Simply put, there is no name more strongly associated with martial arts than that of Bruce Lee. While movies like Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon made him renowned as the greatest fighter in the history of cinema—if not the modern world—it wasn’t merely his lightning fast hands and feet that garnered Lee such recognition. If people watched him films for his ability to fight, they idolised him because of his deeply humanist philosophy.
People watched Lee's films for his ability to fight, and idolised him because of his deeply humanist philosophy.
Like so many great minds—not to mention great entertainers—Bruce Lee’s life was cut short by tragedy when he died at just 32. But over the duration of his abbreviated existence, Lee had an oversized impact, so much so that Time named him one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.
You don’t achieve that kind of importance by appearing in a few movies. Significantly more important were Bruce Lee's ideas, words, and what he stood for.
This is what inspired artist Anita Yan Wong, for example, when creating the poster for an ESPN documentary based on Lee’s life called Be Water. Using a traditional Chinese technique that involves splashing drops of ink across rice paper, Wong—who like Lee hails from both Hong Kong and the United States—launched a portrait series that captured the essence of the fighter’s philosophy.
To that end, let’s celebrate the anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death by taking a look at a few of the key philosophies.
Be Water, My Friend
At the core of Bruce Lee’s philosophy was the exhortation to be water, urging his appreciators to embrace the fact that “it is soft, resilient, and formless”.
"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 it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
In other words, Lee extols us to be as gentle and changing as we are powerful and relentless. Water flows along the path of least resistance, but with time and persistence it can erode rock and rust away metal.
You would do well to learn by its example.
Have Faith in Yourself
A staunch proponent of unleashing one’s independence and unique ability, Bruce Lee advised that you avoid following the example or dogmas of others.
"When I look around, I always learn something and that is to be always yourself, and to express yourself, to have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it. Start from the very root of your being, which is “how can I be me?”
While Lee is certainly an admirable role model with a wealth of advice worthy of taking, he himself would advise his followers to think for themselves, saying, “A good teacher protects his pupils from his own influence”.
Simplicity Is the Key
A vast amount of stress and waste are caused by our inability to live simpler lives, and according to Lee, “Simplicity is the key to brilliance.” This concept of minimalism and simplicity in art and living is, in fact, so powerful that there is an entire movement around it. Says Lee:
"The height of cultivation should move toward simplicity. It is the halfway cultivation that leads to ornamentation…the process to simplify is like a sculptor who continuously chisels away all the inessentials until he creates a masterpiece."
Advocating that each of us strive to be “closer to the source,” Lee advises that “it is not daily increase but daily decrease” that will bring us nearer to that “root of your being” that was mentioned above.
So by living a simpler life, you will rid yourself of the clutter that hides what is most important.
Continue to Learn
An oft repeated message that emerges again and again throughout Bruce Lee’s writings and interviews is the importance of growth. He believed that wisdom was not a goal or a destination, but a process.
"There is no such thing as maturity. There is instead an ever-evolving process of maturing.Because when there is a maturity, there is a conclusion and a cessation. That’s the end. That’s when the coffin is closed. You might be deteriorating physically in the long process of aging, but your personal process of daily discovery is ongoing. You continue to learn more and more about yourself every day."
In other words, never think that your knowledge is complete. There is always more to learn, and “life itself is your teacher”.
While Lee certainly believed that wisdom is invaluable, he also asserted that it was useless without action.
“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”
Taking this idea a step further, Lee understood that one of the biggest obstacles to taking action is a fear of failure. Even if it doesn’t prevent us from doing whatever it is that needs to get done, it can cause us to reduce the scope of our goals.
“Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.”
Set big goals, then strive for them. If you fail, great! You have learned something invaluable in doing so, and maybe next time, the lesson gleaned through failure will drive your success.
All of this adds up to a rather powerful recipe for a fulfilling life. While it might be tempting to write Bruce Lee off as just another action star, there is a reason his films and his philosophies have left such a lasting legacy. Here we are nearly 50 years after his death, and still he casts a long shadow.
So be yourself, keep it simple, don’t stop learning, try even if you’re afraid of failure, and never forget—be water, my friend.
Article written by Nick Hilden