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What was Bruce Lee’s philosophy? 12 powerful life lessons

“Be water, my friend.”

I’m sure you’ve read this quote somewhere and thought “Woah, sounds deep” but what does it mean exactly?

It’s from the legendary mixed martial artist and great actor Bruce Lee.

During his career, Bruce reflected a ton on his struggles and successes and he’s quite an insightful guy. Without intending it, this turned him into a sort of modern-day philosopher and inspirational guru.

What I love about his philosophy is that it’s not cliche and full of fluff. I truly believe his mindset and philosophy are the reasons why he became a true legend.

Because of this, it would be useful if we get to know Bruce a little bit more and learn about his philosophy ‘coz hey, if they worked for him, then surely they will work for us, too.

I compiled some of the famous quotes and sayings from the revered martial artist and listed ways on how we can apply them.

1) “Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”

Who says life should be easy?

Now you might go “Hold on! Wouldn’t it be great to live an easy life?”, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

Living an easy life is obviously great — until you fall on hard times. And you will, many times in this life. An easy life won’t exactly prepare you for hard times, would it?

A closer look at Bruce Lee’s life shows that he really didn’t have an easy life

As a kid, he was the picture of a delinquent — getting into trouble all the time, getting bad grades in school… you get the picture.

And if that wasn’t enough, people around him back in Hong Kong thought of him as a foreigner. It couldn’t have been easy — we know that his master Ip Man almost rejected him where he stood for that.

And even after he got accepted, his fellow students refused to train with him. But our guy endured.

From it, he learned how to cope with the challenges life threw at him. In the end, he managed to have an “easy” life anyway.

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Fame, fortune, and a family he truly loves. It was something he earned because he was able to endure hard times and make the most of what he had.

Success is sweeter when it isn’t achieved easily.

Important points:

  • Hard times are inevitable. Don’t give up because of them.
  • An easy life won’t prepare you for hard times.
  • You need strength to survive and pull through hard times, and you can draw on this strength to make your hard life easier.

2) “Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own.”

When you’re learning how to cook a dish, it’s a good idea to try to stick to the recipe. But once you learn it, well… recipes are not exactly words of law and should not be treated as one.

Say you’re short a few ingredients, surely you can afford to not include those ingredients. You can find a substitute or maybe you can add your own blend of spices.

This is exactly what Bruce Lee did with martial arts.

He was taught Wing Chun and Western boxing as a kid, and he used a mix of both. When he saw Muhammad Ali’s footwork, he slapped that on to his style, too.

Then he got into a big fight where he went “Hey, having a systematic style has its flaws”,  so he tried to make a more flexible style which helped popularize modern-day Mixed Martial Arts!

Now, if Bruce Lee had simply stuck to traditional Wing Chun, all this would have not happened.

Important points:

  • There’s no one way of doing
  • It pays to experiment. Look beyond the boundaries of your traditions and conventions.
  • Be playful. Most of the best inventions happen that way.
  • If you feel like life has gotten bland or you can get no better, try experimenting!
  • Don’t ever forget to put a bit of YOU in everything you do.

3) “There are no limits. There are only plateaus and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

Sometimes, right when you feel like you have attained perfection or have reached your full potential, you will see someone else shoot past you and into the stars.

Sometimes seeing that is like a good slap and a shove to get you going again, and sometimes it serves to only put you down because… well, you’ve convinced yourself you’ve hit your limit.

What else is there for you to do?

But the secret is that most of the time, these limits you put on yourself are just your fears talking to you. A soft whisper that says “stop, stay here where it’s safe and you’re ahead.”

It can be very tempting to do just that.

To rest your laurels and take comfort in the fact that you have gotten quite far from where you’ve come. But if you can take one more step, and then another, why not keep going and see where your steps will take you?

Important points:

4) Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.

I’m sure all of us had, at one point, looked up to another person — maybe a celebrity, maybe someone from work — and went “Man, I hope I can be just like them!”

And it’s fine to look up to other people, to try doing the things they do… so long as you don’t lose sight of yourself. You will only ever be you and you have your own unique path.

Trust yourself!

Those people you look up to should be a guiding light for you to look up to, and not a canvas to emulate.

At the end, they are simply people just like you with flaws, fears, and insecurities. Maybe someday you too will become someone’s inspiration… or you already are by simply being you!

Important points:

  • Simply put, love yourself.
  • Trying to be someone else is not loving yourself; it’s living a lie. Don’t do it.
  • It’s fine to imitate people you like though, as long as you’re not trying to be
  • Be the best version of yourself and not a second-rate version of someone else.

5) “Mistakes are always forgivable if one has the courage to admit them.”

Everyone commits errors but errors only become mistakes when one doesn’t take accountability for them and try to correct them.

Facing failure and its consequences can be very painful and humiliating.

But you know what? You’re not dead.

So long as you draw breath there’s hope for you to make up for your shortcomings. This doesn’t mean something has to be high-stakes to be considered a failure, of course.

Say you and a friend are learning how to paint. A month in, you hate how bad your paintings are and so you stop. Meanwhile, your friend who was worse than you didn’t.

A year later, you’re as bad at painting as ever but then you look at your friend’s paintings and end up wishing you were as good as them.

If only you didn’t stop because you felt like a total failure, you would’ve probably been even better!

The consequences of failure — big and small — will be there regardless of whether or not you face them anyway, but if you do face them,  at least you’ll probably be able to do something about them!

Important points:

  • Errors only become a failure if you don’t acknowledge them and make up for them.
  • Don’t be afraid to face your failures. They’re already there, and facing them means you can do something about them.

6) Be adaptable, be flexible

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless. Like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

This is one of the sayings that are most distinctively Bruce Lee. It speaks of a simple truth: be adaptable, be flexible.

Lee believed that every person and situation is different and thus did not fit in a mold.

So instead of telling people specific actions to take in specific situations, he instead wanted people to remain open and to seek knowledge to use in both life and combat.

There are no surefire solutions to everything and once you’ve arrived at a solution, things have probably changed and you’ll have a new set of problems.

Learn to dance gracefully in this life (and have a healthy dose of sense of humor) because everything changes every second. You gotta be like water. Flexibility is one of the key traits of happiness.

Important points:

  • You gotta learn to adapt and make adjustments in a graceful and positive way
  • Always try to find the best way to do things for any given situation
  • If one approach doesn’t work, don’t give up. Try another one!
  • Don’t get discouraged if things don’t work out the way you imagined them to

7) “A quick temper will make a fool of you soon enough.”

Who hasn’t said or done things in anger, only to regret them the day after?

Temper can be quite dangerous and Bruce Lee certainly wasn’t the first person to caution against it.

It might seem hard to heed this advice, especially if you have a naturally quick temper — and even worse if people keep provoking you.

But you can teach yourself to keep it under control and being aware of it helps.

When you feel your anger flaring, step back and look away for the moment. So try, keep a level head, and don’t make a fool of yourself.

Don’t send that angry text message yet. Keep it in your outbox for a day.

Take deep breaths and count to ten…or twenty…or thirty.

Avoid toxic people for a while until you learn how to manage your anger.

Remember, once you say something that stings, you cannot unsay them. Your words will forever be in their memory (and their inbox).

Once you do something out of anger, you cannot undo them ever. Try to keep your cool.

Important points:

  • Anger can lead you to say things you would regret.
  • If you feel your temper flaring, back off and do anger management tricks

8) “The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.”

This is going to be heartbreaking news but everyone is going to die someday. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find immortality in our own way.

Consider Bruce Lee himself who, despite dying at a tragically young age of thirty-two, is well-remembered, honored, and has left behind an indelible legacy.

Of course, you don’t have to become a celebrity like Bruce Lee. There is no need for the whole world to know and remember who you are.

Your friends and family are right there with you, and so long as long as they remember you and remember you fondly, ya good.

Perhaps you might even leave behind such an impression that they will speak of you for generations to come. They might admire you for the way you laugh at the stupidest jokes or how you always send cards at Christmas.

But if you do feel like you have a calling — like being an artist or scientist or candy maker — then go ahead pursue them.

Pursue them not for admiration but because you really want to be useful in this world before you die. Strive to have a meaningful life — not just a happy one.

Not to scare you but we will all be gone soon and you gotta do what you feel you’re supposed to do in this world before you go kaput. And while doing that, do simple things that bring you and others joy.

Big and small things matter. They make life worth living. They make you memorable.

Important points:

  • Spoiler alert: everyone dies.
  • You live on in the lives you touched while you are alive, in the legacy, you left behind.
  • A legacy worth remembering is immortality in its own way.
  • Strive for happiness and meaning

10) “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.”

The successful warrior is the average man with a laser-like focus.

These are two sayings by Bruce Lee that work well side by side and serve well to describe him.

What was Bruce Lee, after all, but an average man who had — through discipline and practice — became a legend.

That is the shared heart of these two sayings.

Have discipline in what you do, be focused, and do not waver. Practice and train yourself in what you do until you achieve excellence, rather than being content with mediocrity.

I’m not saying that if you’re a good musician, you should aim to sell millions of records. You can just be a simple jazzman with no records sold (because no one is forcing you) but has very mad skills.

Define the success you want and go have it. And you can do this with focus.

A chef who can cook a single dish perfectly is much more than someone who claims to know ten thousand recipes.

That is why even if many experts debunk Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule,  (which come to think of it, might have been inspired by Bruce Lee), I’m still a firm believer in laser-like focus and practice. Not all who do it will be successful, but the good ones will be.

Important points:

  • Jack or Jill of all trades is cool but being a master is something is badass
  • Practice discipline and thoroughness
  • Know what you want and don’t be scared to devote a lot of time to pursue it

11) “Simplicity is the key to brilliance.”

Another core tenet of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. keep your actions as simple as possible.

Avoid showmanship. It tires you out and makes it easier for your enemy to counter you. It is this simplicity that made Bruce Lee’s unique kind of martial arts especially effective.

In life, this concept works the same way. Embellishments can look pretty, of course, but they can also be additional baggage to be discarded when no longer needed.

You wouldn’t think it would be especially pleasant to sit in a pretty chair if it hurts your back. A chair has to be a good chair. Adding a ribbon or painting it gold won’t make it a good chair if it’s not comfy to sit on.

Important points:

  • Many great concepts and inventions are simple.
  • No adornment can make something more valuable when it’s not doing its basic function.
  • Less is definitely more, in most cases.

12) “It is easy to criticize and break down the spirit of others but to know yourself takes a lifetime.”

It’s incredibly addicting to criticize and look at the flaws of others. It could feel so darn good. It makes one feel superior as if they’re one of those judges from America’s Got Talent.

But it’s also incredibly toxic.

Often people attack because of their own insecurities.

Sometimes, because we can get so bitter with life, it’s much easier to project those insecurities onto others than to look at ourselves.

If you see yourself attacking other people, stop for a moment and think about why you are doing that.

Are you doing anyone any favors?

Are you going to make yourself better by doing so?

What have you to gain from criticizing another person?

If you have the urge to criticize and attack others, pause for a moment and decide on working on yourself.

Also, remember that one word of discouragement or encouragement can have great effects on someone.

Don’t be that guy or girl who bursts people’s bubbles because you want everyone to feel as bad as you. Trust me, you’re not doing them or you any favors.

Important points:

  • If you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say it.
  • Don’t drag people down. Hope could be the only thing left for them.
  • Look at yourself. Reflect. It’s likely that any bad things you have to say about others stem from within.

In summary

Bruce Lee’s philosophy is an interesting one — and it’s something everyone can learn from. He speaks of bettering oneself, knowing oneself, and being adaptable and ambitious.

For him, we’re put here on Earth with a purpose and we should pursue it with all our might. It doesn’t mean that our purpose should be as big as Neil Armstrong’s or Frida Kahlo’s.

If your life purpose is simply making cute scarves for cats, then you’re still a rockstar if you do it with passion and joy.

If you think your life purpose is to be a great listener to your neighbors, so go do it and do it well.

Bruce Lee wants to inspire us to make the most of our lives through discipline, wisdom and a big amount of courage.

If you’re feeling like a total loser, close your eyes and think:

What would Bruce Lee do?

And you go do it!

Written by Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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