Move over, Huel – there’s a new must-have accessory for rise-and-grind business bros the world over, and it’s a book written by a Chinese philosopher in the 5th century BC.
These days, you can spot The Art of War by Sun Tzu on the social feeds of wannabe Elons and alpha-male podcasters everywhere. The millennia-old military strategy classic is a far cry from the usual Steve Jobs autobiographies, but it now frequently appears in Amazon bestseller lists and has garnered huge numbers of Goodreads reviews and ratings in recent years, sometimes seeing hundreds of new ratings in a single day.
Nick Hutchinson, from the Instagram account BookThinkers, tells VICE that he has observed a definite “increase in interest amongst business types” while Library Mindset, a business and motivation-focused Instagram account with 1.4 million followers, notes that posts featuring quotes from Sun Tzu tend to perform very well on the platform.
Hasan Kubba (AKA @startuphasan), co-author of business book The Unfair Advantage, points out that The Art of War has “always been a recommended book with leaders, influencers and ‘gurus’ in the business world,” adding that many new books in this genre have been “some kind of derivative of The Art of War or Machiavelli.”
Robert Green’s 48 Laws of Power and the more recent The War of Art by Steven Pressfield are just two more examples, he says, of the militarisation of business. “I don’t generally like it,” he adds, “but [I] can see how it can be useful sometimes,” even if the vocabulary is “antagonistic”.
By presenting The Art of War as one of the ‘it’ books to read for success, online business and mindset influencers present everyday life – specifically, business – as a self-aggrandising epic battle. In reality, the closest most get to armed conflict is some minor Twitter beef or a cutting two-star podcast review. All this euphemistic business-talk is essentially just dressing up overwork, exploitation and sometimes plain common sense as noble, heroic and enviable.
It’s nothing new, but the application of a literal military strategy guide takes it to absurd new levels. If you squint, The Art of War’s current popularity in the business influencer world looks most like a hyper-masc version of the “romanticise your life” trend.
Dr Jenna Drenten, scholar of online culture and digital marketing at Loyola University Chicago, suggests that the appropriation of military culture isn’t surprising in the world of business, which still remains a hyper-macho space. “When men left the ancient battlefields of the feudal system, they redirected their power to business,” says Drenten, “and part of that power is continually reinforcing business as a masculine endeavour through the use of war metaphors.” Kubba also points to the often-toxic masculinity that pervades these online business spaces, framing it as a “yearning for conquest and to increase your personal dominance and social status.”
One particularly egregious example of this was when Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel bought all of his employees a copy of The Art of War following a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, in which the Facebook founder outlined his plans for a Snapchat-like app. Since Zuckerberg’s Poke app has been relegated to the dustbin of obscurity, is it safe to say that the wisdom The Art of War prevailed? Spiegel seems to think so, and has specifically cited Sun Tzu’s teaching to attack an enemy where and when they display weakness – a tasty little nugget that apparently inspired the company to double down and work to raise Snapchat’s valuation by $750 million dollars.
To many, this advice will seem like basic common sense. First day of business school material, or, in other words, capitalism 101: You sense vulnerability in a competitor and exploit it for your own gain. So, why do supposed business moguls need an ancient military tactics book to tell them how to navigate the 21st century business world?
Some of the biggest fans of The Art of War are the many business inspo accounts that now litter every social media platform; the ones that amass hundreds of thousands of followers and centre the delightfully vague concept of improving your “mindset” by frequently recommending The Art of War from behind their Steve Jobs or random-guy-in-a-suit profile picture. @Wealth_Director, an account with 330,000 followers, lists Sun Tzu’s tract in their “4 books that every entrepreneur should read”, alongside the instruction to “read for 1-2 hours a day and you’ll be in the top 1 percent of society” – okay, I guess? When a similar account published a list of “20 books to read in your 20s”, including Sun Tzu’s text, it prompted suggestions that this was more like a reading list for “the most annoying person in your life”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these content creators link to their own self-help books and blogs, their get-rich-quick workshops and other monetised resources, which leads Drenten to suggest that their constant posting about The Art of War is an attempt to “add legitimacy to what they are selling”. She adds: “I would be very curious to know how many of these online business experts have actually read The Art of War, or if it is just a form of status signalling to boost their own content.”
It’s clear there’s a healthy amount of suspicion towards these kinds of accounts, maybe because their ridiculousness and hyperbole mirror the dubious claims of the wellness industry, albeit with an even more overt capitalist twist. The spiritual practices, philosophical teachings or cultural artefacts may change, but the appropriation remains the same. Think of it as Orientalism for the hustle porn generation: Why would a 21st century businessperson in the West presume to know how Sun Tzu would adapt his theories to today’s world?
In his book, Deciphering Sun Tzu: How to Read The Art of War, Dr Derek Yuen argues: “The Art of War is often heard of and read but seldom understood in the West.” He emphasises that this is due to a lack of appreciation and understanding of its Chinese and Taoist context. The West’s understanding of Sun Tzu, he writes, has “never moved beyond facile references to short one-to-two-sentence axioms” – in other words, a completely “superficial” reading.
That doesn’t seem to concern the many modern fans of The Art of War. In fact, widespread superficial readings appear to be the key to the text’s success online. The listicle culture that has taken over many online spaces means that distilling a complex cultural artefact into easy-to-digest “7 Books To Supercharge Your Mindset” or “5 Books to Understand Everything” posts are now “the golden ticket to success” on social media, according to Drenten, with their extreme or too-good-to-be-true advice the “currency” of virality.
As the popularity of rise-and-grind motivation content only seems to be increasing, it’s very likely we’ll only see more appropriation of cultural, philosophical or religious artefacts– after all, it’s already happened with Stoicism and some aspects of Buddhist practice. The Art of War might only be the latest in a long line of casualties to come.