The 36 Stratagems: Commanding Superiority

By Tyler DeWacht


Good job, you made it through your first week and a half of classes! Now that you’ve had a taste of the university experience, shall I share with you some strategies for success? In case you missed the previous issue of The Bolt, here’s a quick overview of what this series is: the 36 Stratagems are a flexible collection of early Chinese warfare tactics, and my goal in this series is to apply them to a university setting. In this issue, I’ll be covering the first set of the 36 Stratagems, known as the Stratagems For Commanding Superiority. This particular set is designed to help you earn a decisive victory over your enemy, completely dominating the opposition.


First off is Stratagem 1, which is to Deceive The Heavens And Cross The Ocean. This may sound complicated at first glance, but it’s actually rather simple in execution. You just mask your real goal, distracting those who would otherwise get in the way. You’re deceiving the heavens, crossing the oceans of obstacles to reach your actual goal. Set up a false front, make it seem like your goal is something else and, as a result,  lower their guard. By the time they realize what’s happening, it should be too late. As an example, let’s use customer service. Whether you’re volunteering as part of a course or working part-time to earn some money, chances are you’ll be interacting with other people. Even if you don’t like your role, try not to make it obvious. Your real goal may be to earn money or volunteer hours, but the customers should believe that you like what you’re doing. If you actually do like your role, then that’s great! If not, then keep this stratagem in mind; your job will only become harder if people start complaining about your attitude.


Next up on the list is Stratagem 2, Besiege Wei To Rescue Zhao. For historical context, Wei and Zhao were rival states during the Warring States period, and the name of this stratagem is in reference to an event known as the Battle of Guiling. When Wei began sieging Zhao’s capital, Zhao began sieging Wei’s capital in return, which had been left vulnerable. Wei’s siege force was ordered to retreat home, and they were subsequently ambushed and destroyed on the way back. The point of Stratagem 2 is that when your enemy is too strong to face directly, aim for their weak points. Let’s apply this to university assignments–one of the most difficult assignments you’ll ever have to face is the research essay. A lot of effort goes into them, they’re worth a lot of marks, and procrastination is a very bad idea. They can’t be done in a single night, it’s just not possible. Problem is, where do you even start? A good place to begin  is with the basic structure; it’s the easiest point to exploit. Get your ideas and structure down first, and then you’ll have a solid platform from which you can attack everything else. It’ll still be difficult, but at least you’ll know how to attack it, which will make it more manageable. Find the necessary sources, collect the required information, write it down in a polished manner, and voila! You should clear it with passing marks, assuming you did everything correctly.


Building off of the previous example, there’s an important note to make about sources. When it comes to assignments, there’s a right way and a wrong way to apply Stratagem 3, Kill With A Borrowed Knife. Based upon borrowing the strength of others in order to achieve your goals, you should already know what I’m about to say. It’s a point which has likely been drilled into your head repeatedly by many different instructors, but it’s a very important point which should never be neglected. That’s right, I’m talking about plagiarism. It’s okay to take information from other sources, it’s even recommended or required in some cases. You’re borrowing the strength of other minds in order to strengthen your own work, and that’s a good thing. Otherwise, what’s the point in writing anything down if nobody makes use of that knowledge? The problem is when you don’t properly credit those you got that information from. When you do that, you’re stealing their work and claiming it as your own. Nobody likes thieves, and those who get caught earn themselves a one-way ticket out of university. Do you really want to take such a huge risk? Write down all of your sources, even if they seem insignificant.


It may be tempting to play around all the time, but some of that time should be dedicated towards important things, such as exams. However, too much studying can also be a bad thing. A fine balance is required between work and play, which brings up Stratagem 4, Relax While The Enemy Exhausts Himself. While the enemy is running themselves ragged, you use your time wisely to prepare for what comes next. You should obviously do some studying, you need to know how to answer the questions. Don’t force yourself to study for excessive periods of time though, because it will become counterintuitive and begin to degrade your mental health after a while. Also, you’ll begin losing valuable information as your mind begins to wander. Find the balance which works for you, and you’ll be able to pass that exam while other students are struggling because they either slacked off or overworked themselves.


When it comes to keeping up with homework, your breaks and weekends will be your best friends. There’s no new homework being added to your to-do list, so that extra time can be used to great effect. Here’s where Stratagem 5, Loot The Burning House, comes into play. The point of this stratagem is simple: attack the enemy while they’re down. With less problems getting in your way, you can take on whatever’s there with less opposition. Take on those smaller assignments as they come so that they can’t regroup in huge numbers later when things become calmer. The less you have to deal with at once, the easier it’ll be to manage when those assignments start getting harder. It’s generally easier, in the long run, to solve a few problems per day rather than having to deal with a lot of problems the night before they’re due.


This next one should be familiar to a lot of people; it’s one of the oldest tricks in the book. Stratagem 6, which can be translated as Clamor in the East, Attack in the West, is the classic feint maneuver. Make the enemy think you’re going one way and then move in the opposite direction. It has many tactical uses, and any competitive sports players can make good use of it–hockey, basketball, ping-pong, you name it. It’s not just restricted to physical activity either; it can be used in other areas as well. If implemented well, a plot twist in your creative writing assignment can take your grade up a notch or two while a well-placed plot twist in theatre can earn laughs or gasps.
Hopefully you can use these stratagems to your advantage, which will potentially give you an advantage over your classmates. This has been the first set of the 36 Stratagems, the Stratagems For Commanding Superiority. In the next issue, I’ll be covering the second set, Stratagems For Confrontation, for situations when you and your enemy are on roughly equal footing. Now go out there and do your best, I believe in you!

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