Bruce Lee's Ultimate Guide To Reaching Your Full Potential

Joe Donan

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Bruce Lee is a modern-day legend, and rightfully so. On top of being an incredibly gifted fighter and a pop culture icon of the 20th century, he founded the Jeet Kune Do combat system, popularized martial arts films, and helped to change the stereotypical depictions of the Asian community in Hollywood movies.

What not many people know, however, is that Lee was also an accomplished poet and a deep thinker whose intellectual legacy still lives on, almost 50 years after his untimely passing in 1973.

His philosophy centered on simplicity, discipline, directness, freedom, self-knowledge, and the development of one’s inner potential; all of which he expressed through his poetry and teachings on martial arts.

Many of Bruce Lee’s viewpoints focus on the dynamics of success and failure, two inescapable realities of life we all have to face every now and then. And as there is golden wisdom in his words, I’ve decided to compile some of his teachings so you too, can achieve your full potential and fulfill your dreams.

1. Focus on one activity at a time.

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” —Bruce Lee

Here’s the thing: If you plan to be successful at something, you’d better be ready to spend a great deal of time dedicating your efforts to it. The only way to become a musical virtuoso, for example, is through intensive, everyday practice. Jimi Hendrix is said to have practice for hours every day, from age 15.

One of the reasons we keep failing to reach our goals is our lack of focus and commitment to a single objective. Attempting to master several disciplines at once requires dividing the little time we have into every one of those activities, resulting in limited efforts dedicated to each.

How to apply this principle:

Focus on one activity at a time. The more you try to excel at multiple endeavors simultaneously, the higher are your chances of failure and disappointment at your results. When you bite off more than you can chew, you end up becoming a jack of all trades and master of none, at best.

2. Don't try to please everyone.

I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine.” —Bruce Lee

As a child, my teachers expected me to follow in my overachieving brother's footsteps, quickly pointing out that my behavior and performance weren’t what they expected from me every time I failed to live up to his legacy.

As a result, I was always worried I wasn’t good enough and I developed a sickening fear of academic failure, however small it could be. Back then, of course, I was too young to know that even though my teachers were wrong in comparing me to my brother, I was also wrong in trying to please them.

And that's the problem in trying to please everyone: It goes against your self-interest, especially when their expectations of you differ from your own.

How to apply this principle:

You are your own gold standard. The only person you should be as good as, and eventually better than, is yourself. The steady, everyday improvement over your current self is the only expectation you should live up to. Today, be better than you were yesterday. Tomorrow, be better than you are today. Make that a habit, and you’ll start seeing positive results.

3. Accept defeat on your way to success.

To me, defeat in anything is merely temporary. Defeat simply tells me that something is wrong in my doing; it is a path leading to success and truth.” —Bruce Lee

People will always say “You can do it!”, “Go for it!”, “The sky’s the limit!”, and similar phrases every time someone starts a new project. It is only natural. After all, cheerful encouragement has proven to have positive results in giving others the push they need to pursue their dreams.

However, there’s something we’re never told about the whole goal-reaching process: Defeat is not only a possibility; it’s almost certain to happen. This is why many of us give up on our dreams after getting initial, less-than-favorable results.

How to apply this principle:

Understand that defeat is not only inevitable, but it is also an essential part of the process of winning. You see, defeat shows us exactly where we went wrong, which in turn becomes the experience we need to do better next time.

Just look at the greatest writers of our time. Many of them had their best-selling novels initially rejected dozens of times before they could land a book deal. If they all had stopped at their first defeat, no one would know their names today.

4. Understand that nothing is perfect.

To become a champion requires a good mental attitude toward preparation. You must accept the most tedious tasks with pleasure.” —Bruce Lee

I love writing, but I’d be lying if I said it’s all rainbows and unicorns. The whole process is very time-consuming, especially during the editing part. Also, it's frustrating when you have a great idea but you can’t come up with a good way to express it. Warts and all, however, I still can't live without it.

Here’s a hard fact: Regardless of how exciting your projects are, there will always be a part of them that you’ll find unpleasant. And that’s the part you’ll have to learn to love if you want to reach your goals in the end.

How to apply this principle:

Embrace the unpleasant aspects of your endeavors. Stop thinking of them as chores to be completed, but as necessary steps in the whole process of winning.

The old gym saying No Pain, No Gain is a perfect example of this. Attempting to adhere to a strict workout routine is pointless if you’re not willing to fall in love with the pain you’re required to go through to get that sexy six-pack of your dreams.

5. Don't fall for the trap of the endless-planning loop.

If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.” —Bruce Lee

Years ago, I had a plan to get a scholarship and study for a Master’s degree abroad. I did the research, watched the videos, read the articles, and heard the podcasts. I told everyone “I’m going off to study abroad soon”, but in the end, I never got around to doing it.

Planning goes hand in hand with execution. When we think and talk about our plans for too long we trick ourselves into believing we’re making progress, when in fact, we’re not.

How to apply this principle:

Divide your goals into achievable parts. Focus on completing each of those parts one by one while you plan your next move. That’s a more effective approach to getting things done.

It’s okay to plan your endeavors. I’d say that’s exactly what you should do. Just make you don’t get stuck in the process so you don’t fall for the trap of the Endless-Planning-Loop.

6. Don't let the possibility of failure intimidate you.

Don’t fear failure. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.” —Bruce Lee

The fear of failure is what stops us from reaching our full potential in life. It’s that nasty little voice whispering to your ear: “This is too risky. Don’t do it. You’ll only make a fool of yourself. They will laugh at you. Why bother?”

These thoughts can be terrifying, of course, especially in a society in which “failure is not an option”. However, it is important to know and understand that failure is a possible outcome to pretty much anything we do. Instead of fearing it, we should expect it, and embrace it.

How to apply this principle:

Just go for it. Of course, success is never guaranteed, but in the end, even if you have to accept utter defeat, there’s a benefit to losing big: At least, you can have the satisfaction of knowing that you had the guts and wits to give it one hell of a try.

You know what they say, it’s better to live a life of “Oh, wells” than a life of “What ifs”.

7. Be patient and consistent to achieve your goals.

Patience is not passive, on the contrary, it is concentrated strength.” —Bruce Lee

…and,

Long-term consistency trumps short-term intensity.” —Bruce Lee

Everything is instantaneous in the 21st century: TV streaming, Uber riding, e-books, instant microwave meals, instant telecommunication, online shopping, online banking, you name it.

Convenient as it may be, however, this era of instant gratification we live in has spoiled us into believing that anything we have to wait for is not worth having. This is one of the main reasons we assume we have failed at reaching our goals if we don’t see immediate results.

How to apply these principles:

Be patient. As T. E. Lawrence put it in Lawrence of Arabia, Big Things Have Small Beginnings”. You won’t get anywhere if you expect success right from the start. That’s not the way it works. We usually fall into this trap as we aspire to become just as successful as the people we most admire.

We tend to forget, however, that amazing writers, actors, athletes, YouTubers, singers, etc, all have one thing in common: They managed to get to the top of a seemingly unconquerable mountain, starting their journey from the very bottom; a feat that didn’t take them a few days, but several years.

8. Embrace suffering and learn from it.

Sorrows are our best educators. A man can see further through a tear than a telescope.” — Bruce Lee

Suffering is one of those bitter aspects of life we constantly try to avoid. After all, pain is anything but pleasant. However, trying to escape it is pointless, not only because it is impossible, but also because suffering-avoidance prevents us from reaching personal growth.

Pain is a natural mechanism that dictates what is good for us and what is not. Just like you learned not to walk around the house barefoot after stepping on a Lego piece, psychological pain teaches us a lesson or two on the mistakes we’ve made in the past, so we don’t have to go through the same suffering again in the future.

How to apply this principle:

Learn from your mistakes. The pain and suffering you‘re experiencing now will become the deterrents you need to do things differently in the future. If you fail to learn your lessons, you will be doomed to go through the same suffering again.

It’s okay to make mistakes. After all, we’re only human. The problem is making those same mistakes repeatedly, and suffering through them every single time.

9. Adapt, be flexible, and always reinvent yourself.

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now, you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” — Bruce Lee

…also,

Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” — Bruce Lee

…and,

To hell with circumstances. I create opportunities.” — Bruce Lee

These three quotes deal with the same situation: Adverse circumstances in the way to success. Look, no matter what you set out to do, things will never be perfect. You will always find problems and obstacles along the way. And these problems will give you a chance to shine and subsequently, to succeed.

How to apply these principles:

  • Be like water: This is a call to adaptability. Since circumstances will never be ideal, we must adapt to our environment and work with it, instead of against it. Do what you can with the resources you have: Even if this slows you down, you can always reach your goal if you’re persistent.
  • Bend with the wind: This is a call to flexibility. Circumstances will also change along the way. Sometimes the wind will be favorable. Some other times, you will have to go against it. Don’t be discouraged when this happens. Your projects will always go through ups and downs: A reality you must be ready — and willing — to deal with.
  • Create opportunities: This is a call to reinvention. Trouble will arise, and you will have to do something about it. Many people see their endeavors fall apart at the first signs of trouble because they fail in taking the right course of action. And that course of action is often something that no one has done or considered doing before.

There’s no way around this: If you give in to the fear of adverse circumstances, you will never make your dreams come true. In order to be successful, you have to be willing to face adversity with initial adaptability, ongoing flexibility, and a neverending ability for reinvention.

10. Be ready to make sacrifices.

He who wants to succeed should learn how to fight, to strive, and to suffer. You can acquire a lot in life if you are prepared to give up a lot to get it.” — Bruce Lee

Life’s a tradeoff. To get something, you must be willing to give something in return, which is usually a commodity, a resource, a source of pleasure and entertainment, or even a personal necessity. Those who are unwilling or unable to sacrifice will never get anywhere.

If you want to start a business, for example, you’ll need to sacrifice time with your family and friends, a considerable amount of money (at least, initially), and, if you can’t afford to quit your daytime job just yet, you will also have to sacrifice your sleeping time.

How to apply this principle:

Be ready to give up, at least temporarily, some of the things you value the most in life. The realization of a project requires this. You will lose sleep. You will lose money. You will miss out on awesome TV shows. You will lose weight. But in the end, it will be worth it.

Be careful, though. You shouldn’t be willing to sacrifice absolutely everything to reach your goals. An endeavor is never worth it if you need to give up your own family, your honor, your principles, your self-love, your self-respect, or your overall health.

Takeaways:

Bruce Lee’s teachings on success and failure can be summarized in the next few points:

  • Focus on one discipline at a time until you master it. Dedicating your attention and efforts to multiple, simultaneous endeavors will produce mediocre results, at best.
  • Attempting to please others by continuously trying to live up to their expectations is pointless. You should set your own goals and expectations for your life. Don’t let anyone else do this for you.
  • Defeat is temporary and necessary. Those who are not willing to fail are not willing to grow.
  • Patience pays off, as long as you work consistently toward the fulfillment of your goals and dreams. Instant success is nothing but fantasy.
  • You need to embrace the boring and tedious parts of your goal with a positive attitude if you want to accomplish your objectives.
  • All great projects have a great chance of failure. Don’t fear failure. It’s better to try and fail than not trying at all.
  • Pain will teach you the importance of not making the same mistakes again and again.
  • You will always encounter problems and difficulties on the way to success. In order to face them, you need the ability to adapt to adverse circumstances, the flexibility to deal with situational changes, and the wisdom to reinvent yourself and the environment to reach your goals.
  • You will never make your dreams come true if you’re not willing to sacrifice anything along the way.

There is wisdom, indeed, in the way of the Dragon, Bruce Lee.

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Salvadoran writer, father, husband, educator, and artisan. I write about love and relationships, family, life lessons, and personal growth.

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