Notes politics

Strategy 8: Pick Your Battles Carefully (The 33 Strategies of War)

The costs of battle are often great, especially when you are over-committed. There are many people who sacrifice everything for a cause, business, or project – only to realize that the costs they had incurred were far too great. It is easy to be blinded by your own ambition, to lose your sense of realism. When this kind of tunnel vision occurs, you are defenseless, since you will only become more invested with time (more sunk costs).

Tarentum was an Italian city that was prosperous and powerful. It was southeast to Rome, and at the time, in 281 B.C, Rome was going to war with many of its neighbors. The Romans wanted to avoid war with Tarentum – since the latter had enough wealth to finance a campaign against Rome. But when the Romans infiltrated them by sea, they Tarentines fought back, killing the Roman fleet’s admiral. War was now unavoidable. Tarentum had a problem, while they did have wealth, they did not have a powerful army of their own. They could solve this problem by hiring Greek armies to fight for them. The Spartans were occupied and could not help. Finally, they called King Pyrrhus of Epirus, “the greatest warrior king since Alexander the Great.”

Nicknamed the “Eagle”, King Pyrrhus defeated the Romans in the first battle at Heraclea. He used elephants when he realized he was outnumbered. This secret weapon forced the Romans to retreat – they had never encountered elephants in battle before. News spread of the victory across Italy and many cities – as a show of allegiance to King Pyrrhus against the Romans, they sent reinforcements to make up for the lost troops in the first battle.

But King Pyrrhus was not without trepidation despite the victory. He observed how powerful the Romans were – how organized they were in battle. He continued the fight, but also aggressively pushed for peace, and offered to share the Italian peninsula with the Romans. But the latter proudly refused and prepared for the next battle in Asculum. This time, no side had a numerical advantage, and while the Romans started well, they were lured into an unsuitable terrain by the strategic master, King Pyrrhus. The Romans lost again.

But this victory was even more costly than the first. King Pyrrhus lost his best generals, and he was badly wounded himself. He may have achieved victory against the Romans, but he his resources were exhausted. The Romans were inexhaustible, they had more soldiers, more resources, and going to battle again was not a problem for them.

King Pyrrhus had achieved victory in battle but had lost the war. This is where the phrase ‘Pyrrhic victory’ came from.

Understand your limitations and wait for the right time to strike. Fight with perfect economy, pick your battles. If you choose to spread yourself thin, you will lose every war, no matter how easy. But if you fight with economy, you will outlast any enemy, you will win every war, no matter how difficult. Victory comes from longevity, from lasting longer than others, from surviving, not by securing quick, risky wins that come at too large a cost.

He whom the ancients called an expert in battle gained victory where victory was easily gained. Thus the battle of the expert is never an exceptional victory, nor does it win him reputation for wisdom or credit for courage. His victories in battle are unerring. Unerring means that he acts where victory is certain, and conquers an enemy that has already lost.


Having limitations and scarce resources is not always a bad thing, it can make you more focused and creative. The key to warfare is not about having enough resources but knowing what to do with what you do have. Some people with plenty of wealth squander it and accomplish nothing, while others with very little build an empire. Making use of your strength, and choosing your battles wisely are the keys to warfare.

Read The 33 Strategies of War

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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