Boards Don’t Hit Back: The Legend of Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee Statue

Today is a special day.

We are going to discuss one of my heroes, and probably one of your heroes. The man, the myth, the legend: Bruce Lee.  If he’s not your hero yet, he soon will be.

If you are a nerd, you love Bruce Lee.  

If you are into Martial Arts, you love Bruce Lee.

If you like Nerd Fitness, you will also love Bruce Lee.

Bruce is one of my heroes, and I’d like him to be your hero too, so I’m going to be sharing his philosophy and some of my favorite quotes from him. This guy accomplished more in his tragically short life than most people could in 10 lifetimes.

His philosophy drives a lot of the rules we live by at Nerd Fitness.

So, just how much of a badass was Bruce Lee? When Chuck Norris was asked if he and Bruce actually fought to the death, who would win, Chuck replied without thinking: “Bruce of course. Nobody can beat him.”

Let’s get after it.

Who was Bruce Lee?

Bruce Lee Enter the Dragon

Born in San Francisco in 1940 – the year of the Dragon, of course – Bruce Lee spent most of his childhood growing up in Hong Kong. After getting in a fight with a local gang, he discovered the martial art Wing Chun to properly defend himself (which we’ve covered here).

It was this martial art that would shape his future, and the future of all martial artists that came after him, propelling him down a path to super stardom, martial arts fame, and life story and philosophy that inspire millions upon millions of people today – even 40 years after his death.

Bruce Lee went through an extreme version of the experience many of us nerds go through in our formative years – feeling like an outcast. Due to Bruce’s mixed heritage (his father was Chinese and his mother was of mixed descent), he consistently encountered people who shunned and refused to train alongside him.

In fact, Bruce ended up having to constantly defend himself in street fights, and after defeating a guy with serious gang ties, his father sent him back to San Francisco to keep him out of fights and off the streets.

For comparison, I spent my childhood fighting on the streets in games like Bad Dudes (“The President has been kidnapped by ninjas. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue him?”)

But it was in the Long Beach International Karate Championships where he made his first mark:

The 2-finger Push Up:

And the 1-inch punch:

It was here that he was also discovered and invited to film the pilot for a show (which never aired), but led him to the role as Kato in the classic The Green Hornet.

The rest was history – Bruce went on to experiment with a number of martial art styles, and eventually created his own style, Jeet Kune Do. 

As told here, Bruce’s training was the result of of a story that can only be described as legen..wait for it…dary:

According to Bruce, the Chinese community took issue with him teaching ancient Chinese martial arts to anyone, including non-Chinese students. He was told to stop, when he didn’t comply, Grandmaster Ma Kin Fung sent his top student, Wong Jack Man to challenge him.

If Man won, he must shut down his gym immediately and never teach to non-Chinese students again, but if Lee won, he was free to teach to anybody, regardless of race, nationality or creed.

Following the fight that is set to be immortalized in the planned 2015 film Birth of a Dragon, Lee was disheartened, while he won in three minutes according to several onlookers, he was frustrated that he didn’t dispatch of his worthy challenger far sooner. As a result, Jeet Kune Do (JKD) was born.

Bruce emphasized what he called “the style of no style” which stripped his Wing Chun and other philosophies of their traditional rigidity and focused on having no form.

As his martial arts grew, his film career took off as well.  Upon returning to Hong Kong, he was surprised at his popularity and fame – it turns out his one season as Kato on The Green Hornet made him a Hong Kong celebrity overnight.

Not surprisingly, his career exploded at this point. He signed a deal to start starring (and eventually writing/directing his own films):

  • The Big Boss
  • Fists of Fury
  • Way of the Dragon (which he wrote and directed, and helped bring Chuck Norris to the spotlight)
  • Enter the Dragon
  • Began work on Game of Death

Tragically, Bruce died during the making of Game of Death. Complaining of a headache (he had suffered from seizures and headaches months prior), Bruce was given Equagesic, a painkiller to combat headaches. He reacted with hypersensitivity to an ingredient in the medication, causing a cerebral edema.

Although Bruce died at the age of 32, his work forever changed the landscape of Martial Arts, the film industry, and the societal view of Asian Americans.

In just 32 years, Bruce Lee managed to revolutionize two major industries and become a national icon.

For comparison, I’m 29, it’s 2 pm, and I’m still in my pajamas.

Be your own

Lego Bruce Lee

My favorite part about Bruce Lee was that he truly believed in forging your own path.  He did everything he could to learn the best moves and techniques from others, but applied them to his own philosophy and his own martial Art: Jeet Kune Do.

In his own words: 

Jeet Kune Do favors formlessness so that it can assume all forms and since Jeet Kune Do has no style, it can fit in with all styles. As a result, Jeet Kune Do utilizes all ways and is bound by none and, likewise, uses any techniques which serve its end.

In Jeet Kune Do, it’s not how much you have learned, but how much you have absorbed from what you have learned. It is not how much fixed knowledge you can accumulate, but what you can apply livingly that counts. 

Being’ is more valued than “doing”

Be Water, My Friend Video

Bruce created his own style, both in his training and in his art. He put a tremendous emphasis on his physical conditioning and how he ate – a NF Rebel before his time!

As we’ve seen in the videos above of Bruce and his 2 finger push ups, Bruce put a massive emphasis on strength training, as he knew it made all parts of his life better.

Along with his intense training regimine, Bruce truly understood the importance of fueling your body with proper nutrition.  After moving to the states, Bruce developed an interest in healthy eating, for he knew that he could not function at the highest level while filling his body with junk food.  He avoided baked goods and refined flour, and aimed to only fill his body with the right nutrients.

Bruce understood that we’re not all squares and circles that fit into perfectly sized holes – that we are all created differently – that foods and training will affect each and every one of us a little bit differently. That there is no one universal solution to all problems.  This is what lead him to create his art.

As he says:Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle 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.”

Devotion to personal responsibility


Not only did Bruce believe in forging one’s own path, but he also believed in the power of personal responsibility.  Considering I’ve covered this as the greatest skill one can learn, I guess this makes Bruce a founding father of Nerd Fitness Philosophy.

He knew that the only way to dig yourself out of a hole is to start digging yourself:

“I have come to discover through earnest personal experience and dedicated learning that ultimately the greatest help is self-help; that there is no other help but self-help— doing one’s best, dedicating one’s self wholeheartedly to a given task, which happens to have no end but is an ongoing process.

I have done a lot during these years of my process. A swell in my process, I have changed from self-image actualization to self-actualization, from blindly following propaganda, organized truths, etc. to searching internally for the cause of my ignorance.”

Is there anything greater than that? What a breath of fresh air in the current world we live in.  To stop looking outward when things go wrong. Stop looking for people to blame or some unlucky fortune, and instead attack it from within; ask how you could deal with the situation better and what you can learn from it.

Shit happens. And shit happens that’s not our fault. But if we learn to accept that it’s our responsibility to deal with it, no matter the situation, then we are in control, and the sooner we can start picking ourselves up and to get better.

This is great news: you don’t need to have anybody’s permission to start being more awesome….because you’re the one that holds the key.

He saw greatness in each of us


I believe we have the abilities to change our fate and create an epic destiny for ourselves, no matter our current situation.   Bruce believed that too.

If life sucks right now, that just means you’re in the part of the plot right before your character turns a corner. :

“We have great work ahead of us, and it needs devotion and much, much energy. To grow, to discover, we need involvement, which is something I experience every day — sometimes good, sometimes frustrating. No matter what, you must let your inner light guide you out of the darkness.

In life, what more can you ask for than to be real? To fulfill one’s potential instead of wasting energy on [attempting to] actualize one’s dissipating image, which is not real and an expenditure of one’s vital energy.”

This part is the best: “To fulfill one’s potential.”  Let that sink in for a sec.  Imagine that we all have this potential for greatness, and that it’s our responsibility to realize that potential.

This reminds me of another quote from the great philosopher, Socrates:

“No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training…what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”  

A little harsh, but the dude wore a bedsheet for clothes so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

There are no limits


Bruce didn’t believe in limits.

He knew that the human body was capable of far more than our brains and fear tell us.  

As recalled by a friend of his:

Bruce had me up to three miles a day, really at a good pace. We’d run the three miles in twenty-one or twenty-tow minutes. Just under eight minutes a mile [Note: when running on his own in 1968, Lee would get his time down to six-and-a-half minutes per mile].

So this morning he said to me “We’re going to go five.”

I said, “Bruce, I can’t go five. I’m a helluva lot older than you are, and I can’t do five.”

He said, “When we get to three, we’ll shift gears and it’s only two more and you’ll do it.”

I said “Okay, hell, I’ll go for it.”

So we get to three, we go into the fourth mile and I’m okay for three or four minutes, and then I really begin to give out.

I’m tired, my heart’s pounding, I can’t go any more and so I say to him, “Bruce if I run any more,” — and we’re still running — “if I run any more I’m liable to have a heart attack and die.” He said, “Then die.” It made me so mad that I went the full five miles.

Afterward I went to the shower and then I wanted to talk to him about it. I said, you know, “Why did you say that?” He said, “Because you might as well be dead. Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.

A man must constantly exceed his level.”

Or, in nerd-speak: “Level Up Your Life, Every Single Day.”

Live like Bruce


I challenge you today to consider these lessons from Bruce – then make them your own.

  • Take ownership over your situation. Develop personal responsibility about whatever problem is before you, whether or not you are responsible.
  • Forge your own path forward. Learn from others, take what you need and discard the rest. Make your own way.
  • Strive for level 50. Don’t be satisfied with where you are – we are ALL capable of so much more. Always be hungry.

Here’s how Bruce Lee has influenced and impacted my life:

Bruce has taught me to take the best of everything I learn, and use those things to strike out on my own. I spent the first nine months writing articles of Nerd Fitness trying to follow in the path of other successful bloggers. It wasn’t until I forged my own path and went against the mainstream that Nerd Fitness finally took off.

Along with that, Bruce taught me to strive for reaching my potential. I might never get there, but the mere fact of trying, learning, and failing is what makes life worth it.  I truly hope that when the credits roll on my movie (it’s an Adventure Superhero Comedy…a new genre), I can look back and say, “I did the best I could to fulfill my potential.”

Bruce taught me to be aware of preconceived notions.  We all have them when it comes to strength training, and I’ve had to learn to let go of those in order for me to truly succeed.  After all, “Emptiness is the starting point. — In order to taste my cup of water you must first empty your cup. My friend, drop all your preconceived and fixed ideas and be neutral. Do you know why this cup is useful? Because it is empty.”

How has Bruce Lee impacted your life?  What’s your favorite quote or lesson from him?

Share in the comments below. And remember…”boards don’t hit back.”



Photo Source: Chris Zielecki: Bruce Lee Statue, Sergio Bertolini: Bruce Lee in Enter the DragonAndrew Becraft: Lego Bruce Lee, Lexinatrix: Bruce Lee, Rick: Cobble Road, David-Hawkins Weeks: Marble, Alexicoitus: the fog

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47 thoughts on “Boards Don’t Hit Back: The Legend of Bruce Lee

  1. Great blog… My all time favorite quote is the “be water,my friend”, i also like “mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them”

  2. I don’t know many of his quotes but I love his movies and my 5 year old son does too. Nothing better than father and son time when Bruce Lee is involved

  3. Thank you. I seem to recall that his legs were different lengths as well. Just another “difference” to be overcome. Not a handicap.

  4. Thank you for bringing Bruce Lee to life for me. Very inspiring. (I’m embarrassed to say that I thought he was a fictional character.)

  5. A cup without form/boundaries/limits is not a cup. That is reality. I believe in pressing on and straining forward in the context of my physical, mental, spiritual, emotional boundaries. We do have limits. We are humans.

  6. Absolutely one of the best Bruce Lee articles I have ever read! Bruce has been a hero of mine since I first saw Enter the Dragon when I was five years old! Thank you for this!!

  7. This is a great!!! Bruce Lee has always been a huge motivator for me, and Steve you made him even more motivational. My favorite quote has always been the Plautus one you quoted in this post.

  8. Another awesome and motivational article. When are we going to see a ‘World according to Steve’ book?

  9. Very timely post for me. For the past several weeks I’ve been flailing along. One day I had the thought that I should stop trying to follow prescribed programs, both eating and exercise and make my own way…I’ve been successful at this before and then got too rigid with myself trying to follow certain programs with no deviations. I realized I didn’t like doing that but wasn’t sure what to do. Just recently I said to myself, “Self, you are smart, you can mix and match from various programs and even throw in your own ideas. There’s no life rule that says you have to do it just one way.” So that is what I’ve been doing the last couple of weeks and I am so much happier.

    It is nice to read that someone like Bruce Lee had that philosophy. It reaffirms that the path I’ve chosen to create for myself is okay.

  10. I love my Karate it works everything for me from the head to the toes and everything in between. Thank you for this piece on one of my heroes, I use to watch his movies as a little girl on a tropical island in the pacific. It is never to late to learn a Marital Art

  11. Thank you so much for such a great piece. Growing up my brothers and I were obsessed with Bruce Lee. Going thru a horrible break up, this piece reminds me of my roots and where I come from. Thank you Steve, your site is amazing!!

  12. What an amazing blog entry; I love this article so much. Thank you, Steve!! 😀
    Very inspiration. Much feels. Such epic. Wow.

  13. I just watched the I Am Bruce Lee documentary a couple of days ago and have been going back over some of the concepts of his training philosophy. Love this! I’ve been settling for far too much in my life and need to destroy the limits set by myself and others.

  14. This is great, and interestingly enough I watched the Bruce Lee story again yesterday, so it was timely too! I didn’t know there was a new movie being made, I will be looking for it in 2015 🙂 Other than that, he is an inspiration and was very wise I think in his personal philosophies. So…is 45 too old to start martial arts? 🙂

  15. I liked Bruce Lee, never cared for his movies. After this article I think I need to go watch his movies. Great piece, I have a new found respect and admiration for Bruce.

  16. Thanks for this; fantastic! The greatest influence on my life was Bruce Lee (my hero), his philosophy and his art, if I were a dude I’d want to be him:) Because of him I trained in martial arts to 4th degree black belt. “Simplicity is the end of art and the beginning of Nature.” – B.L.

  17. I’m a bit of a Bruce Lee fan, can you tell? 🙂

    I really love what he has to say about personal responsibility, especially. Cycles of blame can be so destructive and self-defeating… and there are so many times when I don’t notice I’m caught up in them! Awesomeness can happen when people stop looking to pin blame externally and focus on what they can do. But it takes a conscious effort! You go, Bruce!

  18. Bruce Lee has so many great quotes – I really like this one: One does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity

    Too often we think we need “more” when life is about doing “less” with intention.

    Great post!

  19. “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.” I have this quote with a poster of Bruce Lee on my wall. Your article was the only thing I’ve ever read on him in this much depth. So I can’t say more than that about how he has impacted my life at this time. I’ve done 6 months of para-combative jujitsu blended with aikido… that’s my martial arts experience so far.

  20. Awesome article! One of my favorite quotes is,
    “Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one”

  21. “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Brilliant.

  22. “Man, the living creature, the creating individual, is always more important than any stablished style or system”
    “Man, he is constantly growing and when he is bound by a set pattern of ideas or way of doing things, that’s when he stops growing”
    B. Lee

  23. Bruce Lee had the greatest impact in my life growing up – I have him to thank for shaping a personal philosophy based on never-ending dedication to learning and growth.

    Something that most people don’t know is that Lee suffered a debilitating back injury that left him bedridden for three months during one of the financially worst periods of his life – but he managed to climb through that dark period and produce a three volume book on his personal philosophy of martial arts (they would eventually later be published after his death).

    I wrote about this and more in my little thank-you letter to Lee:

  24. I think you misunderstood. You’re not supposed to be the cup, you’re supposed to be the water : without form, boundaries, limits, free to take on any of the afore mentioned characteristics at will.

  25. Level 50?
    In life, there is no level limit.
    There is only the point where we stop playing.

  26. Ah man, this was posted on my 21st birthday! An extra special day, then. Bruce Lee has always been one of my heroes. My first karate sensei was a big fan as well, and a lot of what he taught us was at least partially inspired by Bruce Lee. I kinda wish I hadn’t been a stupid kid, and had appreciated the class more. Still, it’s in the past. No point dwelling back there.

  27. You are an idiot, and all of these things, LIES! The fight lasted 20 to 25 minutes, and he finally gave out after being too tired to continue. How could he POSSIBLY take out a Shaolin MASTER in three minutes when Bruce himself, wasn’t even a sifu or at that level? That is all just propaganda that his wife told to keep his legend alive. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have overhauled his system, and gone crazy training, which eventually KILLED HIM! Here’s a concept, idiot. Try researching for the TRUTH instead of investing in lies!

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