In The Art of War, Sun Tzu suggests you “let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night.” What does Tzu mean by this? How can you hide your plans?
We’ll cover the art of deception and how to appear so formless in your attack that your enemy can’t discover your master plan. Learn how to let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night.
Don’t Reveal Your Plans
The goal of any conflict is to control your opponent and overcome them. Controlling their beliefs about your abilities helps you understand their assumptions and plan a strategy accordingly. As a well-known translation of Sun Tzu puts it, “all warfare is based on deception.”
Deception includes feigning weakness when you are strong or professing ignorance when you are informed. Appearing to be weak, unprepared, or small in size can lure your opponent into traps and make them susceptible to misguided actions or responses. Don’t let your enemy know what you’re up to–let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night.
For instance, creating a scenario where only a small portion of your force is visible can mislead opponents into thinking they outnumber or outarm you. When they prepare an attack under that guise, they will be ill-prepared for the full strength of your forces. Sun Tzu says, “When you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
Another example is allowing your opponent to win small victories or gains. Your opponent may fall victim to greed or an inflated ego, which will confuse and hinder their strategy when the truth is revealed.
Historical Example: Manipulation through Deception
When a Chinese emperor was strategizing an attack on the Han dynasty, which had joined forces with the Huns, he sent a scout to scope out the Huns’ forces. Ten scouts returned after seeing old and feeble men milling about and reported that the Huns were weak. However, one scout, Lou Jing, saw the placement of these men as a ruse and reported that an attack would be unwise. The emperor punished Lou Jing for this advice and sent a massive force into Hun territory.
Lou Jing had been right. The hidden Huns forces surrounded the emperor’s men and stranded them for a week without supplies. The Huns let their plans be dark and impenetrable as night
Organizing Your Forces: Let Your Plans Be Dark and Impenetrable as Night
The formation that a group of forces takes signifies the psychological state of those forces. How you organize your troops provides insight into the stability and ability of your strategy and forces. Therefore, the formed express volumes and the formless express nothing. Be sure to hide your troop’s formation. Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night.
Likewise, the stance or formation of your enemy indicates their psychological state. However, you cannot force your enemy to take a stance. You must understand that victory can be predicted but not created.
- If your enemy fails to expose themselves through formation, you cannot know whether victory is certain.
- If victory is not certain, you should not attack. You can only prepare your own troops.
Defense vs. Offense
Defense means laying low and becoming unseeable. Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night. Within strategy, aim to appear formless, or unorganized, to keep the enemy from attaining insight into your forces. But keep your troops organized, and be prepared for the opposition.
- A good defense is the appearance of formlessness.
- Be defensive when victory is uncertain or you are lacking yourself.
- Cover your tracks and appear unorganized until a vulnerability appears in your enemy, then switch to offense.
Offense means attacking swiftly and decisively, bursting forth with the strength of a thunderstorm. This is when you will fall like a thunderbolt. If you attack quickly and with strength, it will be impossible for your opponent to prepare or react.
- Be on offense only when you have more than enough power to ensure victory.
It is impossible to gauge the volume of water pooling in a deep canyon. Similarly, when your forces are hidden on the defense, your opponent cannot gauge your volume and strength. As the release of the deluge, your offense will be massive and overwhelming. Using these disguises, let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night.
Change Your Strategy as Needed
A good leader ensures that their strategy is not open to infiltration or manipulation. Therefore, a good leader keeps their strategies secret, even from their own troops.
One way to ensure your strategies remain unknown is through adaptation. Strategies should be fine-tuned through assessments of enemy action, not completely mapped out beforehand on a drawing board.
- If your forces consistently use the same tactics or procedures, regardless of the situation, the enemy will be able to predict your actions.
- Instead, use your knowledge of the enemy’s foundation to inform your decisions about how to proceed once you’ve seen how they are preparing.
By changing your strategy frequently, your plans will be dark and impenetrable as night.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Art of War summary:
- How to mislead your enemies to win the war
- Classic examples from Chinese history to illustrate Sun Tzu's strategies
- How to use spies to gather information and defeat your opponents