The Book of Five Rings

By Miyamoto Musashi
Image of the cover of The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. Wesley Donehue's book reviews and recommendations.

“Do nothing that is of no use.” – Miyamoto Musashi

I got my first campaign job twenty-five years ago when I was just fifteen years old. While I learned some valuable lessons from mentors like Terry Sullivan, Warren Tompkins, and Rod Shealy, the truth is that from them I did not learn a lot of tactics. I learned the way to look at political scenarios and other thirty thousand-foot views of general direction, but all the specific tactics I learned from years of trial and error. Doing it myself. Figuring out what works and what does not work. I didn’t learn it from getting a political science degree at the University of South Carolina or through my master’s studies in communications. I learned by doing.

The Book of Five Rings is generally thought of as one of the great books on martial arts and warfare strategy. Written nearly 400 years ago, Miyamoto Musashi, considered the best samurai of all time, gives us lessons still used by strategic thinkers today, much like Sun Tsu. Reading Musashi or Sun Tsu isn’t enough to become a master strategist. You must spend 95% of your time doing, but as General Jim Mattis says “if you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.” That’s why Musashi spent his last months alive writing The Book of Five Rings.

I loved this book for a lot of reasons, but first and foremost because throughout this short book Musashi repeatedly says that a samurai cannot learn by reading alone. Nearly every section ends with “you should investigate this thoroughly,” meaning one must research, practice, and reflect daily. That’s exactly what Musashi himself did. He didn’t write this book until he was dying at sixty years old. He says he didn’t learn from instructors or fancy schools. He spent the first thirty years of his life practicing to become the best samurai ever. By focusing on just that he says “from one thing learn ten thousand things.” Oh, I love that. Then he spent the next twenty years reflecting on what he learned. Finally, at sixty he wrote it all down.

Just a few of my favorite quotes:

If you wish to control others you must first control yourself.

Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.

There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.

You should not have any special fondness for a particular weapon, or anything else, for that matter. Too much is the same as not enough. Without imitating anyone else, you should have as much weaponry as suits you.

You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain.

Get beyond love and grief: exist for the good of Man.

And my favorite quote that I want to tattoo on myself:

Do nothing that is of no use.

If you pick up this book and only look at it as a martial arts book, you will wonder why I even recommended it. But if you pick it up and look past the martial arts and toward the larger view of strategy and even of life itself, you will most likely love this book as much as I did. This one immediately goes to my list of top ten favorites.

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