35. BRUCE LEE: Absorb what is useful
Bruce Lee (1940-1973) was a Chinese-American martial-artist, actor, writer, director, philosopher and is now an international cultural icon. As much as I love Teddy Roosevelt, Carl Sagan and some of the other people I’ve featured on this site, Bruce Lee is, and always will be, my number one hero. Seeing Lee onscreen for the first time was a life-changing experience for me (and millions of other teenage boys). Here was a guy that was cooler than James Dean, had more grace than Fred Astaire and was more badass than Schwarzenegger and Stallone combined. The fact that he was a skinny asian dude, just like me, made him that much more appealing.
I went through a hardcore Bruce Lee phase when I was 18-20 years old. One of Lee’s quotes is not to “go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it”. Well, sorry Bruce, you were too cool NOT to try to duplicate! He practised martial-arts, I practised martial-arts. He worked out, I started working out. He was obsessed with Muhammad Ali, I became obsessed with Ali. He studied the philosophy of Jiddu Krishnamurti, I started reading Krishnamurti. He had a puffy asian afro hairstyle, I tried to grow an asian afro (didn’t work).
Most people who aren’t that familiar with Bruce Lee only associate him with his films, as being the kung-fu guy who brandishes nun-chucks and screams ‘WATAAAAAAAHHHHH!’. But Lee can be very inspirational to those without even the slightest interest in martial arts. Lee majored in philosophy and was heavily into self-development, self-knowledge, motivation, goal-setting and had an almost pathological sense of ambition. Think about what kind of drive it took to become the first asian leading actor in a Hollywood film.
The ‘absorb what is useful’ quote illustrates one of Lee’s main philosophies. During the period Lee was training in martial-arts, you were either a judo person, a karate person, a kung-fu person and so on. And if you were a kung-fu person, you only trained in one of dozens of different styles of kung-fu (wing chun, choy li fut, hung ga, etc). So a karate student would be taught how to punch one way and the kung-fu student would be taught how to punch a different way. The punch you learnt was the best, and that’s the way you punched your entire life. You thought all other ways of fighting were inferior and you sure as hell didn’t train or associate with other styles.
Bruce Lee thought this way of thinking was stupid. Sure, he loved wing chun (the style he first learned), but he also really liked the way boxers used their jab. He thought the footwork of fencing was pretty clever. He realised the importance of grappling and wrestling. Lee borrowed whatever he needed in order to become a better fighter. He wasn’t held back by silly rituals, dogma and tradition that was prevalent in a lot of martial arts schools. These days, learning different styles of fighting, or mixed martial-arts, is considered normal.
Although Lee was talking about martial-arts, this quote can be applied to whatever your chosen field is: art, design, writing, cooking, dancing, film-making, photography or anything else. Don’t get trapped by one way of thinking. Never let an organisation become more important than your individual growth. Use whatever you need in order to become better.
- Martial-arts styles in panel 1, from top left: karate (or judo), shaolin, muay thai, wrestling, ninjitsu, fencing, boxing, wing chun, brazilian ju-jitsu, savate, Cobra Kai karate (those bastards), kendo, pencak silat, bak mei (Kill Bill‘s Pai Mei).
– The old guy in panel two is Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s wing chun teacher from Hong Kong.
– In the movie, Game of Death, Lee planned (he died before he could complete it) to have his character fight his way up a multi-leveled pagoda. On each level, he would face someone representing a different style of martial arts. Lee wore his famous yellow-jumpsuit to indicate that he was not affiliated with any style (you can see the unfinished footage here).
– The official Bruce Lee website.