How Bruce Lee Created A Lasting Legacy In A Short Time


Photo by Man Chung on Unsplash

The statue above is a good metaphor for Bruce Lee. It didn’t magically appear. It had to be created over time with planning and goals in mind. It also attracts the attention of everyone who sees it, not just martial arts fanatics. Ask just about anyone walking by the piece of metal work who it represents, and they’ll give you Lee’s name without trouble.

Why? Well, his fan base is unique and diverse.

  • Huge body builders strangely admire his 135-pound frame, while cinema fans still watch his films for his flashy physical abilities and onscreen persona.
  • Philosophy students study his words as lectures.
  • Martial artists and physical fitness buffs read his writings for his theories, which were way before their time.

Also, keep in mind he’s been gone for almost 50 years — plus, he gained all this notoriety for so many things in only 32 years of life. No wonder why so many might recognize the statue.

While Lee didn’t leave an exact road map to duplicate, he likely wouldn’t have wanted anyone to follow his exact footsteps anyway. Although he did leave us clues on how we can do similar things in our own way.

As his friend and student Daniel Inosanto says, “The total picture Bruce Lee wanted to present to his pupil was that, above everything else, he must find his own way. It is important to remember that Bruce Lee was a ‘pointer’ to the truth and not the truth itself.”

The Complex Character Embraced “Simplicity”

“Lee began a shedding process, discarding those exercises he felt to be unnecessary in order to get the utmost out of the minimum — Lee’s definition of ‘simplicity’”.

—“Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body”, John Little

In her book, “The Straight Lead,” Teri Tom writes “economy of form” and “efficient mechanics” are at the core of Bruce Lee’s art Jeet Kune Do (JKD). As you read more about him, it makes complete sense he’d incorporate these ideas. You continually see Lee attempting to get the most bang for his buck out of everything he did.

While he invested inordinate amounts of time into his pursuits, he also continually tried to use those minutes as wisely as possible. No wonder he could do so much in only 32 years. He might have been a time management guru if he walked the earth today, in addition to everything else.

John Little mentions Lee continually modified his workout routine over the years, developing the body which would propel his film career and make heavy lifters jealous. He eventually created his own 20 minute “strength and shape” routine, which gave incredible results — of course continually modifying it.

Little also notes Lee’s wife Linda would often find him doing multiple things simultaneously. For instance, she remembers finding him reading a book while curling a dumbbell in another hand, all while stretching into a split. Coincidentally, I always thought I was crazy for listening to podcasts and lectures when I worked out — Lee likely would have approved.

Teri Tom writes that the high-flying Lee’s martial art also cut away the unnecessary. Despite what you think, JKD’s base element is the unsexy Western straight punch. Moreover, Lee also took ideas from fencing — straight and to the point, like his definition of “simplicity”.

There Are No Limits Only Plateaus

“Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.”
— Bruce Lee, “Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body”, John Little

In John Little’s book, he mentions Bruce was challenged to a fight by local Chinese martial arts masters for teaching Westerners Kungfu. According to his wife, after an initial clash Lee chased the Kungfu master around for 3 minutes, eventually catching him and making him tap out.

Despite the easy victory, Lee wasn’t happy because he was exhausted. Little explains Bruce went on a life-long quest to build strength, speed, endurance and ability. The rest of the martial arts icon’s life was dedicated to continuous study and practice to build performance.

His body became a lab experiment of sorts — trying endless types of exercise and fighting techniques to see what did and didn’t work. And this testing never ended, continually creating a stronger, quicker, and more skilled fighter.

Little explains Lee said the only limit of JKD was that there was no limit. His life reflected his fighting style as well.

  • His 135-pound body wasn’t limited in speed and power.
  • His acting career wasn’t limited because he wasn’t the “traditional” Hollywood actor.
  • His teaching career wasn’t limited to those his community believed should be his students.

Everything most saw as a “limit”, he only saw as a plateau to be surpassed with time, study, and effort. The alternative being unacceptable.

If There Is No Conventional Path, Make Your Own
18-Year-Old Bruce Lee And His Instructor Yip-Man (1958) — Public Domain

According to Little, when Lee started his journey to get stronger for the pure purpose of his martial art in the 1960's, he had few resources. He ordered every fitness and muscle magazine he could find, but these mainly focused on creating body builders. Lee realized this type of muscle wasn’t functional.

Lee read through all these magazines, clipping articles or studies he found useful, and tossing the rest. He eventually put together his own fitness program which resembled circuit training before this concept ever existed. He also searched out specialized equipment, having his friends make exercise machines when they didn’t exist.

The same approach was used in creating JKD.

What Lee was trying to create didn’t exist at the time, so he built it himself. Teri Tom explains Lee immersed himself in books by classic boxers Jack Dempsey and Jim Driscoll, learning the mechanics of the punch which gave JKD its foundation. He also noticed these boxing legends mentioning their classic straight punch came from a fencing-style lunge.

So, Bruce picked up books on fencing — eventually finding his fighting stance by reading the works of fencer Aldo Nadi. He combined the muscle building, with the classic straight punch, and fencing footwork. The result being his famous one-inch punch, which could send men much larger than himself flying through the air.

Martial arts movies also didn’t exist in Western cinema as well when Lee was working on his acting career. According to, he returned to Hong Kong and created the blockbuster-style martial arts film. He’d use these successes in Asia to shop himself to Hollywood and American audiences — creating his own niche.

These are some of the skills Bruce Lee developed and used to make his short life memorable so long after his death. As Daniel Inosanto mentioned earlier, Lee wouldn’t have wanted us to copy him step-for-step. However, he’d likely want us to use his example as a “pointer” for our own success.

  • Strive for “simplicity” and cut away things that are unnecessary. Invest, but make the most out of your time —even though it may be short, you can accomplish a lot.
  • Don’t look at closed doors as limits, only plateaus. Continually exceed these plateaus in order to grow or else they can infect everything in your life.
  • If you can’t find an acceptable path forward, make your own. Although what you’re searching for may not exist, you can create it— as Lee could attest with his body, martial art, and acting career.

Comments / 0

Published by

Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. I try and work a combination of history and philosophy into modern day life. I can be interesting and awful at the same, but you'll generally learn something worthwhile when you donate some of your time to read my work.

Bucks County, PA

More from ErikBrown

Comments / 0