The Art of War’s “9 Terrains” to Overcome Life Challenges

Sun Tzu’s Art of War is one of the world’s most influential books. Focused on military strategy, its principles have been studied by elite militaries across the world.

But the book’s wisdom is applicable beyond the battlefield. Chapter XI of the book describes “Nine Situations” armies face when at war. These situations also appear when you pursue goals or navigate new life changes. Indeed, the pursuit of success can certainly feel like navigating a battlefield.

If you’re currently pursuing a goal, a new career, or transitioning to a new stage of life, here’s an overview of Sun Tzu’s Nine Situations and the principles that can guide you.

1. Dispersive Ground  

“When a chieftain is fighting in his own territory, it is dispersive ground.” 

Avoid battling too close to home. Soldiers at war close to home are weak because of temptations to “disperse” and return to the comforts of family and friends.

The pursuit of something new requires you to enter into uncharted territory. But the unfamiliar is uncomfortable, and you can unconsciously give up by being pulled back to the familiar things in your life. This is why people often move to another city for a fresh start. No distractions or temptations. You don’t realize how much your environment affects you and can derail your success.

Lesson:  Comforts can be crippling; perhaps the missing element you need is to change your environment and move away from the temptations of familiarity.

2. Facile Ground  

“If the army has penetrated into hostile territory, but to no great distance, it is facile ground.” 

This is the initial resistance in any new pursuit. You must focus on pushing forward. When learning a new skill, language, or job, it is easy to get frustrated and give up when hitting the first wall of resistence. But remember that your confidence and competence will grow with each step forward. This foresight and mental preparation are key for pushing through.

Lesson: Good mental preparation—anticipating the initial resistence—creates strong momentum to push through this inevitable wall.

3. Contentious Ground

“Ground which holds great advantage to either side is contentious ground.”

This is ground where the tide can turn; situations where an underdog can gain a serious advantage. It could be a narrow pass in the terrain, access to water, or an unexpected dead end.

You need both the wisdom to recognize these situations and the resourcefulness to take advantage of them. Too often, we fail to look beyond what is in front of us. It’s not a case of missing the forest for the trees, rather, it’s missing the terrain underneath the forest and the trees. 

Lesson: Unexpected adantages situations that are not part of your plans may appear; take them. Sometimes a detour can be a better route than your original plans.

4. Open Ground

“Ground on which each side has freedom of movement is open ground.”

When you’re battling on vast open plains, your time and energy needs to be preserved. Sun Tzu says, “on open ground, do not try to block the enemy’s way.” It is a situation where your resources can be drained by chasing an enemy with ample room to outmaneuver you. Vastness and no restrictions are not always good things.

Lesson: It is easy to spend and waste resources during times of plenty. But use discipline and conserve and store your resources. The principle of more-does-not-equal-better can also be applied by giving yourself a shorter deadline, even when you have plenty of time, to get things done quicker. Likewise, giving yourself less options leads to better decision-making (rather than having endless options which leads to decision paralysis).

5. Ground of Intersecting Highways

“Ground which forms the key to three bordering states is a ground of intersecting highways.”

In this situation, the first army to arrive takes a dominant position and can leverage to form alliances.

Use your position of power to help others and to form positive alliances. We can all use help on our journeys. Sometimes, offering to help requires the same amount of humility as asking for help. But people will remember you for your good deeds.

Lesson: Remember that no man is an island. If you’re in a dominant position, use it to help others and build relationships. Especially if you’re an introvert.

6. Serious Ground

“When an army has penetrated into the heart of hostile country, it is serious ground.”

Here, an army is required to dig deep. You’re in the midst of enemy territory and a thousand miles from the fortified walls of your home city. This is where the rubber meets the road; where practice meets game-day. Often, we have the skills to succeed, but we fall short in the execution.

Lesson: Mentally rehearse your game-plan. When you hit a season calling for peak performance, you must be able to execute. Make sure you’re rested and ready. Mental rehearsal is highly effective. 

7. Difficult Ground

“Mountain forests, rugged steeps, marshes and fens—all country that is hard to traverse is difficult ground.”

This is where the battle is not against another army, but simply against the terrain. And the advice is simple: “keep steadily on the march.” It’s tedious and can seem like you’re not moving the needle, but nonetheless, these lulls in the journey must be traversed. 

Lesson: Sometimes you just have to put your head down and keep marching forward. 

8. Hemmed-In Ground

“When you have the enemy’s strongholds on your rear, and narrow passes in front, it is hemmed-in ground.”

In this situation, any advantage an army may have possessed can be flipped. It is when the challenges are in front and behind you; the season where problems and challenges come from every direction. 

You have to go for a Hail Mary. Sun Tzu calls for craftiness and strategizing to outwit the enemy. 

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to take a gamble or make a risky move. You need to think outside the box. Be unconventional and creative. 

9. Desperate Ground

“Ground on which we can only be saved from death by fighting is desperate ground.”

This is the situation where your only option is to fight. There is no flight. Death is the only alternative. The book explains that a commander will proclaim to his soldiers the futility of saving their lives. Interestingly, this is an intentional, not a situation to be avoided—“throw your soldiers into positions with no escape, for in desperate times, soldiers lose the sense of fear. And if there is no refuge, they will fight hard.”

When faced with death, you will fight with all their might. People respond to immense hardship in remarkable ways. There are myriad stories of superhuman “hysterical strength” when people face life-and-death situations. 

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to place yourself in a position that requires you to dig deeper than you ever have before. You can even manufacture a do-or-die scenario and place yourself in a desperate situation.