Bruce Lee crammed several lifetimes worth of wisdom into his short life. Nearly 50 years after his death, he’s the first name that comes to many people’s minds when they think of a martial artist.
He was born in the US but raised in Hong Kong and showed remarkable skills from a young age. Yet he was also a troublemaker. Pure arrogance led him to constant street fights with local gang members and thugs. This terrified his parents and they shuttled him off to Seattle to keep him safe.
Bruce Lee maintained an incredible training routine whilst trying to break into Hollywood. Crowds flocked to see him perform his one-inch punch and two-fingered one arm press-ups. His fame grew as he first appeared in The Green Hornet and then several full feature films. It’s safe to say that Lee achieved his dream of being the man to pave the way for future Chinese megastars.
Bruce Lee’s training methods were revolutionary before all our modern sports science was researched. No one quite combined ancient wisdom and aggressive self-experimentation like the legend himself did. That said, let’s look into some of his most profound sayings:
“Be happy, but never satisfied”
This may seem like a contradiction but it’s not. Happiness is about this moment right now not about the future or past. Satisfaction is whether you’d want more in the future. If you love life why wouldn’t you want more of it?
The key is being mindful of the process, not just the end. Let’s say you’re eating a delicious meal. After the first bite, you’re happy, but of course, you want to carry on eating and savor every mouthful. Bruce Lee took this approach to his life and had an insatiable curiosity. Your happiness should never be goal dependent; if I get the promotion then I will be happy. As when you get there you’ll only set another target and deny yourself happiness until you get to another point in the future.
I hope to live a long life and I won’t be spending it chasing goals to be happy, I’ll be spending it being happy while learning every day.
“A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves as something to aim at.”
We have a culture obsessed with setting goals and taking our value from achieving those goals. This isn’t the way it should be and Bruce Lee understood this.
I’m rebelling against S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Bound) goals. Sometimes we just need to dream and this is fine as long as we don’t put too much pressure on ourselves. I perceive goals more as direction than the actual achievement being meaningful.
Taking Stephen Covey’s circles of control and concern, often our goals are outside of our circle of control. Getting a promotion depends not only on your performance but on the performance of other people and the company. You can do everything right and not meet your goal. Yet the goal of promotion has still motivated you to improve and this is useful throughout your life.
“Real living is living for others.”
Bruce Lee spent an extraordinary amount of time honing himself but he’s not remembered for that. He’s remembered for the millions of people he inspired.
Western culture encourages individualism whereas traditional eastern attitudes are more community-focused. This comes with pros and cons though it’s sad how much of our lives are spent staring at screens rather than sharing smiles.
I’m guilty of this too and locked into the online world. I try to do acts of kindness without seeking any praise or recognition because otherwise, it’s still deep down about my glory. It’s only small things but it adds up like checking in on someone you know is going through a hard time or making someone’s life easier without them knowing. If you pick up litter from the floor and dispose of it, you’re helping make the world a better place.
“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.”
The truthfulness of this statement is the knife’s edge many relationships hinge on.
It’s easy to forget everyone we know has an entire universe inside their minds and we’ll never see it. No one is thinking about you 100% of the time, how often does your mind wander into daydreams? We can be a big part of someone’s life but we can never be their life. This goes for everyone from partners to friends to parents and children.
No one knows why we are in this world but we can be pretty safe in the knowledge it wasn’t to meet other people’s expectations. Treat people with respect but don’t be a slave to their demands.
“If you love life, don’t waste time, for time, is what life is made up of.”
Don’t worry this isn’t productivity porn. Using time well isn’t about working 20 hours a day but being mindful of how you use your time.
It’s being fully engaged in what you are doing at the moment. Watching a TV show that makes your sides hurt with laughter isn’t wasting time. Yet staying up late when you’re tired watching something you find mediocre because you’re too lazy to turn it off is. I turned off autoplay on Netflix because of this and never looked back.
Bruce Lee received a lesson on this from an unlikely source, Stirling Silliphant, a Hollywood screenwriter. He told Bruce “anyone who steals my life is stealing my life from me because they are taking my existence from me”. The martial arts legend immediately made a call to cancel an appointment. I’ve stopped going to events I don’t want to go to, but are people stealing life away from you?
“Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.”
I know some people like to pretend they are perfect but I’m certainly not. The people who truly take pleasure in causing pain to others are a rare breed. We should always remember Hanlon’s razor:
Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance.
I’ve made so many stupid mistakes in my life, I’ve never wanted to cause pain but hindsight has taught me I should have known better. If I’ve ever hurt someone, I try to make things better, there’s no value in deluding myself. That’s all we can do, let go of our ego, admit we were wrong, and move on.
This includes our self-talk as in the past I’ve been the last person to forgive myself. We gain nothing from punishing ourselves and our negativity means we are more likely to make further mistakes. It sucks resources away from making sure it doesn’t happen again, which is the most important thing.
“Take things as they are. Punch when you have to punch. Kick when you have to kick.”
Hands up if you’ve ever overthought something. It’s not helpful to tell people not to overthink because I know I’ve never done it on purpose.
Bruce Lee could go with the flow because he honed his reactions to an extreme level. It took him years of dedication and failure to know when to punch. The good thing is we have plenty of opportunities to train our skills if we live with intention.
He built effective habits through training and I like to use
James Clear’s outline in Atomic Habits. I work out what triggers me to act in ways I dislike then actively change my response until it’s part of me.
- Cue — Opponent throws a punch
- Craving — Not to get punched in the face
- Response — Parry and strike back
- Reward — Not being punched in the face
At the start, this all seems overly structured. Yet when you repeat these stages hundreds or thousands of times, it happens in a split second.
“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.”
I remember thinking being a black belt was a god-like status when I was growing up. When I got there, I realized how much I still didn’t know. In karate, a black belt just means you have a sound understanding of the basics. This is the time to experiment and discover what works for you and what doesn’t. You want to learn enough to make educated decisions for yourself.
People think Bruce Lee was great because he was naturally gifted. That’s a lie, he was exceptional because of his flaws. He trained in Wing Chun because he had poor eyesight and Wing Chun focused on close fighting. One of his legs was shorter than the other but he used this to get momentum into his kicks. He had a library of 15,000 martial arts books but adapted everything for his limitations.
Study great people but don’t try to be them. The most successful people are self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses and who adopt the actions to make themselves the most effective. Your perfect routine could be a jigsaw with parts taken from everyone you admire.
“The more we value things, the less we value ourselves.”
We don’t need flashy things to give our lives meaning. Though this is somewhat ironic for a Bruce Lee who had ordered a custom Rolls Royce before he died. Nevertheless, the principle holds as things are to be used not loved.
A bag is to hold things and a car is to get you from point A to point B. Diamonds aren’t a symbol of love, they are polished stones. It’s marketing that’s made us believe these items should be linked to our self-esteem and value. It’s all inside our minds so we surrender control if we choose to tie up some of ourselves in things.
If you’re a brilliant entrepreneur who’s earned enough money to buy a large house then value your ability not the house. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are famously frugal because they have what they need and donate the rest.
The way I see it is if I need to buy something fancy to impress someone then they aren’t someone I need in my life anyway. I want people who value me for who I am, why would you want any different? Be mindful of what really matters.
Bruce Lee passed away sadly at just 32 but no one can deny he lived a life worth remembering. His love for life and growth means he has something to teach us all.
- Be happy, but never satisfied — Keep trying to grow but don’t forget to appreciate the moment
- A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves as something to aim at — Often our dreams aren’t fully in our control, focus on enjoying the process rather than results
- Real living is living for others — Small actions can make the world a better place
- If you love life, don’t waste time, for time, is what life is made up of — Time is our most precious commodity, you’ll never get it back
- Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them — Don’t be too hard on yourself, learn to accept your flaws and move on
- Take things as they are. Punch when you have to punch. Kick when you have to kick. — Train your reactions so you don’t need to think so much!
- Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own — Learn from others but you aren’t them, adapt for your unique traits
- The more we value things, the less we value ourselves — Your self-value isn’t in the price of what you own
Thank you for reading and have a wonderful day!