The legacy of Bruce Lee is mainly rooted in his success as a movie star and a martial artist.
Not many people know that he was also an avid reader and a deep thinker. In fact, he often noted that many of the impressive feats he accomplished weren’t just a direct product of his commitment to training his body. Everything began with his ability to cultivate his mind.
He rose to fame at a time when he had to deal with criticism for his mixed heritage. In Hong Kong, he was judged for being American. In America, he was judged for being Chinese.
It wasn’t enough for him to just do his work and reap the rewards of his labor. He also had to deal with a world that pulling was him in two different directions. It perhaps explains his deeply introspective habits and also how he became such a fiercely independent thinker.
In one instance, at a talk show in Hong Kong, the host asked him how he really saw himself. Did he identify as Chinese or American? Bruce Lee looked at him before calmly saying:
“Neither. I think of myself as a human being.”
We can all learn something from Bruce Lee the icon and the athlete. There is a lot there. That said, we should all also aim to get what we can out of Bruce Lee the philosopher.
Through his writing and his interviews, he gives us intimate insight into his thought process, and what it means to use the human mind productively to nurture independent thought by:
• Knowing that no dogma contains all answers
• Building true intellectual confidence
• Choosing self-expression over imitation
Bruce Lee may be famous as a combat fighter, but it’s with his mind that he really got there.
No Dogma Contains All Answers
Depending on the part of the world you happen to live in, you likely abide by a set of customs and beliefs about what the right conduct of behavior is and what it means to live well.
If all you have been exposed to is one cultural or ideological framework, the chances are that much of your thinking patterns are informed by a very specific and regimented set of values.
Different countries, cultures, and even cities have different beliefs about what is right and what is wrong, what is respected and what is not, and what is true and what is false. Sometimes these differences are subtle, and other times, it’s a distinction of day and night.
Bruce Lee was heavily influenced by Chinese philosophy, and he was particularly fond of the work of people like Alan Watts who brought a lot of eastern values and ideas to the west.
He saw himself doing the same. He thought there was a lot of beauty in many of the ideals of the east, and through his movies and writings, he hoped to spread some of that to the west.
But still, he was always cognizant of the limitations of a single tradition or culture, and he always sought to mix and match different ideas to arrive at his own personal conclusions.1
By and large, every dogma asserts itself as the one with all the answers. Yet, if we look through the lens of history, we see that they each have their successes and their failures.
Much of the time, the reason that most of the people who support a particular dogma do so is that of pure chance. Most of them were either born into it or it was the predominant influence around them, which eventually extended itself into their own lives.
This isn’t necessarily to say that you can’t buy into a belief system that’s supported by a larger framework that many others also see as true. It’s just about thinking with caution.
Every culture or ideology has something to teach, but no single one has it all figured out.
Build True Intellectual Confidence
One of the strengths of existing frameworks for thinking and living is that many of them have survived the test of time. Generally speaking, if an idea has been around throughout history, it’s often fair to assume that, whatever it is, it has a good overall reason for existing.
This isn’t always the case, but it’s a rule of thumb that mostly holds up. As such, if you want to refute a part of an existing dogma, then you need strong intellectual confidence to do so.
You need to trust that your reason for either rejecting or accepting a part of something else is good and honest and that it’s not going to lead you astray. Otherwise, it could be costly.
When John Little, who compiled Bruce Lee’s writing after his death, went through the remains of his work, he found something in the range of 1,700 annotated books in the house.
Bruce Lee believed that even his confidence (and he had a lot of it) in his physical abilities began with the intellectual confidence he cultivated in his mind. In an old letter he wrote in his 20s, he talks about a “creative and spiritual force” within him that guides everything else.2
He was a thinker first and foremost, and the confidence he gained from sharpening his mind was the catalyst that allowed him to trust his independent way of thought and action. It’s why he asked not only questions but also why he innovated by creating new styles of combat.
It’s easy to romanticize independent thought and for a reason. It’s generally the advisable way to make progress. That said, it’s contingent on you actually being an effective thinker.
To think for yourself, you first have to put in the work to trust your own thought process.
Choose Self-Expression Over Imitation
Besides rejecting a single all-encompassing dogma, Bruce Lee also felt that the culture of his time, especially in the martial arts community of Hong Kong, was too concerned with picking and choosing particular strains of action and not enough with self-expression.
He strongly felt that improvement and development of oneself weren’t necessarily acts of copying an existing success story, but it was about observing and iterating in a personal way.
By first understanding yourself, you have a better idea of what is useful to you and what isn’t, and from there you build on only what’s relevant, not just everything. As Lee said himself:
“Learning is definitely not mere imitation or the ability to accumulate and conform to fixed knowledge. Learning is a constant process of discovery and never a concluding one.”3
Everyone can learn something from almost anything, and it’s worth developing a mentality that does so. That said, with a few exceptions, the lessons should always conform to your own expression, rather than mold to whatever it is that you’re extracting the lesson from.
Any valuable development begins at the base layer of who you are and what you know to be true. Naturally, that doesn’t mean that those parts of you can’t change for the better and that you shouldn’t seek to improve them. It’s just about starting internally.
Once you have a solid base of intellectual confidence, your aim should be to iterate and improve on that, not give that up to try and become like something that you’re not.
People often get too attached to whatever the source or example of their learnings is, and although sometimes it can be good, much of the time it just steals their unique blueprint.
You should always seek to observe for insight, but you should do so without attachment.
All You Need to Know
If you’re thinking the same things as everyone else, you’re generally also making the same mistakes as them. Thinking for yourself isn’t just optimal, but it’s the only way to get ahead.
Bruce Lee is the father of modern martial arts, and his movies continue to attract fans from everywhere. His independent style of thought and action have always been visible in his commercial work, but they’re arguably even more apparent in the philosophy he left behind.
There are three important insights worth considering from his example:
I. Know that no dogma contains all the answers. There are thousands of cultures, traditions, and ideologies around the world, and the majority of them operate under the assumption that they are the one that has it figured out. Naturally, they all have something to teach, and it’s worth learning from them, but it’s also worth being skeptical.
II. Build true intellectual confidence. If you want to aspire to independent thought and analysis, you have to do the work of sharpening your mind so that you gain a solid reason for trusting your own logic over the reasoning of the ideas and values that have survived the test of history. They may not always be right, but they’re not all wrong, either. The job of an effective mind is to distinguish between the two.
III. Choose self-expression over imitation. While you can learn something from anything, it’s worth keeping a distance from your source. Learning or developing yourself isn’t an act of copying. It begins with understanding who you are and what you know to be true and then using external lessons to augment the expression of that.
Knowing how to think for yourself isn’t about rejecting existing ideas for the sake of doing so. It’s about being critical and cautious in your approach to making decisions of importance.
Your mind is responsible for whatever else comes your way in life. Give it the right edge.
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