Bruce Lee's Guide to Your Best Self

Posted by Topix Media Lab on

Black and white photo of actor Bruce Lee thinking in a field with hand raised


In anticipation of the Official Bruce Lee Collector's Edition, Vol. 3's release on April 9, we're giving you an exclusive first look with this excerpt straight from Volume 3—an exclusive interview with Bruce's daughter, Shannon Lee. Get your copy on newsstands Tuesday or get it delivered to your door here.


"Many people dedicate their lives to actualizing a concept of what they should be like, rather than actualizing themselves. This difference between self-actualization and self-image actualization is very important. Most people live only for their image."

—Bruce Lee


"As I move through life, I'm still understanding my father's definition of self-actualization myself," admits Shannon Lee. According to Bruce's daughter, self-actualization goes beyond the ancient and well-worn self-help maxim—credited to no less a philosopher than Socrates—"Know thyself." "The thing is," Shannon continues, "your understanding of who you are is constantly changing. Your understanding of things is deepening all the time."


Self-awareness, in other words, is saying, " I see myself." Self-actualization is saying, "I am myself."


"In the word 'actualization' is the word'act,'" Shannon says. "you have to move through space and time as yourself." Self-knowledge and self-reflection are valuable tools, but no bard ever said, "This above all, to thine own self think true." We have to affirm our ideas of ourselves trying to live into their potential as human beings—whatever that means for [us]—we are in a constant state of experimentation."


Self-actualization as Bruce Lee practiced it is about being in the now and funneling it toward where you're headed. "My father was all about having goals and visions about what he wanted to do in life," Shannon continues. "Those things are in the future, but you have to embody them in the now as if you're already headed in that direction. Along the way, that path might change as your knowledge of yourself deepens, but the now ultimately is all that exists. Or if you want to look at it another way, everything exists all the time at the same time. So the idea of self-actualization is not to say, 'I have a goal and I will achieve it someday,' it's to live as though the goal is already inevitable. That experience changes the present and makes it an infinite landscape of possibility."


All of this sounds great in theory, especially since Bruce lived before social media gave people the ability to curate our public personas. But in an age when it's easier to post a version of ourselves living our best lives than it is to actually live that life, is the philosophy of self over image sustainable? How can we comfortably experiment in the way we need for self-actualization when our past experiments are crystallized in social media, rubbing our proverbial noses in all the experimental selves we've left behind?


"One of the things you do as a human being is express yourself and who you are in public," Shannon says. "It's natural, but the challenge that my father dealt with in different ways, is its permanence. For example, when it comes to publishing books, the only thing my father ever published was a tiny book called Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense. It was his thoughts on Chinese gung fu before he developed Jeet Kune Do. After that, as his thoughts began to change and he developed his philosophy, he started to realize that collating that philosophy into writing was difficult." By putting his thoughts to paper, he was making them less fluid, less subject to revision. The problem with capturing images like this—the same problem presented by social media—is you're capturing a version of yourself that's in that state of experimentation: You're not going to be the same you when you look back at it, but it's already set in stone. 


Black and white photo of actor Bruce Lee reclining in a chair by the water


"My father was hesitant to publish a book on Jeet Kune Do for that reason: Once he published a book on exactly what Jeet Kune do was, it would cease to be this living thing, evolving based on experimentation and deeper understanding." Jeet Kune Do, like life, is a living process. "The past is a crystallized thing, but the present and the future are wide open."


But does this mean that social media is stagnating our growth as philosophical and intellectual beings? After all, the selves we show the world every day are captured in images just as Bruce's martial arts writings would have been. For Shannon, the difference between recording an experience for Instagram and actually living it is akin to the difference between self-refelction and self-actualization. "When we record something, we are aware of its importance or its beauty, but we aren't totally in the present moment anymore. The moment you stop and say, 'Wow, this is great, I really want to remember this moment,' you're no longer really living it."


Some might go so far as to say social media has effectively reduced many of our "nows" to scrolling through experiences shared by other people, responding to their posts and sending out likes. How could this possibly be a reality that lends itself growth or self-actualization?


For Shannon, the answer is simple. When we scroll through our various social media feeds, we're not just doing it to see what other people are up to or to while away the boredom—we're actually learning about our own interests and inclinations as we watch a world of other experiences unfold on our screens. "If I'm scrolling through Instagram and see a photo that a friend posted of their baby, I feel love in my heart. If I see someone posted something of a beautiful vacation, I think, 'I'd love to go there someday.' These things are me getting to know myself better and understanding what's possible, not so much me making a judgment or validating someone else."


Considering all sides of the argument, Shannon is unsure of exactly how her father would have felt about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, et al. "He certainly liked to express himself to an audience, so there's that, but you would have to be really conscious about why and how you're using this tool if you're in a process of true self-actualization," she says. Social media, at its worst, can make us self-conscious rather than self-actualized. We can, for example, see images of old friends who have turned themselves around and look much better than we do at the moment. When faced with these images, a self-conscious person might default to feeling inferior, while a self-actualized person would be more likely to consider what lessons this person might be able to teach them to help along their path to being their truest selves. In other words, social media can be a strong tool, but it takes a strong person to wield it. It takes, in short, someone like Bruce Lee.


"My father, I realize as I experience my own path, had a level of heightened naturalness that one can emobdy as they go through life. He had a particular makeup where he was someone with natural curiosity, natural drive and action. With a person who is very curious and intelligent and in touch with their body, for someone like that to then be a martial artist makes sense because combat is so much in the now. For you to be able to achieve a level of skill where you don't let your emotions overcome you, but rather to respond in the moment with full presence and creativity, is extremely practical for real self-actualization."