When I visited Hong Kong in September, I dragged my wife an hour away from our hotel to go see the Bruce Lee exhibit at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.
On our way there, she asked me something I’d never considered. I was born in 1979, Lee had died in 1973. When I first saw his movies, they were already two decades old. Why did I feel a connection to a man so removed from my time?
It really made me think. When I saw my first Bruce Lee movie at 13, Lee completely blew my mind away. He was so fast, so powerful, so in control of his own body that he completely changed what I thought the human body was possible of.
I needed to find out more about this uncommon man. Over the years, I devoured books, movies and books about Bruce Lee. I studied Wing Chun, Lee’s first martial art, and even bought a Chinese-style suit and shoes, because I wanted to be like Bruce Lee.
I discovered that Lee wasn’t just a martial arts actor. He’d been a philosophy major who dropped out to start his own martial arts schools, and had developed a thoughtful outlook on life as well as the martial arts.
I have always been a martial artist by choice, an actor by profession, but above all, am actualising myself to be an artist of life.Bruce Lee
Lee was very much ahead of his own time. He fused traditional Asian and modern Western training methods, and incorporated fighting techniques from various other martial arts into his own system, which he called Jeet Kune Do, “the way of the intercepting fist.” It’s not uncommon today to see people practice yoga and lift weights, or mix Thai kickboxing with Judo; but this kind of fusion was unheard of during Lee’s time.
Sadly, Bruce Lee passed away at the young age of 32. He didn’t even live to see the worldwide impact of his last movie, ‘Enter the Dragon,’ as it was released after his sudden death.
I guess the answer to my wife’s question was that Bruce Lee redefined possibility for me.
He showed me that you could transform yourself through sheer hard work, and go where nobody thought was possible if you’re willing to think for yourself. He taught me that there was value in fully developing one’s potential, and you could go far exploring the limits of what you could do.
I needed this positive influence, right when I was growing up, and looking for my place in the world. His ideas gave me signposts to steer myself towards, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without him.
If Bruce Lee had lived, he would be 75 today. In honour of his 75th birthday, I want to share seven life lessons I learned from the Little Dragon.
Absolute dedication is what keeps one ahead
Bruce Lee wasn’t born with his incredible speed and power, he came into this world an ordinary person, just like everyone else (in fact, he was born with a slight disadvantage; one foot was shorter than the other).
Lee developed his abilities through daily, rigorous training, and from demanding more from himself than anyone else expected. Lee had logs which recorded him doing thousands of punches or kicks a day. He trained constantly, stretching in-between takes on movie sets, and doing barbell curls with one hand while reading with the other.
Some guys may not believe it, but I spent hours perfecting whatever I did.Bruce Lee
His widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, wrote in her book The Bruce Lee Story, that Lee would often wake up early, and unable to continue sleeping, go straight to his training for the day.
Dedication, absolute dedication, is what keeps one ahead. A sort of indomitable obsessive dedication and realisation that there’s no end or limit because life is an ever-growing process, an ever-renewing process.Bruce Lee
There are plateaus, but you must go beyond them
Lee was absolutely dedicated to his training because he believed that there were no limits to his potential. In The Art of Expressing the Human Body, John Little writes about how Lee pushed his student, Stirling Silliphant, to realise that.
At the time, Lee had Silliphant running up to three miles a day at a good steady pace. One morning, Lee told Silliphant that they’d be running for five miles that day. Silliphant protested, telling Lee that he couldn’t make it, but Lee persuaded him to give it a go.
They started running and Silliphant got to the third mile, then the fourth, and started tiring out. With his legs giving out and his heart pounding in his head, Silliphant turned to Lee, and told him that if they kept running he would get a heart attack and die.
Lee said, “Then die.”
His reply made Silliphant so furious that he ran the full five miles. Afterwards, when he’d cooled down, Silliphant asked Lee: “Why did you say that?”
Because you might as well be dead. 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
There is no other help but self-help
Lee believed that there was no other help but self-help, that any learning was ultimately learning about yourself, and the only person who could help yourself was ultimately you.
I have come to discover through earnest personal experience and dedicated learning that ultimately the greatest help is self-help; that there is no other help but self-help — doing one’s best, dedicating one’s self wholeheartedly to a given task, which happens to have no end but is an ongoing process. I have done a lot during these years of my process. As well in my process, I have changed from self-image actualisation to self-actualisation, from blindly following propaganda, organised truths, etc., to search[ing] internally for the cause of my ignorance.Bruce Lee
In the art of Jeet Kune Do, Lee formulated a four-step process to help him and his students help themselves, through personal experience and reflection:
- Research your own experience
- Absorb what is useful
- Reject what is useless
- Add what is specifically your own
Throughout his life, Lee was an avid reader who amassed a huge library of books. Even though he dropped out of university, and had only formally trained with one gung fu master his whole life, Lee kept improving himself through self-education, researching his own experience and absorbing what was useful.
I learn martial art because I find it is like a mirror in with to reflect myself. I personally believe that all types of knowledge — I don’t care what it is — ultimately means self-knowledge.Bruce Lee
Man is more important than any established style or system
Lee placed so much emphasis on individual learning because he believed that any dogma, rigidly followed, would lead to the stagnation of a person’s growth.
I mean that man is always in a learning process. Whereas “style” is a concluding, established, solidified something, you know? I mean you cannot do that, because you learn every day as you grow on, grow older. Each person must not be limited to one approach. We must approach it with our own self, you know? Art is the expression of ourselves, whereas if you go to, say, a Japanese style, then you are expressing the Japanese style — you are not expressing yourself.Bruce Lee
He strongly believed that cultivating a person’s ability to think for herself was a more powerful way to grow as a human being, and not following tradition just for the sake of it.
Man, the living creature, the creating individual is always more important than any established style or system.Bruce Lee
As he grew out from his traditional gung fu roots to explore techniques from other martial arts, he had a miniature tombstone made, which he placed near the front door of his school.
The tombstone read, “In memory of a once fluid man, crammed and distorted by the classical mess.” The “classical mess” referred to the classical martial arts and their rigid ways of thinking.
Styles tend to … separate people — because they each have their own doctrine, and then the doctrine becomes their gospel truth that you cannot change. But if you do not have styles, if you just say “Here I am, as a human being — how can I express myself totally and completely?” if you can do this, then you won’t create a style, because style is a crystallisation. This way is a process of continuing growth.Bruce Lee
The height of cultivation leads to simplicity
This doesn’t mean that Lee created a new style by adding technique after technique to his repertoire. Instead, Lee told Black Belt magazine:
In building a statue, a sculptor doesn’t keep adding clay to his subjects. Actually, he keeps chiseling away at the inessentials until the truth is revealed without obstructions. Jeet Kune Do doesn’t mean adding more. It means to minimise. In other words to back away from the inessentials. It is not a ‘daily increase’ but a ‘daily decrease.’ Art is really the expression of the self.Bruce Lee
It wasn’t about adding more, but to discover the most direct expression of intention through daily refinement. During the same interview, when Maxwell Pollard asked Lee what he meant by “directness,” Lee immediately threw his wallet at Pollard. Without thinking about it, Pollard reached up and caught it.
The extraordinary part of it lies in its simplicity. Every moment in Jeet Kune Do is being so of itself. There is nothing artificial about it. I always believe that the easy way is the right way. Jeet Kune Do is simply the direct expression of one’s feelings with the minimum of movements and energy.Bruce Lee
Quantity of information doesn’t lead to quality of information, a dilemma we’ve all experienced in an age when we’re inundated with a deluge of information. Lee advised that it’s not how much you know, but how well you know what you know.
In Jeet Kune Do, it’s not how much you have learned, but how much you have absorbed from what you have learned. It is not how much fixed knowledge you can accumulate, but what you can apply alively that counts. ‘Being is more valued than doing.’Bruce Lee
Don’t let complexity overwhelm you, instead, seek a well-honed simplicity on the other side.
The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity, the ability to express the utmost with the minimum. It is the halfway cultivation that leads to ornamentation.Bruce Lee
In a letter written to his friend Daniel Lee, Lee revealed how he valued simplicity not only in his martial art, but also in his own life:
More and more, Dan, I mean it’s becoming more and more simple to me as a human being. And more and more I search [within] myself, and more and more the questions are more and more listed. And more and more I see clearly [that it’s a matter of simplicity]. It is, it really is.Bruce Lee
Go bravely on, because each experience teaches us a lesson
It would be a mistake to think that Bruce Lee had it all; physical talent, good looks, fame and fortune. Lee faced many setbacks during his life, not the least of which was a serious injury which laid him flat-out for months.
In 1970, Lee injured his back while training. The injury was permanent, and the pain became so severe that his doctors ordered him to rest in bed, and declared that he’d never be able to practice gung fu again.
Lee stayed in bed for three months, and spent another three months just moving around the house. Unable to teach gung-fu, the Lee’s family income suddenly ceased, and Linda Lee had to work to make ends meet.
But while he couldn’t exercise his body in those six months, Lee exercised his mind; filling eight, two-inch notebooks with his thoughts on martial arts and life.
It’s just a case of learning to look at hardship as if today the rain is coming on strong, but tomorrow, baby, the sun is going to come out again.Bruce Lee
He refused to believe in his doctors’ permanent diagnosis, and willed himself to believe that he could recover. After six months of rest, Lee began to train again, tentatively at first, and slowly resumed his teaching. Lee’s back bothered him for the rest of his life, but you’d never guess it from watching how powerfully he moved in his movies.
To refuse to be cast down, that is the lesson. Walk on and see a new view.Bruce Lee
According to Linda, when Lee was going through tough times and feeling low, he would erect a little sign on his desk, which simply said: WALK ON. This echoes the advice he wrote to a close friend, Taky Kimura, when the latter was going through some hard times:
Life is an ever-flowing process and somewhere on the path some unpleasant things will pop up — it might leave a scar — but then life is flowing on, and like running water, when it stops, it grows stale. Go bravely on, my friend, because each experience teaches us a lesson.Bruce Lee
In life, what more can you ask more than to be real?
What I respect most about Bruce Lee was his dedication to fully developing his potential. This is what drove him to train hard and train often, resulting in his extraordinary physical skills.
This is what drove him to learn, reflect and create, resulting in his own system of martial art, and rich volumes of written thoughts. This is what drove him to express himself honestly, resulting in a somewhat brash manner, but also a sincere and open repose.
In life, what more can you ask for than to be real? To fulfil one’s potential instead of wasting energy on [attempting to] actualise one’s dissipating image, which is not real and an expenditure of one’s vital energy. We have great work ahead of us, and it needs devotion and much, much energy. To grow, to discover, we need involvement, which is something I experience every day — sometimes good, sometimes frustrating. No matter what, you must let your inner light guide you out of the darkness.Bruce Lee
But to want to be like Bruce Lee is to miss the point. Just as Lee was against blindly following dogma, he was against the idea that you should mimic someone else, no matter how successful that person is.
When I did The Green Hornet television series back in 1965, I looked around and I saw a lot of human beings. And as I looked at myself, I was the only robot there. I was not being myself. I was trying to accumulate external security, external technique — the way to move my arm and so on — but I was never asking: “What would Bruce Lee have done if” — the word if — “such a thing had happened to me?” When I look around, I always learn something, and that is, to always be yourself and to express yourself. To have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate him. That seems to me to be the prevalent thing happening here in Hong Kong. They always copy a person’s mannerisms, but they never see beyond that. They never start at the very source, the very root of their own being, and ask the question: “How can I be me?”Bruce Lee
Instead, Lee would have suggested that you do your best to be the best you that you can be, and to honestly express your own potential as best you can.
Through the ages, the end of heroes is the same as ordinary men. They all died and gradually faded away in the memory of man. But when we are still alive, we have to understand ourselves, discover ourselves, and express ourselves.Bruce Lee
Afterword: A Man of Victory
I am older now than Bruce Lee ever was, a little wiser and a little more beat up than when I first met his moving memory at 13.
I have come to accept that I will never move like Bruce Lee. I will never have Bruce Lee’s body, his animal charisma, or his young success. I’m okay with that. Lee was Lee, and I am me.
When I was 13, I looked up to Bruce Lee, the fighter, the superstar. Now that I’m 36, I look up to Bruce Lee, the husband, the father. The person who must have worried for his family, as his injured back kept him in bed for months and prevented him from working, watching as his family’s finances dried up.
I look at a person who kept on fighting, even as The Green Hornet, the first TV show Lee starred in, shut down after only a single season. Even as he lost the starring role in Kung Fu, a TV show he had helped conceive and develop.
Even though life must have looked bleak at times, Lee walked on. And he walked, like his friend and taekwondo grandmaster Jhoon Rhee described, to become “a man of victory.”
Happy birthday, Bruce Lee.
I did what I wanted to do. What I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability. You can’t expect much more from life.Bruce Lee