Wisdom is not obvious. You must see the subtle and notice the hidden to be victorious. – Sun Tzu
What does that mean?
While this particular quote is about war in specific (see longer version, below), it applies to wisdom in all the different areas of our lives.
The longer version: “It does not take sharp eyes to see the sun and the moon, nor does it take sharp ears to hear the thunderclap. Wisdom is not obvious. You must see the subtle and notice the hidden to be victorious.”
There are some things which are obvious. Noticing them and knowing about them is not the pinnacle of wisdom. That is what might be called common knowledge.
The wisdom gathered from the subtle, from the sublime, that is useful and valuable. That is because not everyone takes the time to pay attention to these details. And that is often the key to victory on the field of battle, or in life.
Why is paying attention important?
What is the detail which causes someone to buy or not buy a used car? A large puddle of oil is like a thunderclap. But what of a small dribble of oil from a valve cover? What if it looks like milk chocolate instead of a dark black? That’s a sign of radiator fluid in the oil, an expensive repair.
Such a small clue could be the difference between buying their junk car, or saving your money for a worthy ride. Paying attention in class can be the difference between getting agood grade and getting creamed by the quiz. You call it a pop-quiz, but it was announced at the end of the previous class, you just weren’t paying attention.
You ask “What was the question?” Not a good thing to do in a meeting with the boss, or worse, the customer. “I’m sorry, dear, could you repeat that?” Not something that will be good for you if you make a habit of it at home, will it? What if it’s your kid looking for some of your time, but you’re too busy?
There are plenty of distractions in life, but we still must pay attention to details. We don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes, but we should but in some effort to see the subtle. We humans tend to hide our true feelings, and only leave small hints. What did they say, and what does it mean? You’ve been there, right? Details matter.
Where can I apply this in my life?
The slight bit of irritation in their voice. The slight rolling of their eyes. The way they just shifted their weight. These are all the subtle and hidden things which are part of human communication. Or rather, they are parts of what we call communication, and try to understand. It doesn’t always work well.
Can you think of a time when you missed something subtle and ended up misunderstanding what was meant? I have, it it never is much fun, is it? I hope you learned from the experience. It’s not much fun making the same mistake over and over again, is it? Not when there are so many other ways to mess up, right?
I’m actually serious. I don’t like making the same mistake as it means I didn’t learn enough from the last time. It means something subtle or hidden escaped me. What did I miss the first time? How can I make sure there isn’t a third time? It’s kind of like being stuck at in a video game, and you just don’t know how to solve it.
Our lives can be like that as well. Your relationships may get frozen out if you don’t catch the subtle signal that it’s time to take the next step. The same can happen at work or in social situations. If you miss the signal, you miss the opportunity, and you have to wait a while for your next chance.
Even something as simple as a mugging can be avoided, if you are noticing things around you. Everyone notices something, and fails to notice much more. That’s natural, as there is far too much going on to pay attention to everything. Even something as simple as a song, can you pick out all the subtleties of every instrument, at the same time?
Our minds are deletion filters. Anything which is not considered important is deleted. Unless you’re looking for a specific building, you tend to remember very little about it. That’s just life. Same with the people you pass on a crowded street. Unless you’re looking for someone, the faces are deleted as soon as you’re sure it’s not them.
By paying attention, we notice more. Yes, it’s nice to close your eyes and just melt into your music, but that’s not wise if you’re walking down a dangerous street. Muggers will spot someone that obviously not paying attention. They will be easy to approach, rob, and escape, all before they know what hit them. Not good.
What is the subtle thing you are looking for? It will be different in every case. There are no hard and fast rules, so you will need to pay attention, at least a little bit, to everything around you. Look for the sneaky, the subtle, the almost hidden things which are going on. There you will learn lessons, and find wisdom.