Bruce Lee is the most influential martial artist of all time. Born in 1940 in San Francisco, he lived a short life of just 32 years before, somewhat peacefully, dying of cerebral edema, an excess of liquids in the brain, in 1973. By that time, however, he had become a world-renowned martial artist, a million-dollar Hollywood superstar defying stereotypes, and created his own martial arts philosophy, Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Intercepting Fist), uniting East and West in both body and spirit. If you’re looking for the best Bruce Lee quotes from this legend of film, fighting, and philosophy, you’ve come to the right place!
As part of our organized list, we’ll compile his 10 most popular lines based on reader votes from Goodreads. We’ll also include Nik’s 23 favorite quotes from Striking Thoughts, a collection of over 800 notes, ideas, and aphorisms written down by Bruce Lee himself over the course of his life. In-between, we’ll explain a little bit more about Bruce Lee the thinker as opposed to the fighter and break down his most important quote (the speech about water). Finally, we’ll provide some premade, custom images for you to share your favorite Bruce Lee quotes to social media.
The easiest way to navigate this list is to jump to whichever section interests you the most using the table of contents below. You can share any quote by highlighting it and using the options that will appear. Or, just skip to the images section and pick your favorite.
Now, before we get started, here’s a first line from Bruce to remember: “Independent inquiry is needed in your search for truth, not dependence on anyone else’s view or a mere book.” Bruce believed that the only way to find truth is to find your truth. Therefore, we should never take anything at face value. So enjoy these quotes and lessons from Bruce, but reflect on them carefully, and only keep what serves you.
That said, let’s get into the best quotes from Bruce Lee, a true master of kung fu, zen, and life itself!
Table of Contents
The 10 Most Popular Quotes From Bruce Lee
If you’re wondering which Bruce Lee quotes people like the most, I did some digging for you. First, his “Be Water” analogy is arguably the most popular. I’ll explain why in the section dedicated to that quote in particular.
Regarding his other sayings, the following top 10 have each received between 2,600 and 600 votes on Goodreads. To share any one of them, just highlight and pick your social media platform of choice, but remember: “A teacher is never a giver of truth—he is a guide, a pointer to the truth that each student must find for himself. A good teacher is merely a catalyst.”
1. “Empty your mind. Be formless. Shapeless. Like water. You put water into 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. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
2. “I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.”
3. “Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”
4. “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
5. “Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.”
6. “Be happy, but never satisfied.”
7. “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.”
8. “A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.”
9. “Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.”
10. “If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.”
My 23 Favorite Bruce Lee Quotes
In 2018, I bought a copy of Striking Thoughts*, a compilation of Bruce Lee’s notes, sayings, and ideas, compiled by his student and editor John Little. Since I like to savor the quotes and reflect on them, I still haven’t gone through all 825 aphorisms, but I’ve already highlighted, even written about, plenty of them.
Here are 23 of my favorite ones, but, as Bruce would say: “Bear in mind I seek neither your approval nor to influence you. So do not make up your mind as to ‘this is this’ or ‘that is that.’ I will be more than satisfied if you begin to learn to investigate everything yourself from now on.”
11. “Life itself is your teacher, and you are in a state of constant learning.”
12. “It is the life of perfection which seems to be incomplete, and of fullness which seems to be empty.”
13. “To spend time is to pass it in a specified manner. To waste time is to expend it thoughtlessly or carelessly. We all have time to either spend or waste, and it is our decision what to do with it. But once passed, it is gone forever. If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.”
14. “You can never invite the wind, but you must leave the window open.”
15. “A fat belly cannot believe that such a thing as hunger exists.”
16. “Nothingness means “no thingness” — there is only process, happening. When we accept and enter this nothingness, the void, then the desert starts to bloom.”
17. “Like everyone else, you want to learn the way to win. But never to accept the way to lose. To accept defeat — to learn to die — is to be liberated from it. Once you accept, you are free to flow and to harmonize. Fluidity is the way to an empty mind. You must free your ambitious mind and learn the art of dying.”
18. “You know how I like to think of myself? As a human being.”
19. “We have more faith in what we imitate than in what we originate. We cannot derive a sense of absolute certitude from anything which has its root in us. The most poignant sense of insecurity comes from standing alone; we are not alone when we imitate.”
20. “When I look around, I always learn something, and that is to be always yourself. And to express yourself. To have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it, which seems to me to be the prevalent thing happening in Hong Kong. Like they always copy mannerisms, but they’ll never start from the very root of his being, which is ‘how can I be me?’”
21. “Most people can talk without listening. Very few can listen without talking.”
22. “The superior man lets himself be guided; he does not go ahead blindly, but learns from the situation what is demanded of him and then follows.”
23. “An intelligent mind is one which is constantly learning, never concluding — styles and patterns have come to conclusion, therefore they [have] ceased to be intelligent.”
24. “There was a fine butcher who used the same knife year after year, yet it never lost its delicate, precise edge. After a lifetime of service, it was still as useful and effective as when it was new. When asked how he had preserved his knife’s fine edge, he said: ‘I follow the line of the hard bone. I do not attempt to cut it, nor to smash it, nor to contend with it in any way. That would only destroy my knife.’ In daily living, one must follow the course of the barrier. To try to assail it will only destroy the instrument. And no matter what some people will say, barriers are not the experience of any one person, or any one group of persons. They are the universal experience.”
25. “Oftentimes people come up to me and ask, ‘Bruce, are you really that good?’ I say, ‘Well, if I tell you I’m good, probably you will say I’m boasting; but if I tell you I’m no good, you’ll know I’m lying.’ I have the absolute confidence not to be number two, but then I have enough sense also to realize that there can be no number one.”
26. “To be humble to superiors is duty; to equals is courtesy; to inferiors is nobleness; and to all, safety!”
27. “The method for health promotion is based on water, as flowing water never grows stale. The idea is not to overdevelop or to overexert, but to normalize the function of the body.”
28. “A learned man once went to visit a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher talked, the learned man frequently interrupted to express his own opinion about this or that. Finally, the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full, then kept pouring until the cup overflowed. ‘Stop,’ said the learned man. ‘The cup is full, no more can be poured in.’ ‘Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions,’ replied the Zen teacher. ‘If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?’”
29. “If I say that ‘everyone under the sun is a member of a universal family,’ you may think that I am bluffing and idealistic. But if anyone still believes in racial differences, I think he is too backward and narrow. Perhaps he still does not understand man’s equality and love.”
30. “Who is there that can make muddy water clear? But if allowed to remain still, it will become clear of itself. Who is there that can secure a state of absolute repose? But keep calm and let time go on, and the state of repose will gradually arrest.”
31. “There is another bit of Chinese philosophy that has a bearing on problems common to all human kind. We say, ‘The oak tree is mighty, yet it will be destroyed by a mighty wind because it resists the elements; the bamboo bends with the wind, and by bending, survives.’”
32. “A goal is not always meant to be reached. It often serves simply as something to aim at.”
33. “I don’t know what is the meaning of death, but I am not afraid to die — and I go on, non-stop, going forward [with life]. Even though I, Bruce Lee, may die some day without fulfilling all of my ambitions, I will have no regrets. I did what I wanted to do and what I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability. You can’t expect much more from life.”
The Most Important Bruce Lee Quote Explained
Bruce Lee’s most influential piece of advice is arguably his “Be Water” analogy, which he shared repeatedly and in a variety of forms. The quote takes the #2 spot on Goodreads, but in a Google Trends analysis, it outranks even the search volume for Bruce Lee himself. Since Bruce shared the metaphor in a rare talk show interview, it also gets millions of views across hundreds of Youtube videos and variations of the clip every year. Bruce’s daughter, Shannon, also confirmed it to be his most quoted line in a podcast. Therefore, this is the undisputed #1. But what does it mean?
First, the connection between martial arts and water goes back almost 400 years. In 1645, famed martial artist and swordsman Miyamoto Musashi wrote in The Book of Five Rings: “Taking water as the basic point of reference, one makes the mind fluid. Water conforms to the shape of the vessel, square or round; it can be a drop, and it can be an ocean.” It is highly likely both Bruce Lee and his master, Ip Man, were familiar with this text, since it has held cult status for centuries.
Second, while training under Ip Man from age 13 to 18, Lee’s teacher really tried to drive the point of fluidity home with his student. “More yin, less yang!” he would say. At one point, he refused to give Lee any further lessons until he grasped this principle, sending him away to think by himself for a week. Lee took a boat, drifted around in the Hong Kong harbor, and that’s when…
Third, Bruce Lee’s insight about water hit him as he hit the water surrounding his boat in frustration (pun intended). As his daughter recounts in a podcast, Lee punched the water, wondering why he couldn’t understand the master’s lesson. Suddenly, he realized: “The water just moved out of the way! I can’t hurt it. It is infinitely soft and will adapt to whatever enters it. At the same time, it can be a crushing force.” That’s when Bruce understood, and, after years of refinement, he shared this idea in various forms.
The first and most famous is the variant he shared on the Pierre Berton Show in 1971:
“Empty your mind. Be formless. Shapeless. Like water. You put water into 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. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
Another version, which I can’t find the source of, but which I assume to be one of Lee’s many written notes and thoughts, goes as follows:
“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.”
Finally, in Striking Thoughts*, Bruce offers the most polished form of the idea:
“Be like water; water has form and yet it has no form. It is the softest element on earth, yet it penetrates the hardest rock. It has no shape of its own, yet it can take any shape in which it is placed. In a cup, it becomes the shape of the cup. In a vase, it takes the shape of the vase and curls about the stems of flowers. Put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Please observe the adaptability of water. If you squeeze it fast, the water will flow out quickly. If you squeeze it slowly, it will come out slowly. Water may seem to move in contradiction, even uphill, but it chooses any way open to it so that it may reach the sea. It may flow swiftly or it may flow slowly, but its purpose is inexorable, its destiny sure.”
Water is balance. Water judges slowly. It doesn’t look left or right. It is 100% focused on its destination, and it will flow through whichever path is available.
Thanks to its never-ending balancing act, water always finds its way home. Water always returns to a resting state. That’s why, when we act like water, we’ll better handle life’s challenges. We’ll be calmer, more adaptive, and persistent yet not stubborn.
When we are water, we are always exactly where we are meant to be, perfectly adapted to the present moment. That’s the balance we all need and desire, and that’s why Bruce Lee’s metaphor is still making waves (pun intended), more than half a century after his death.
If you’re looking for a slightly longer explanation, you can read my piece, “Be Water, My Friend.”
Fun fact: I recently rewatched Cowboy Bebop, a legendary anime, and the main character, Spike Spiegel, is based on Bruce Lee to a good extent. In one episode, he even shares a very familiar-sounding piece of advice: “It’s not about strength or power. You gotta be fluid. You have to be like water.”
More Bruce Lee Quotes
The single-best way to get more original Bruce Lee quotes, in my opinion, is to buy a copy of Striking Thoughts*. Here’s a short overview of the book, along with some links to our summary and an affiliate button to buy yourself a copy on Amazon, which will support us at no extra cost to you. Thank you!
“Independent inquiry is needed in your search for truth, not dependence on anyone else’s view or a mere book.” — Bruce Lee
The Book in One Sentence
Striking Thoughts* is a compendium of over 800 aphorisms, sayings, and private notes recorded by Bruce Lee throughout his life, detailing his perspectives on over 70 topics, including martial arts, philosophy, and life.
Why should you read it?
If you’re an aspiring martial arts student, athlete, actor, artist, or philosopher, this is a must read. For anyone else, it’s a treasure trove of daily advice and comfort, ready to offer the right line at the right time, no matter what you need in the present moment. Full of both clear insights and ambivalent ideas that’ll make you think, this book will stay with you for a long time.
- You must find your own answers to life’s biggest questions.
- The way to independent inquiry leads through an open mind.
- Being like water is a special kind of balance that allows you to adapt to anything.
If you want to learn more, you can read our free four-minute summary or get a copy for yourself.
The Best Bruce Lee Quotes for Sharing on Social Media
Beyond the “highlight and share” feature you can use to post any quote on this page, we’ve also made some custom images for you to easily tap and share. Some are optimized for Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, others follow Instagram’s classic square format or Pinterest’s more vertical layout.
Since Bruce was a real person, we thought we’d stick with real pictures instead of our usual, AI-generated backgrounds. One is taken from Wikipedia, the others courtesy of brucelee.com, the family’s official website. Happy sharing!
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Who Was Bruce Lee? (The Philosopher vs. the Fighter)
We’ve all heard of Bruce Lee the fighter, the martial artist performing dazzling moves in his TV shows, feature films, and even a few rare public demonstrations. Born as a dual citizen of Hong Kong and the US to somewhat famous parents, Lee became a child actor, acting in some 20 (non-fighting) movies by the time he was 18.
Due to his poor academic performance and continuous involvement in street fights in Hong Kong, however, his parents put him into martial arts training. Lee trained privately with martial arts legend Ip Man, and he won a boxing tournament by knocking out the previous champion. Lee refused to see any one martial art as superior, studying wing chun, tai chi, boxing, and any other fighting style from which he felt he could learn.
Besides his obvious physical talent, rigorous training, and ridiculous speed, it is this drawing from an eclectic mix of sources that led Lee to developing his own fighting style, Jeet Kune Do, or “The Way of the Intercepting Fist.” Jeet Kune Do is more than a martial art, however. It is also a philosophy — and that’s where the much lesser known Bruce Lee comes in.
Living in the US from 1959, he studied drama, psychology, and philosophy at the University of Washington for a while, and by the time he opened his own martial arts school and showed up at the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships demonstrating his skills, he was as much a philosopher as he was a martial arts master.
“Jeet Kune Do is just a name used, a boat to get one across, and once across it is to be discarded and not to be carried on one’s back.”
“I thought Bruce was a brilliant, fine philosopher about everyday living. He was very much into finding out who he was. His comment to people was ‘Know yourself,'” fellow movie legend Steve McQueen said about his teacher. And to do that, to know himself, Bruce studied Zen, Taoism, and Buddhism, but he also studied Western philosophers.
As such, Jeet Kune Do was “not an organized institution that one can be a member of,” Bruce said. “I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds.” He wished that, rather than creating yet another style people would subscribe to and then argue over, Jeet Kune Do would be “simply the direct expression of one’s feelings with the minimum of movements and energy.”
“Jeet Kune Do is just a name used, a boat to get one across, and once across it is to be discarded and not to be carried on one’s back,” Bruce said. He felt the same way about life, and that’s why he collected plenty of aphorisms on topics ranging from reality to marriage to the ego, from racism to faith to success.
Bruce realized that both life and martial arts are not questions with one definitive answer. That’s why he studied widely, collected ideas broadly, and only used what he felt was necessary and relevant at any given time. It is in this overarching, philosophical approach, that we find the true essence of Bruce Lee, and it is also where we can learn the most from him, even if we’re not training to be martial artists. We hope our list of quotes will help you do just that.
Aaaaaaand cut! That concludes our list of the 33 best and most important quotes from Bruce Lee. What do you think? Did we manage to capture his spirit? I hope we picked some quotes you didn’t yet know. Bruce Lee the fighter is fascinating, but Bruce Lee the philosopher is enlightening, and both are worth studying. If your favorite Bruce Lee quote is one we didn’t cover, tweet at us and let us know! And now, in the master’s own words:
“I have to leave now, my friend. You have a long journey ahead of you, and you must travel light. From now on drop all your burden of preconceived conclusions behind, and “open” yourself to everything and everyone ahead. Remember, my friend, the usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness.”
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Last Updated on February 7, 2024