“Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.” Bruce Lee
Beyond the daily grind, the “sets and reps” and the “chop wood, carry water”, what does it really take to be successful?
We all want *the template*; the magic combo / formula / special sauce. I love Tim Ferriss; he conducts a great interview with some of the most interesting people on the planet. But the mainstay (I would assume) of his income is selling the promise that the secret formula will eventually be teased out of the universe and woven together in one nice, neat, entrepreneurial success quilt. And to his credit, we all know, deep inside, that that’s not possible. And yet we chase that ghost anyway. I mean, because just in case, right? It’s akin to buying into a religious orthodoxy; not because we truly believe, but on the outside chance that it’s right.
Tim’s not a bad dude, he’s just selling us what we all want, which is freedom. In this case, the freedom to do what a solid bottom line will allow. And because we’re American’s (or at least heavily influenced by American culture), we want it now.
But as I wrote about in this post, we can’t mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself; confusing the map with the actual terrain, as it were. That is to say, we can’t become our unique selves — our true selves — by mimicking someone else. It’s great to aspire to a 350 x 10 squat or “inbox zero” or to be an Evernote ninja (calling myself out here), but those are just meaningless mileposts without having the greater goal — the destination, the north star — held vividly in mind.
And what does a solid “north star” look like? Let’s look at an example from of my favorite personal development personalities, Bruce Lee:
My Definite Chief Aim
I, Bruce Lee, will be the first highest paid Oriental super star in the United States. In return I will give the most exciting performances and render the best of quality in the capacity of an actor. Starting 1970 I will achieve world fame and from then onward till the end of 1980 I will have in my possession $10,000,000. I will live the way I please and achieve inner harmony and happiness.
Some have speculated that this driven young man (he was only 28 when this was penned) had a “knowing” that his time in this realm was to be short-lived, and this is what intensified his focus. Maybe so. But either way, it is a testament to both defining and actively striving toward one’s north star In fact, Bruce Lee was the embodiment of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s assertion that:
Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.
Now I would imagine there’s little argument as to whether this mindset toward “focus and fulfill” is a worthy trait. But the larger question to be answered is whether this trait can be learned… or, at least honed. Or is it akin to sprinting, or hand-eye coordination — something that can be improved, but to be a master, one has to be born with a certain… it.
We all know when we brush up against masters who have that certain “something”. It’s awe inspiring, for sure. I’ve seen it up close and personal in athletics, public speaking and entrepreneurship, because those tend to be my circles of contact.
So, was Bruce Lee born with “it”? I’d say he was. But he also didn’t just cruise through life on innate talent alone; he worked his ass off. Let’s look at another example of his mindset. This time, from when he was 21 years old. We may never know who the “Pearl” was that he was addressing here, but I sure hope she realized the profundity of the wisdom being dropped in her lap.
Know any other 21 year-olds with this kind of drive and focus? They’re out there, for sure; though few and far between.
This letter is hard to understand. It contains my dreams and my ways of thinking, as a whole, you can call it my way of life. It will be rather confusing as it is difficult to write down exactly how I feel. Yet I want to write and let you know about it. I’ll do my best to write it clearly and I hope that you, too, will keep an open mind in this letter, and don’t arrive at any conclusions till you are finished.
There are two ways of making a good living, one is the result of hard working, and the other, the result of the imagination (requires work, too, of course). It is a fact that labor and thrift produce a competence, but fortune, in the sense of wealth, is the reward of the man who can think of something that hasn’t been thought of before. In every industry, in every profession, ideas are what America is looking for. Ideas have made America what she is, and one good idea will make a man what he wants to be.
One part of my life is gung fu. This art influences me greatly in the formation of my character and ideas. I practice gung fu as a physical culture, a form of mental training, a method of self-defense, and a way of life. Gung fu is the best of all martial art; yet the Chinese derivatives of judo and karate, which are only basics of gung fu, are flourishing all over the US. This so happens because no one has heard of this supreme art; also there are no competent instructors…I believe my long years of practice back up my title to become the first instructor of this movement. There are yet long years ahead of me to polish my techniques and character. My aim, therefore, is to establish a first Gung Fu Institute that will later spread out all over the US (I have set up a time limit of 10 to 15 years to complete the whole project). My reason in doing this is not the sole objective of making money. The motives are many and among them are: I like to let the world know about the greatness of this Chinese art; I enjoy teaching and helping people; I like to have a well-to-do home for my family; I like to originate something; and the last but yet one of the important is because gung fu is part of myself.
I know my idea is right, and therefore the results would be satisfactory. I don’t really worry about the reward, but to set in motion the machinery to achieve it. My contribution will be the measure of my reward and success.
Before he passed away, some asked the late Dr Charles P. Steimetz, the electrical genius, in his opinion “What branch of science would make the most progress in the next twenty-five years?” He paused and thought for several minutes then like a flash replied, “spiritual realization.” When a man comes to a conscious vital realization of those great spiritual forces within himself and begins to use those forces in science, in business and in life, his progress in the future will be unparalleled.
I feel I have this great creative and spiritual force within me that is greater than faith, greater than ambition, greater than confidence, greater than determination, greater than vision. It is all these combined. My brain becomes magnetized with this domination force which I hold in my hand.
When you drop a pebble into a pool of water, the pebble starts a series of ripples that expand until they encompass the whole pool. This is exactly what will happen when I give my ideas a definite plan of action. Right now, I can project my thoughts into the future, I can see ahead of me. I dream (remember that practical dreamers never quit). I may now own nothing but a little place down in basement, but once my imagination has got up to a full head of steam, I can see painted on a canvas of my mind a picture of a fine, big five or six story Gung Fu Institute with branches all over the States. I am not easily discouraged, readily visualize myself as overcoming obstacles, winning out over setbacks, achieving “impossible” objectives.
Whether it is the God-head or not, I feel this great force, this unstopped power, this dynamic something within me. This feeling defies description, and [there is] no experience with which this feeling may be compared. It is something like a strong emotion mixed with faith, but a lot stronger.
All in all, the goal of my planning and doing is to find the true meaning in life — peace of mind. I know that the sum of all the possessions I mentioned does not necessarily add up to peace of mind; however, it can be if I devote [my energy] to real accomplishment of self rather than neurotic combat. In order to achieve this peace of mind, the teaching of detachment of Taoism and Zen proved to be valuable….
Probably, people will say I’m too conscious of success. Well, I am not. You see, my will to do springs from the knowledge that I CAN DO. I’m only being natural, for there is no fear or doubt inside my mind.
Pearl, success comes to those who become success-conscious. If you don’t aim at an object, how the heck on earth do you think you can get it?
The samples I’ve included here are just two of many documented in such volumes as Letters from the Dragon. And again, that last one from a 21 year old Lee. Incredible.
But as to the question of whether or not Bruce Lee’s — let’s call it “ambitious”, for lack of a better term — demeanor can be learned, I think we need to unpack some of the constituent qualities that make up his “ambition” to see if we can begin there.
Confidence… in spades
Bruce Lee had a steely, unshakable confidence in himself. Some would say that he was free from all fear or doubt. I don’t believe this was the case, though. I believe the truth of the matter is that he found a way to keep a lid on those emotions. Or he found a way to transmute the negative energy of those emotions into a positive motive force. In much the same way that courage is not the absence of fear, but the will to act positively in the face of fear. This is the emotional and psychological alchemic skill that all top performers possess.
Bruce Lee uses the term “spiritual force” here, but I prefer the word “purpose.” Either way, the young man had his why firmly established early on.
Most spend their lives chasing the “what” without ever giving thought to the “why”. Everything, in fact, flows from the “why”. The “whats” are just the inconsequential byproducts. Some of which are considered “good” (the hot wife, the Bentley, the McMansion), others not so: the 18 hour days, relentless problems, the endless grind. Without the “why” solidly in place, you’ll crack under the weight of the “bad”, or develop a soft underbelly from luxuriating in the “good”. Both of which, of course, are recipes for the “derails” we see so often from those who seem, at least from the outside looking in, to have it made.
Reward through contribution
Becoming a millionaire is the side effect of providing exceptional value. And I get that that’s a rather pollyanna take. Your salary or influence is not an end in itself, but an (albeit imperfect) measure of your contribution to the world.
And yeah, as a culture we have managed to bastardize that ideal. So we end up with entertainers and pro athletes making more than those who are truly serving the world. But I do believe that tide is slowly turning. And although Lee is popularly remembered as an entertainer, he was actually more so an impactful teacher than anything else.
So can we all become Bruce Lee-like ambition ninjas? Would the 10,000 hour rule apply in this case?
I won’t belabor this point here, but many have — including (at least, to some extent) Malcolm Gladwell — misinterpreted the “10,000 hour” rule that was proposed by Anders Ericsson. The idea that mastery in skill is obtained following 10,000 hours of practice. The caveat here is that that practice must be deliberate. In other words, just idly practicing scales or your short game won’t cut it; quality trumps quantity. The practice has to be fully engaged, challenging and done with the full awareness and attention. In other words, you can’t just lumber through the motions. 10,000 hours of that kind of practice will get you nowhere. Shocker, I know, but hard work matters!
My contention is that Bruce Lee embodied the ideals of unwavering confidence, intense purpose, and contribution in his everyday life. Did he experience moments — days even — of let down? I’m sure he did; he was, after all, only human. But I’d say he racked up way more than 10,000 hours on the other side.
Namely, his practice was:
- Goal oriented — stringing together an endless series of micro goals that lead, in a purposeful way, toward the greater northstar.
- Full, unwavering focus during practice
- Feedback from an outside entity. That could be a coach, or more general, epigenetic in nature (i.e., “the market”). I also envision this process as the continual course-correction inherent in navigating. It’s what the Five Ts is all about.
- Embracing discomfort. If you’re not being stretched, you have no hope of improving
Without these pieces firmly in place, there can be no significant forward progress. And any outwardly seeming “ambition” will only be so much pantomime, and empty bluster. “Much ado about nothing”, as Shakespeare would say.
Heal thyself, harden thyself, change the world –