- Where you keep your friends close and your enemies closer
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
Philosopher, strategist, and military General Sun Tzu is credited to have conceived this phrase. Sun Tzu, of course, coined the phrase during the Eastern Zhou period, and meant it in relation to warfare; in the context of battle. It is prudent to keep close watch on your opposition, so that they don’t get close to you and decimate you with the element of sheer surprise.
Our enemies can teach us whom to trust and not, and how to learn from our worst collective experiences.
The expression is renowned and legendary in nearly every culture, most societies, and several countries. After a little perusal and dissection, one can interpret the aforesaid expression’s meaning as being that, one must keep a close eye on one’s enemies with the same care and caution as they would with a friend. But is this all it is?
On one hand, it makes you wonder why you would need to keep a close eye on the intentions and actions of your friends – that seems almost akin to not trusting those who are close to you. On the other, it begs the question as to why you would want to waste your time and effort in analysing and observing your enemies with such meticulous care.
My analogy of this is that it all comes down to context.
Let’s break this down to three significant components that we are familiar with in our day to day lives and analyse the expression and its application, relevance, and implications within each of the following stratifications.
Let’s look at the battlefield as a metaphor contextually, and our enemies as not just adversaries in stereotypical war, but rather in a much broader sense.
The corporate world is no dandelion-sniffing, walk-in-the-park, rosy posy affair. It’s brutal, isn’t it?
The professional world is lock, stock, and full of competitiveness masked in camaraderie. The corporate sphere is an unmerciful arena of dog-eat-dog, canine-chase-cat, cat-eat-mouse, in a maze of vocational bedlam. When it comes to hitting targets and meeting an organisation’s objectives of increasing its bottom line, nearly anything goes in corporate circles. Take the industry that never sleeps as an example – the advertising and marketing world.
You are looking at a colossal 24/7 hustle-over-hustle industry of multifaceted networks where the creative divisions work side by side (or in reality, whilst locking horns and heads) with the marketing and sales teams on a perpetual grind to innovate and manage a considerably high output of work with inventive finesse, of benchmark quality, while dealing with branding, positioning, new product development, portfolio diversification, generating leads and converting sales to garner return on investment to the clients.
Companies whitewash themselves with the help of agencies, throwing around corporate governance and sustainability and green initiatives and philanthropic flourishes with fancier terminology like “customer orientation,” “augmented value”, and “accountability” to conceal what the real intentions are inside the recess of nearly every corporate machine – growth, revenue, shareholder value, and profitability.
Competition however isn’t only competing with new entrants and pre-existing rivals in the market fighting for attention, time, space, and light of day in a saturated world where information now is free thanks to digital advancements, but also a sense of accessibility to whatever you desire, where it’s instantaneously available to customers.
There are high levels of competition and rivalry internally and inherently inside the same companies and organisations; be it to hit quarterly or timely targets, fulfil goals of reaching larger target audiences, give the customer more bang for their buck, etc. Inter-departmental and organisational competitiveness to achieve more efficacy and results is not always a bad thing, but the problem with this is that there’s too much of a backstabbing, cut-throat culture that’s encouraged where teamwork is a myth, trust is a currency running in scarcity, and you never know, based on performance and output, who will take your place if you don’t prove how much of an irreplaceable and indispensable asset you are – all the time.
It’s important to forge closer bonds among your work peers to solidify the element of teamwork, so you strive towards a common vision. But it’s equally integral to know whom to keep at arms distance respectfully, and whom you can count on to have your back.
In a social context, it’s ever the rage to fight for that good old status quo. In some ways it’s as bad as it’s ever been with modern influencers crawling out of the woodwork thanks to social media, and how fame nurtures narcissism and vanity, and fortune trumps virtue and values. Society has us battling it out with each other over status, privilege, fame, designation, importance, glory, etc.
Think about it. Society has made role model commodities out of us all. Or at least that is the perceived ultimatum to aspire to. How many people behave in ways where they expect their worth and value to be measured by how much bling they showcase, the high-end vehicle they drive, the lavish house or apartment they own, how much bank they’ve got and cred in elite circles as a high-roller? If you truly strip away all that stuff, what remains in a person?
How many people live their existence based on likes and followers on social media, vying for more praise and adulation from perfect strangers around the world? Kids, teenagers, and young adults hooked on fame and popularity are taking their lives and committing suicide over negative remarks on forums and chats. It’s a mad world where mental health issues are exacerbated and made worse by a compounded sense of insecurity, and ego that’s fed by an insatiable obsession to be reliant on technology.
It is more important than ever now for people to be able to tell the forest from the trees and the rivers from the seas in this day and age. You may have a million followers and hundreds and thousands of likes for a post, but are you so engaged and connected intimately to every single person that you are affected by every comment, every activity related to your virtual personality and persona? Do you spend more time hidden behind a public image than you do in real time, in life, engaged in meaningful things? Do you care more about what a world full of strangers think and feel about you than a few people who value you and have your best interests at heart?
Far too many people live behind a façade socially. Hiding their woes, struggles, pain, and existence behind materialistic things; what you drive, what you wear, where you are seen hanging out and spending ludicrously. Many are those who are content to exist vicariously, basking in a smoke and mirrors routine where once you shed all that fancy layers of skin are left with lonely, wrinkled, broken, and lost people.
Ask yourself who it is that you seek validation, adulation and attention from. Don’t forget those famous, resonant and relevant words by Terry Pratchett: “Always remember that the crowd that applauds your coronation is the same crowd that will applaud your beheading.”
How are Sun Tzu’s words applicable and relatable to us individually? I look at it thus: To me personally, my biggest competition lies with myself. I may not have always looked at it this way, nor is this a life lesson that came to me in my teens or 20s.
By finding my greatest competition in me, I am able to set more measurable trackers, more achievable goals and push myself to go beyond my comfort zones. Whether it’s work, keeping fit, storytelling, songwriting, singing, or performing, I keep self-assessing, self-critiquing, and self-actualising how I need to become better and enhance my capabilities, abilities, and strengths in order to evolve.
Once you are able to make the focal point of your intentions and actions yourself – then that is where true growth starts to kick in and happen. And I mean growth where you become wiser, you become more patient, attentive, focused, analytical, compassionate, selfless by realising that the touchpoints we mark along our life’s journey are obstacles and hurdles that we need to overcome on our own in order to become better versions of ourselves.
I have learned to value myself more since of late. This was always not the case; I ventured on paths of adventure, uncalculated risk, and great peril at the cost of self-destruction and rupturing my own ecosystem. Pushing those, I ought to keep the closest to me away, and instead drawing people who were toxic and didn’t contribute to my wellbeing closer to my inner fold.
It was only when I came to grips with the understanding that my greatest friend and greatest foe are both myself – and that I needed to pay close and careful attention to the parts of my being that are easy to appreciate and accept, but also to my shadow self where I have traits, emotions, thoughts, and aspects that are harder to accept – that I was then able to work more resourcefully, productively and efficiently to add value to those and the things around me.
Remember, to know yourself is integral. But to know those forbidden innermost parts of yourself is where a lot of life’s lessons lie either unlearned or unravelled.
Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer. Always.
(The writer is the frontman and lyricist of Stigmata, a creative consultant and brand strategist by profession, a self-published author and poet, thespian, animal rescuer, podcaster, and fitness enthusiast)
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.