The Art of War (circa 5th century BC), by Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu, is the pre-eminent ancient book of military strategy. Advocating intense preparation and an intelligence-driven approach to warfare, it has long been used in Asia as a military training manual. The book became popular around the world during the 20th century, with its ideas more widely applied in areas such as business, politics and sport. Hong Kong stand-up comedian Vivek Mahbubani, who performs in both English and Cantonese, explains how the book changed his life. I first encountered The Art of War on life-hacking websites while I was studying at the City University of Hong Kong. I wondered how a book called The Art of War was going to help me learn about business and about life. Then I borrowed a copy and read it, and learned how its principles could be applied to life, to business or to anything. A lot of the advice is common sense – I understand that I should know that, but it’s good to be reminded of it sometimes. For example: don’t dive into an adventure without a plan – you need to have an idea where you’re going. And there are simple pieces of advice such as being kind to your soldiers. Even with the best weapons, you can’t win unless you have your soldiers on your side and keep them motivated. I’ve been able to apply some of these lessons to comedy. In Hong Kong, time is money, so people are like, “I’ll give you two minutes – impress me.” Every time I perform it’s like going to war. So you use what you have. The book talks about having different strategies for different environments. You don’t go to war in the winter the same way as you would in the summer. In the same way, performing in a comedy club is very different from doing a corporate event. It also says that to take control of a city, you need not only to control its resources but to make its people a part of your team, which is like winning the audience over and getting them on your side. One of my favourite lessons from the book states that the ultimate excellence is not winning in battle but winning without fighting a battle. I remember this when I get a heckler and I’m reminded not to sink to their level. When I first began comedy, doing open-mic events, the book was more applicable to the performance side. Then, after a few years, its main influence has been on my career path. I’ve read various editions with different translations and commentaries to get different perspectives and interpretations of it. And I used to read The Art of War once a year to see how my interpretation of it had changed.