1-Sentence-Summary: 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.
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Favorite quote from the author:
Everyone knows Bruce Lee’s most famous quote: “Be water, my friend.” But do you know the story behind it?
As a teenager, Bruce trained under Wing Chun legend Ip Man. The young man showed promise but was too eager and aggressive. One day, Ip Man put him on break for a week so he could think about “the art of detachment.” “Go home and think about it.”
During his “punishment,” Bruce lay in a drifting boat in the Hong Kong harbor. Suddenly, frustration overcame him, and he punched the water. But the water didn’t care at all! When he struck, it simply moved out of the way. In that moment, Bruce understood: a great martial artist is fluid as water.
Bruce himself is a bit like his quote: We all know the fighter and Hollywood superstar, but few know the philosopher and perpetual learner behind his accomplishments. I’d like you to meet that Bruce Lee. You can do so in Striking Thoughts, a collection of over 800 of his private notes, sayings, and aphorisms.
Compiled by John Little, the quotes in the book touch on over 70 different subjects: martial arts, fame, fortune, marriage, learning, Zen, happiness, and more. Bruce Lee only lived to age 32. But he learned a lot, did a lot, and has since become an inspiration to millions.
Here are 3 of the most important lessons from his book so you too can live a fulfilling life:
- 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.
Let’s discover some of Bruce Lee’s most striking thoughts!
Lesson 1: To discover the big truths in your life, you must practice independent inquiry.
After his involuntary thinking retreat, Bruce developed a deep appreciation of independent thought. He would forever reject dogma of any kind. In fact, when he developed Jeet Kune Do, his own martial arts philosophy, he never formalized it so each student would interpret it in their own way.
“Bear in mind I seek neither your approval nor to influence you,” he would tell them. “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.”
Bruce believed that the only way to find truth is to find your truth. “Independent inquiry is needed in your search for truth, not dependence on anyone else’s view or a mere book,” he noted. You should “adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own,” be it in your work, art, or contributions to family life.
Thinking for yourself is the backbone of intelligence, creativity, and confidence. Bruce bucked about every trend of his time, from traditional Kung Fu techniques to breaking into Hollywood as an Asian actor. He never could have done it if he hadn’t trusted his own mind above all others.
We often have “more faith in what we imitate than in what we originate,” Bruce said. But if you want real answers to life’s biggest questions, independent inquiry is the only way.
Lesson 2: If you want to think for yourself, first, you must “empty your cup.”
When he opened his first martial arts school in Seattle in the 1960s, Bruce hoped to instruct his students in more than just martial arts, exactly like his teacher did for him. To that end, he often told new entrants the following story:
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?”
I love this story so much, I started a daily newsletter in its spirit. Bruce agreed with the Stoic philosopher Epictetus that “it is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” Yes, it’s important to never take anything at face value. But it matters even more that you stop judging and approach each new situation with a clean slate.
If the only way to find truth is to find your truth, it is essential to keep an open mind at all times. If your head is already filled with preconceived notions, you won’t have any space left to arrive at your own insights. Keep what Zen Buddhists call “a beginner’s mind,” and always remember to empty your cup.
Lesson 3: When you are “like water,” you’re always where you’re meant to be, thanks to a special kind of balancing act.
The most famous variant of Bruce’s water metaphor is the one 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.”
“Water has form and yet it has no form,” Bruce writes. “It is the softest element on earth, yet it penetrates the hardest rock. 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 adjusts to any object in its path, and so must we. Water performs the ultimate balancing act. When you’re water, you don’t look left or right. You simply choose whatever way forward is available to you right now. You are always exactly where you’re meant to be — fully aware, calm, and perfectly adapted to the present moment.
May these lessons guide you on your unique journey, and remember: Be water, my friend.
Striking Thoughts Review
Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom for Daily Living is one of my favorite books of all time. Bruce Lee the fighter is cool, but Bruce Lee the philosopher is profound. Both are worth learning from. For more Bruce Lee goodness, you can check out our list of his best quotes, my essay on his approach to learning, or subscribe to the Empty Your Cup newsletter!
Who would I recommend our Striking Thoughts summary to?
The 17-year-old athlete who’s frustrated he’s not allowed into the big leagues yet, the 34-year-old accountant who has played her too safe for too long, and anyone who likes and wants to learn more about Bruce Lee.