Even if you’ve never picked up the actual work in your hands, read through it, studied its principles and lessons you’re familiar with the existence of Sun Tzu’s (544-496 BC) work “The Art of War”.

Your insides may cringe, just as our own, at any literature that has “War” in its title but, as in all other things, the military strategies depicted are transferable across other areas as universal life lessons. They are in fact notes on how to win intelligently and lean towards the best wars being the ones where there are no losses and you win by never even engaging and losing lives, energy or resources. But this is not really a story of Sun Tzu’s masterpiece that spans the eras but that of his descendant Sun Bin, who wrote a similar book a couple of centuries later and the lessons of two are sometimes linked together as a combined work under the same name.

The story of tree horses is the one recorded in the biography of Sun Bin who died 316 BC, in the middle of the Warring States period, in which China was broken down into 7 states that fought against each other for dominion. So the story of the tree horses basically depicts the principle applicable in all problem solving issues when faced with a more powerful adversary. It cements in mundane mathematical odds the notion of sacrificing the part for the benefit of the whole or sacrificing the short-term objectives in order to gain the long-term goal.

In 340 BC Sun Bin, highly talented in military strategy, came as a refuge from the state of Qi from the state of Wei. Tian Ji was a military general in the state of Qi and one of his favorite pastimes was racing horses with the King, but Tian Ji lost every time. The rules were that they each got three races and three horses and that a new horse needed to be used in every race pitted against a new horse from an opponent. There were 3 classes of horses: slow, medium and fast. Being powerful as he is, King’s horses in each class were a bit better than Tian Ji’s. Sun bin observed this and advised Tian Ji on how to win: “Pit your slow horse against the King’s fast horse, your fast horse against the King’s medium horse, and your medium horse against the King’s slow horse.” In the first round Tian Ji lost, sacrificing his slow horse to eliminate the King’s fastest horse out of the race, since the King can’t use him twice. But Tians fast horse beat the King’s medium one and his medium horse beat the King’s slow horse and it was the first time he’d won this “battle”.

The lesson? You don’t need to have the fastest horses to win in you play wisely; you don’t need to win every round to be victorious; you may need to sacrifice the less important asset or resource to gain something more important in the end; most of life’s trials have many rounds and the one who wins is the one who lasts long enough to go through all of the battles, not the winner of the first round; winning is far more nuanced than it seems and is not always obvious.