Sun Tzu ruined my life.
Don’t get me wrong, “The Art of War” contains some gems of insight for anyone engaged in a difficult struggle, like running a business.
(Or fighting a war with chariots and spears.)
But the problem is that Sun Tzu puts a great deal of emphasis on lightning-fast strikes intended to leave the enemy off-balance and lead to a swift victory. He recommends avoiding a prolonged conflict at all costs.
And he makes some good points.
But sometimes, you can only win the battle — or write a book — with a slow and steady application of force.
Case in point: writing a novel.
Not the same as fighting a war, but bear with me.
In most cases, a lightning-fast blaze of activity isn’t enough to finish writing a novel. You can do National Novel Writing Month and spend 30 days cranking out 50,000 words. And that’s admirable — but no matter how fast you write that rough draft, there will still be a lot of work to do on your novel.
Meticulous work, like developing your characters. Putting them through story arcs. Bringing out your theme. Polishing your sentences.
It can seem like a crushing amount of work.
All of these things take time, and a lot of it. It’s easy to get discouraged, especially if you’ve been training yourself to work with lightning speed, Sun Tzu style.
But sometimes, you need to grind away at a struggle in order to succeed.
In the Wall Street Journal recently, Adam Tooze reviewed The Bombers and the Bombed, Richard Overy’s new book about World War II strategic bombing. Here’s a quick excerpt:
With more aircraft, heavier bomb loads, better fighter escorts and improved electronics [the Allies] would, they believed, prevail. And they were right. At times their margin of superiority was uncomfortably narrow. But the Allies had already won one high-tech attritional battle, against U-boats in the Atlantic in 1943.
As in the Battle of the Atlantic, the struggle progressed in often frustratingly small increments: Victories in the Ruhr in the spring of 1943 and the devastation of Hamburg in July 1943 alternated with months of frustration over Berlin and the disappointment of American hopes for their early pinpoint raids. But once the balance of force shifted, it did so irrevocably. By the summer of 1944 German air defenses were in tatters, Allied loss rates had plummeted and the devastation wrought by the bombers was unprecedented. This pattern of a protracted and agonizing stalemate followed by a sudden collapse is not, as Mr. Overy seems to believe, evidence against the force of attritional logic. In a life-or-death struggle, this is how overwhelming material superiority makes itself felt: in a brutal clinch followed by a sudden victory.
Slow and steady wins.
Like a lot of solo entrepreneurs, I spend most of my time feeling crushed under gigantic projects and deadlines. But I have found, time and again, that the steady application of intense effort over time yields incredible results.
If you’re working on a big project, or taking on a new responsibility, or struggling to finish something you started long ago (like a novel, perhaps), take heart.
You can finish it. You can win.
But it will take time.
Just keep grinding away, day after day, with focused intensity.
Start with just 15 minutes a day — but do it every day.
Then bump it up to half an hour. Then, an hour. Every day.
If you can stay focused, and work steadily every day, over time you can achieve almost anything.