Bruce Lee: How to live successfully in a world with no rules

Shannon Lee shares lessons from her father in her new book, "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."

SHANNON LEE: My father believed that all help is self help. There is no other help than self help. He believed whole-heartedly in knowing yourself, fixing yourself, growing yourself. And truly as a martial artist, you have to do that.

I remember my mom telling me this story about how my father was challenged to a fight at the end of 1964. He was living in Oakland, California, he had a school there. And he was teaching in very unorthodox ways. He was making some changes to some of the traditional moves, and then he was also teaching people from all different races and backgrounds, and women, and all sorts of stuff which was a no-no. And the Old Guard, the traditionalists in San Francisco China Town did not like this. So they challenged my father to a match. They said, "If we win, then you have to stop teaching. And if you win, then you can keep teaching."

My father accepted the fight, and he said, "If we're fighting for real stakes, then we're having a real fight. There are no rules." They conferred for a minute, then said, "Okay, all right, fine. We agree." And then he just came out swinging. And they had this fight, and it lasted about three minutes. It was very unorthodox because there were no rules. And my father won. My mom came out to see my dad, and he was sitting on the curb outside his school, and he had his head in his hand, and he looked really upset. And she was like, "What's the matter? Why are you upset? Like, aren't you so happy you- you won this fight?" And he said, "You know I won, but I didn't perform how I would want to perform, and I was not prepared for a situation that had no rules." In that moment, he realized where his shortcomings were, and that his traditional training, like all of these rigid techniques that he had trained, they went out the door because it was not a traditional fight. That he was able to reflect in that way was actually one of the hugest revelations of his life. It opened the door for him to create his own martial art, and to go very deeply on this philosophical journey really trying to live his live in the most optimal way that he could.

With Jeet Kune Do, which was my father's art, you know, he took it to a much deeper philosophical level. Jeet Kune Do translates to "the way of the intercepting fist." And I talk about this in my book, which is that if we can get to a place of enough skill where we can intercept the moment, we can meet each moment, then we as a human being are really in flow, we're really in a place where we're in full, immediate skilled response to the moments as they are unfolding.

Practiced combat is a very apropos analogy for life, especially life under extreme pressure. You have to be able to make split decisions. We get to experience what happens internally whether we freak out, whether we get angry, whether we wanna run away and shut down, and then to put into practice the skills by which to act through those emotions so that our skill, and our calm, and our composure can be present.
So my father created a number of tools that he had implemented in his life. One of the tools is be symbolic. There are lots of ways to be symbolic or ritualistic in a way that helps you to cement for yourself this new way of being, or this new lesson you've learned. My father would create some sort of symbol, like a physical symbol. So when he had the Oakland fight, afterwards he created this little miniature headstone that was engraved, that was his symbol to like die to his traditional ways, and reemerge in fluidity. And, you know, when he had created his symbol for his art of Jeet Kune Do, he made a pendant, he had a gold pendant made with that symbol on it that he wore around his neck.

Putting those symbols around in your field of vision can be really helpful, can be really helpful, they're just reminders. And so to me, the message here is like, this is why we wanna be vigilant with our own growth and our own skill acquisition in life. You know, just like the skills you need in life, like communication, and (laughs) you know, like resilience, and all these things. We wanna be vigilant because life is always changing, new obstacles are always coming up, we're always meeting a situation where the rules are different than what we thought they were gonna be. I mean, what is more prevalent than that with what is going on in the world right now? Right? And so, if we have been working on ourselves, and paying attention, then we get to meet those moments with a certain amount of skill set. And then we can sort of work through them with a little bit more grace than we would if we had no such skill set.

Get smarter faster with new videos every week from the world's biggest thinkers.

  • Bruce Lee would have turned 80 years old on November 27, 2020. The legendary actor and martial artist's daughter, Shannon Lee, shares some of his wisdom and his philosophy on self help in a new book titled "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
  • In this video, Shannon shares a story of the fight that led to her father beginning a deeper philosophical journey, and how that informed his unique expression of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do.
  • One lesson passed down from Bruce Lee was his use and placement of physical symbols as a way to help "cement for yourself this new way of being, or this new lesson you've learned." By working on ourselves (with the right tools), we can develop the skills necessary to rise and conquer new challenges.

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