned concept called “Antifragile” – that any system which depends on predictability and presumption is fragile – and that “some things benefit from shocks and they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors”. According to Taleb black swans (which as we all know are a rarity) are large-scale unpredictable and irregular events which can either devastate those that are fragile and dependent on certain rigid stability or energize risk-takers and flexible persons into action.

Secondly, we must establish a structured and logically reasoned way to find our “reason for being” whether in the context of our personal lives or corporate existence and survival. For this, we have to seek the wisdom of Japan.  Often, we spent our time trying to climb the ladder of success. There is a Venn diagram – created by British entrepreneur Marc Winn in 2014 with four circles,  each with a statement: what you love; what the world needs; what you are good at?; and what you can be paid for? At the point where these four circles all intersect is the Japanese word Ikigai which stands for “reason for being”. Ikigai is similar to the French term “raison d’etre”.

Jeffrey Gaines, writing in 2020 said: “The concept of Ikigai is said to have evolved from the basic health and wellness principles of traditional Japanese medicine. This medical tradition holds that physical well-being is affected by one’s mental–emotional health and sense of purpose in life. Japanese psychologist Michiko Kumano (2017) has said that Ikigai is a state of well-being that arises from devotion to activities one enjoys, which also brings a sense of fulfilment. Michiko further distinguishes Ikigai from transitory pleasure (hedonic, in the ancient Greek sense) and aligns it with eudaimonia – the ancient Greek sense of a life well lived, leading to the highest and most lasting form of happiness”.

In 2023 we must seek the fulfilment that Ikigai represents, whether we are political leaders or corporate employees; parents or progeny; professors or students; doctors or patients. Leon Ho says: “having a sense of purpose is a fool-proof way to a fully satisfactory life. It leads to ease in prioritization, strengthens morals and values, aligns all your life goals, and helps you stay focused. The clarity in life is only possible if you have your sense of purpose sorted”.

In 2023 we must be more aware of Sun Tzu’s teachings of knowing our limitations; not being impulsive in taking decisions; not overestimating or underestimating the serious business of living. At the same time, we have to be non-traditional, lateral thinkers who take existing usage and change the way things are. We have to see through the obvious and question the vertical thinking of traditional intelligence.  We have to upend conventional wisdom and predictability. In 2023, self-interest – both collectively and individually  – will keep increasing; fear will spread even further than at the present time.

There is no better time than now to follow the strategy of Sun Tzu and the wisdom of Ikigai.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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