Bruce Lee’s striking thoughts

9 minute read

Takeaway

Independent inquiry is needed in your search for truth, not dependence on anyone else’s view or a mere book.

Striking thoughts book summary

Bruce Lee remains a well known name even now, more than 30 years after his death. Best known for his martial arts, Bruce was also well read in philosophy, studying it at the University of Washington and then developing his own style after. The book Striking Thoughts contains a collection of his sayings on a wide range of topics.

The book has >800 entries on >70 topics. I’ve highlighted quotes that stood out to me below, and find that they fall into a few broader categories of how to live:

  • Being flexible
  • Continuously changing
  • Reducing pride
  • Taking responsibility
  • Growing from failure

Being flexible and avoiding systems

The meaning of life is that it is to be lived, and it is not to be traded and conceptualised and squeezed into a pattern of systems

Man, the living creature, the creating individual, is always more important than any established style or system

We are always in a process of becoming and nothing is fixed. Have no rigid system in you, and you’ll be flexible to change with the ever changing. Open yourself and flow, my friend. Flow in the total openness of the living moment

For me, this was the most prominent idea from the book. Bruce encourages flexibility and adaptability, both in his martial arts and his way of living. Jeet Kune Do, the fighting style he created, was not meant to have forms or patterns. In his personal life, he adapted ideas from everywhere, as long as they worked.

I agree with being flexible, and being willing to adapt to the circumstances. Bruce gives a longer anecdote about elders and tradition that I’ll link in the footnote [1]. Times change, and so should you. I’ve always disliked the reasoning that “it’s always been done that way so we shouldn’t change”, finding that it usually justifies a bad system that no one can remember the rationale for. That said, remember Chesterton’s fence [2].

The part that’s problematic for me is where to draw the limit on the lack of a system. Like many others, I use frameworks to analyse various situations, be they finance or life decisions. It seems like Bruce is advocating against the use of such frameworks as they’ll be too rigid. I see where he’s coming from, and the right answer to any situation is “it depends” [3], but I feel uncomfortable accepting the conclusion that we should avoid frameworks altogether.

If avoiding frameworks altogether is too extreme, how do we decide when to use a framework and when not to? The power of frameworks is to be sticking with them, even when (especially when?) things seem to be going the other way. If you have investing criteria but don’t stick to it in crisis, you might as well not have the criteria at all.

You know how water fills a cup? It becomes that cup

From now on drop all your burden of preconceived conclusions behind, and “open” yourself to everything and everyone ahead. Remember, my friend, the usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness

The mind must be wide open in order to function freely in thought. For a limited mind cannot think freely

The water and cup metaphor is part of a longer quote that I’ll link in the footnote [2]. Related to being flexible, Bruce advocates the willingness to accept different points of view. If you’re narrow minded, you’ll miss out on things you need to know the most.

We’ve talked before about steelmanning an opposing point of view, which is to figure out the strongest possible form of the argument against what you believe. We’re all too susceptible to believing we’re right. Instead, we should aim for the opposite and find ways we’re wrong. If you’re not open minded, you can’t change for the better.

One reason I write is to give the opportunity for others to prove that I’m wrong. If I’m mistaken about something, I want to know as soon as possible. Sure, we might not agree on the issue even after debating it, but at least I’m now more aware of points that I could have missed before.

Continuous change and learning

A human being is the result of a marriage of natural instinct and control. You are to combine the two in harmony. If you have one to the extreme you will be very unscientific; if you have another to the extreme, you become a mechanical man, no longer a human being.

Each person must not be limited to one approach. We must approach it with our own self - we are always in a learning process, whereas a “style” is a concluded, established, solidified something. You cannot do that, because you learn every day as you grow older.

The basic theory in yin-yang is that nothing is so permanent as never to change. In other words, when activity (yang) reaches the extreme point, it becomes inactivity, and inactivity forms yin.

This naturally flows from being flexible. Since Bruce advocates for the abolishment of systems, he also believes that everything is constantly in flux. It is through change that we get better every day, if we want to.

There’s a tension in man, and we should not aim for either extreme. He emphasises that it is yin and yang, not yin or yang. The distinction here is that both are complements and cannot be treated separately from each other.

I’m not big on mysticism, so I’ll reserve comment on the yin and yang concept. However, I do agree with the general points of continuous change and growing from it. Interestingly, this implies that we should be critical of all our historical actions, since we know better now. Always be cringing.

Reducing pride and ego

It is the ego that stands rigidly against things coming from the outside, and it is this “ego rigidity” that makes it impossible for us to accept everything that confronts us

There is fear and insecurity in pride, for when one aims at being highly esteemed, and having achieved such status, he is automatically involved in the fear of losing one’s status. Then protection of his status appears to be his most important need, and this creates anxiety

In order to realise our true self we must be willing to live without being dependent upon the opinion of others. When we are completely self-sufficient we can have no fear of not being esteemed by others

Some recently popular books that share this line of thinking include Ego is the Enemy and The subtle art of not giving a fuck. I haven’t read either, though I suspect the main messages are self-explanatory.

One day I’ll write about status games and how a lot of life is signalling that we’re better than others. I agree that aiming for no ego, a beginner’s mindset, and not caring about other opinions is a goal. I’m less certain how realistic that is, since we all desire recognition from others. Still something to strive for though.

Taking responsibility for yourself

What does self-willed mean? Hell, isn’t it knowing above all, that, indeed, one is the captain of one’s soul, the master of one’s life? To be real, to accept responsibility for oneself

A self-willed man has no other aim than his own growth

As adults, the inconvenient truth is that we’re solely responsible for our growth, or lack of it. It is up to you to craft your own narrative for your life. If you have a self-defeating story, that’s what everyone else will see. No one else owes you.

I’m not saying we all have equal opportunities. The world isn’t fair, and never will be. Some people have it easy, some tremendously tough. Get over it. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck forever waiting for a lucky chance that you won’t even be able to capitalise on fully.

Growing from failure

What is defeat? Nothing but education; nothing but the first step to something better

Without frustration you will not discover that you might be able to do something on your own. We grow through conflict

To realise that it’s just an inconvenience, that it is not a catastrophe, but just an unpleasantness, is part of coming into your own, part of waking up

Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail

Similarly to the points on ego, these are easy to say and harder to practice. We all intuitively know that failure is necessary for eventual success, but that initial phase is painful. I’ve avoided pursuing some hobbies for years, just because I know I’ll be bad at first [3]. The lessons here are simple but not easy.

Another point I want to highlight is the last point about outcome vs attempts. I’m a fan of small scale experimentation, when the stakes are low. As long as you’re not risking your survival, aiming big is better than aiming small. Asymmetric experimentation means your successes, when they happen, will likely far outweigh your failures.

Other

At one time I wanted all the indirect things - money, fame, the big opening nights. Now I have it, or am beginning to get it, the whole thing doesn’t seem important any more. I have found that doing a thing is more important. I am having fun doing it

It is not daily increase but daily decrease - hack away the unessential! The closer to the source, the less wastage there is

It is indeed difficult to convey simplicity

Bruce was already successful, so I’m unsure how relevant that first quote is for many of us. It’s a lot easier to say money is unimportant when you have enough of it. I do believe the satisfaction from money caps out after a certain point, but most of us probably aren’t there yet.

Concluding thoughts

Many of Bruce’s beliefs are related. He emphasises flexibility first and foremost. One should be open minded, willing to change, aim to learn, reduce one’s ego, and recover from failure. There is no perfect state, but a continuous cycle of growth and self-improvement.

Don’t take his word for it though. In the end, Bruce wants you to think for yourself:

Truth is not to be found in a book. Furthermore, such a book merely presents a barrier to progress in your search for truth. Independent inquiry is needed in your search for truth, not dependence on anyone else’s view or a mere book

Footnotes

  1. “Many people are still bound by tradition; when the elder generation says “no” to something, then these other people will strongly disapprove of it as well. They seldom use their mind to find out the truth and seldom express sincerely their real feeling. The simple truth is that these opinions on such things as racism are traditions, which are nothing more than a “formula” laid down by these elder people’s experience. As we progress and time changes, it is necessary to reform this formula.”
  2. “Chesterton’s fence is the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood”
  3. Is that always the case though? Well, it depends…
  4. “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and 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.”
  5. Well, I’m hopeful I’m not bad at them forever…

If you liked this, sign up for my monthly finance and tech newsletter: