Bruce Lee and the Value of You

Posted by Topix Media Lab on

The name Bruce Lee is an enticing, shiny object full of action and swag. So it's easy to focus on those aspects of his life that took place in the spotlight: his performances on film, his masterful demonstrations of martial arts, his seriously cool sense of style. But the reason these things grab our attention is because he was acutely dedicated to fully discovering and expressing himself. Volume 6 of The Official Bruce Lee Collector's Edition explores exactly how his ideas of self-actualization, practice and honest self-expression propelled him to the top of his fields and created a unique and inspiring human being. Read an excerpt from the new issue below and order your copy here.


Bruce Lee meditating on dock


Self-esteem is more than just patting ourselves on the back: it's the result of hard work.


No character virtue is as misunderstood in the 21st century as self-esteem. IN the age of social media, everyone's position as the center of their own universe is reinforced by a daily deluge of likes, follows and replies. Self-esteem, some of our more buttoned-up thinkers feel, has led to a general softening of culture exemplified by schools that don't give grades and sporting events where participation is enough for a trophy. Back in the good old days, they seem to be saying, we didn't think the world revolved around us. But true self-esteem, the kind that comes from hard work and the confidence it inspires, could not be further from the "softening" influence some would have us believe. More than the feeling we get from simple popularity, self-esteem is bound to the worth we earn. In The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee extrapolated ideas of The Passionate State of Mind by Eric Hoffer to describe exactly how important true self-esteem is:


"The maintenance of self-esteem is a continuous task which taxes all of the individual's power and inner resources. We have to prove our worth and justify our existence anew each day. When, for whatever reason, self-esteem is unattainable, the autonomous individual becomes a highly explosive entity. He turns away from an unpromising self and plunges into the pursuit of pride, the explosive substitute for self-esteem. All social disturbances and upheavals have their roots in crises of self-esteem, and the great endeavor in which the masses most readily unite is basically a search for pride."


According to Shannon Lee on The Bruce Lee Podcast, in the above quote, "Bruce Lee is talking about people who have not done the work to figure out how to have a sustained sense of self. They are the ones who are trying to justify their existence and prove their worth each day, having this continuous taxing task of maintaining their self-esteem...There is nothing that you have to do to have self-esteem except agree and accept that you are worthy of your existence. This is not always easy."


To achieve what Shannon calls a sustained sense of self, hard work must be done to understand our strengths and weaknesses and how best to use or overcome them. Anyone who would confuse self-esteem with self-satisfaction misses the point. Someone with true self-esteem would gladly take a participation trophy to commemorate a time they tried their best among people who had a better day. Put simply and in words Bruce himself used, a person with real self-esteem is able to say to those who judge, "I'm not in this world to live up to your expectations and you're not in this world to live up to mine."


Not to be confused with pride, self-esteem is the complete acceptance of the self and its innate possibility. In The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce again channels Hoffer: "Pride is a sense of worth derived from something that is not organically part of us, while self-esteem is derived from the potentialities and achievements of self. We are proud when we identify ourselves with an imaginary self, a leader, a holy cause, a collective body or possessions. There is fear and intolerance in pride; it is sensitive and uncompromising. The less promise and potentiality in the self, the more imperative is the need for pride. The core of pride is self-rejection." Inherent in pride, especially the kind of fleeting pride one gets from a social media boon, is insecurity. Specifically, it's the insecurity of a gambler's chase: another feeling of sweet, cheap justification is just around the corner. Self-esteem is the opposite: Coming from within, it isn't as vulnerable to the fickle outside world.


The opposite side of this proverbial coin is that the biggest threat to our self-esteem also comes from within. "We often talk to ourselves in a harsher way than we would ever talk to someone else," Shannon says. "The first step to having better self-esteem is talking to ourselves in a kinder, more uplifting way."


Bruce was also acutely aware of the many traps that self-esteem can lead to. It's easy to slip into moments of self-aggrandizing pride unless we're constantly mindful. False humility was of particular concern to Bruce as a martial artist: "People are always asking me, 'Bruce, are you really that good?' And what I say to them is: 'Well, if I tell you I'm good, you'll think I'm boasting. But if I tell you I'm no good, you know I'm lying.'"


The kind of work a person has to do toward self-understanding—especially of flaws—is grueling. We are often the ones who get in the way of our own progress, and the end result of true self-esteem can be fragile if it isn't strengthened with mindfulness. In The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce summarizes the pitfalls well: "We acquire a sense of worth either by realizing our talents or by keeping busy or by identifying ourselves with something apart from us...The path of self-actualization is the most difficult. It is taken only when other avenues to a sense of worth are more or less blocked."