Be Real: 7 Life Lessons from Bruce Lee

When I visited Hong Kong in September, I dragged my wife an hour away from our hotel to go see the Bruce Lee exhibit at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.

On our way there, she asked me something I’d never considered. I was born in 1979, Lee had died in 1973. When I first saw his movies, they were already two decades old. Why did I feel a connection to a man so removed from my time?

It really made me think. When I saw my first Bruce Lee movie at 13, Lee completely blew my mind away. He was so fast, so powerful, so in control of his own body that he completely changed what I thought the human body was possible of.

I needed to find out more about this uncommon man. Over the years, I devoured books, movies and books about Bruce Lee. I studied Wing Chun, Lee’s first martial art, and even bought a Chinese-style suit and shoes, because I wanted to be like Bruce Lee.

I discovered that Lee wasn’t just a martial arts actor. He’d been a philosophy major who dropped out to start his own martial arts schools, and had developed a thoughtful outlook on life as well as the martial arts.

I have always been a martial artist by choice, an actor by profession, but above all, am actualising myself to be an artist of life.

Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee

Lee was very much ahead of his own time. He fused traditional Asian and modern Western training methods, and incorporated fighting techniques from various other martial arts into his own system, which he called Jeet Kune Do, “the way of the intercepting fist.” It’s not uncommon today to see people practice yoga and lift weights, or mix Thai kickboxing with Judo; but this kind of fusion was unheard of during Lee’s time.

Sadly, Bruce Lee passed away at the young age of 32. He didn’t even live to see the worldwide impact of his last movie, ‘Enter the Dragon,’ as it was released after his sudden death.

I guess the answer to my wife’s question was that Bruce Lee redefined possibility for me.

He showed me that you could transform yourself through sheer hard work, and go where nobody thought was possible if you’re willing to think for yourself. He taught me that there was value in fully developing one’s potential, and you could go far exploring the limits of what you could do.

I needed this positive influence, right when I was growing up, and looking for my place in the world. His ideas gave me signposts to steer myself towards, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without him.

If Bruce Lee had lived, he would be 75 today. In honour of his 75th birthday, I want to share seven life lessons I learned from the Little Dragon.

Absolute dedication is what keeps one ahead

Bruce Lee training

Bruce Lee wasn’t born with his incredible speed and power, he came into this world an ordinary person, just like everyone else (in fact, he was born with a slight disadvantage; one foot was shorter than the other).

Lee developed his abilities through daily, rigorous training, and from demanding more from himself than anyone else expected. Lee had logs which recorded him doing thousands of punches or kicks a day. He trained constantly, stretching in-between takes on movie sets, and doing barbell curls with one hand while reading with the other.

Some guys may not believe it, but I spent hours perfecting whatever I did.

Bruce Lee

His widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, wrote in her book The Bruce Lee Story, that Lee would often wake up early, and unable to continue sleeping, go straight to his training for the day.

Dedication, absolute dedication, is what keeps one ahead. A sort of indomitable obsessive dedication and realisation that there’s no end or limit because life is an ever-growing process, an ever-renewing process.

Bruce Lee

There are plateaus, but you must go beyond them

Bruce Lee

Lee was absolutely dedicated to his training because he believed that there were no limits to his potential. In The Art of Expressing the Human Body, John Little writes about how Lee pushed his student, Stirling Silliphant, to realise that.

At the time, Lee had Silliphant running up to three miles a day at a good steady pace. One morning, Lee told Silliphant that they’d be running for five miles that day. Silliphant protested, telling Lee that he couldn’t make it, but Lee persuaded him to give it a go.

They started running and Silliphant got to the third mile, then the fourth, and started tiring out. With his legs giving out and his heart pounding in his head, Silliphant turned to Lee, and told him that if they kept running he would get a heart attack and die.

Lee said, “Then die.”

His reply made Silliphant so furious that he ran the full five miles. Afterwards, when he’d cooled down, Silliphant asked Lee: “Why did you say that?”

Lee replied:

Because you might as well be dead. Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.

Bruce Lee

There is no other help but self-help

Bruce Lee

Lee believed that there was no other help but self-help, that any learning was ultimately learning about yourself, and the only person who could help yourself was ultimately you.

I have come to discover through earnest personal experience and dedicated learning that ultimately the greatest help is self-help; that there is no other help but self-help — doing one’s best, dedicating one’s self wholeheartedly to a given task, which happens to have no end but is an ongoing process. I have done a lot during these years of my process. As well in my process, I have changed from self-image actualisation to self-actualisation, from blindly following propaganda, organised truths, etc., to search[ing] internally for the cause of my ignorance.

Bruce Lee

In the art of Jeet Kune Do, Lee formulated a four-step process to help him and his students help themselves, through personal experience and reflection:

  1. Research your own experience
  2. Absorb what is useful
  3. Reject what is useless
  4. Add what is specifically your own

Throughout his life, Lee was an avid reader who amassed a huge library of books. Even though he dropped out of university, and had only formally trained with one gung fu master his whole life, Lee kept improving himself through self-education, researching his own experience and absorbing what was useful.

I learn martial art because I find it is like a mirror in with to reflect myself. I personally believe that all types of knowledge — I don’t care what it is — ultimately means self-knowledge.

Bruce Lee

Man is more important than any established style or system

Bruce Lee

Lee placed so much emphasis on individual learning because he believed that any dogma, rigidly followed, would lead to the stagnation of a person’s growth.

I mean that man is always in a learning process. Whereas “style” is a concluding, established, solidified something, you know? I mean you cannot do that, because you learn every day as you grow on, grow older. Each person must not be limited to one approach. We must approach it with our own self, you know? Art is the expression of ourselves, whereas if you go to, say, a Japanese style, then you are expressing the Japanese style — you are not expressing yourself.

Bruce Lee

He strongly believed that cultivating a person’s ability to think for herself was a more powerful way to grow as a human being, and not following tradition just for the sake of it.

Man, the living creature, the creating individual is always more important than any established style or system.

Bruce Lee

As he grew out from his traditional gung fu roots to explore techniques from other martial arts, he had a miniature tombstone made, which he placed near the front door of his school.

The classical mess

The tombstone read, “In memory of a once fluid man, crammed and distorted by the classical mess.” The “classical mess” referred to the classical martial arts and their rigid ways of thinking.

Styles tend to … separate people — because they each have their own doctrine, and then the doctrine becomes their gospel truth that you cannot change. But if you do not have styles, if you just say “Here I am, as a human being — how can I express myself totally and completely?” if you can do this, then you won’t create a style, because style is a crystallisation. This way is a process of continuing growth.

Bruce Lee

The height of cultivation leads to simplicity

Bruce Lee

This doesn’t mean that Lee created a new style by adding technique after technique to his repertoire. Instead, Lee told Black Belt magazine:

In building a statue, a sculptor doesn’t keep adding clay to his subjects. Actually, he keeps chiseling away at the inessentials until the truth is revealed without obstructions. Jeet Kune Do doesn’t mean adding more. It means to minimise. In other words to back away from the inessentials. It is not a ‘daily increase’ but a ‘daily decrease.’ Art is really the expression of the self.

Bruce Lee

It wasn’t about adding more, but to discover the most direct expression of intention through daily refinement. During the same interview, when Maxwell Pollard asked Lee what he meant by “directness,” Lee immediately threw his wallet at Pollard. Without thinking about it, Pollard reached up and caught it.

The extraordinary part of it lies in its simplicity. Every moment in Jeet Kune Do is being so of itself. There is nothing artificial about it. I always believe that the easy way is the right way. Jeet Kune Do is simply the direct expression of one’s feelings with the minimum of movements and energy.

Bruce Lee

Quantity of information doesn’t lead to quality of information, a dilemma we’ve all experienced in an age when we’re inundated with a deluge of information. Lee advised that it’s not how much you know, but how well you know what you know.

In Jeet Kune Do, it’s not how much you have learned, but how much you have absorbed from what you have learned. It is not how much fixed knowledge you can accumulate, but what you can apply alively that counts. ‘Being is more valued than doing.’

Bruce Lee

Don’t let complexity overwhelm you, instead, seek a well-honed simplicity on the other side.

The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity, the ability to express the utmost with the minimum. It is the halfway cultivation that leads to ornamentation.

Bruce Lee

In a letter written to his friend Daniel Lee, Lee revealed how he valued simplicity not only in his martial art, but also in his own life:

More and more, Dan, I mean it’s becoming more and more simple to me as a human being. And more and more I search [within] myself, and more and more the questions are more and more listed. And more and more I see clearly [that it’s a matter of simplicity]. It is, it really is.

Bruce Lee

Go bravely on, because each experience teaches us a lesson

Bruce Lee

It would be a mistake to think that Bruce Lee had it all; physical talent, good looks, fame and fortune. Lee faced many setbacks during his life, not the least of which was a serious injury which laid him flat-out for months.

In 1970, Lee injured his back while training. The injury was permanent, and the pain became so severe that his doctors ordered him to rest in bed, and declared that he’d never be able to practice gung fu again.

Lee stayed in bed for three months, and spent another three months just moving around the house. Unable to teach gung-fu, the Lee’s family income suddenly ceased, and Linda Lee had to work to make ends meet.

But while he couldn’t exercise his body in those six months, Lee exercised his mind; filling eight, two-inch notebooks with his thoughts on martial arts and life.

It’s just a case of learning to look at hardship as if today the rain is coming on strong, but tomorrow, baby, the sun is going to come out again.

Bruce Lee

He refused to believe in his doctors’ permanent diagnosis, and willed himself to believe that he could recover. After six months of rest, Lee began to train again, tentatively at first, and slowly resumed his teaching. Lee’s back bothered him for the rest of his life, but you’d never guess it from watching how powerfully he moved in his movies.

To refuse to be cast down, that is the lesson. Walk on and see a new view.

Bruce Lee

According to Linda, when Lee was going through tough times and feeling low, he would erect a little sign on his desk, which simply said: WALK ON. This echoes the advice he wrote to a close friend, Taky Kimura, when the latter was going through some hard times:

Life is an ever-flowing process and somewhere on the path some unpleasant things will pop up — it might leave a scar — but then life is flowing on, and like running water, when it stops, it grows stale. Go bravely on, my friend, because each experience teaches us a lesson.

Bruce Lee

In life, what more can you ask more than to be real?

Bruce Lee

What I respect most about Lee was his dedication to fully developing his potential. This is what drove him to train hard and train often, resulting in his extraordinary physical skills.

This is what drove him to learn, reflect and create, resulting in his own system of martial art, and rich volumes of written thoughts. This is what drove him to express himself honestly, resulting in a brash, but also sincere, manner.

In life, what more can you ask for than to be real? To fulfil one’s potential instead of wasting energy on [attempting to] actualise one’s dissipating image, which is not real and an expenditure of one’s vital energy. We have great work ahead of us, and it needs devotion and much, much energy. To grow, to discover, we need involvement, which is something I experience every day — sometimes good, sometimes frustrating. No matter what, you must let your inner light guide you out of the darkness.

Bruce Lee

But to want to be like Bruce Lee is to miss the point. Just as Lee was against blindly following dogma, he was against the idea that you should mimic someone else, no matter how successful that person is.

When I did The Green Hornet television series back in 1965, I looked around and I saw a lot of human beings. And as I looked at myself, I was the only robot there. I was not being myself. I was trying to accumulate external security, external technique — the way to move my arm and so on — but I was never asking: “What would Bruce Lee have done if” — the word if — “such a thing had happened to me?” When I look around, I always learn something, and that is, to always be yourself and to express yourself. To have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate him. That seems to me to be the prevalent thing happening here in Hong Kong. They always copy a person’s mannerisms, but they never see beyond that. They never start at the very source, the very root of their own being, and ask the question: “How can I be me?”

Bruce Lee

Instead, Lee would have suggested that you do your best to be the best you that you can be, and to honestly express your own potential as best you can.

Through the ages, the end of heroes is the same as ordinary men. They all died and gradually faded away in the memory of man. But when we are still alive, we have to understand ourselves, discover ourselves, and express ourselves.

Bruce Lee

Afterword: A Man of Victory

I am older now than Bruce Lee ever was, a little wiser and a little more beat up than when I first met him at 13.

I have come to accept that I will never move like Bruce Lee. I will never have Bruce Lee’s body, his animal charisma, or his young success. I’m okay with that. Lee was Lee, and I am me.

When I was 13, I looked up to Bruce Lee, the fighter, the superstar. Now that I’m 36, I look up to Bruce Lee, the husband, the father. The person who must have worried for his family, as his injured back kept him in bed for months and prevented him from working, watching as his family’s finances dried up.

Bruce Lee and family

I look at a person who kept on fighting, even as The Green Hornet, the first TV show Lee starred in, shut down after only a single season. Even as he lost the starring role in Kung Fu, a TV show he had helped conceive and develop.

Even though life must have looked bleak at times, Lee walked on. And he walked, like his friend and taekwondo grandmaster Jhoon Rhee described, to become “a man of victory.”

Happy birthday, Bruce Lee.

I did what I wanted to do. What I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability. You can’t expect much more from life.

Bruce Lee

Finding Meaning in the Most Terrible Times

On an early morning in Kaufering Camp, Viktor Frankl marched with his fellow prisoners and their Nazi captors.

Frankl stumbled through the darkness, against the icy wind, dragging his feet over big stones and large puddles. The guards kicked anyone who didn’t march smartly enough. A man marching next to Frankl whispered: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

The man’s words made Frankl think of his wife, Tilly. He hadn’t seen her since they were separated at Auschwitz nearly two years ago. Tilly hadn’t needed to go, her name hadn’t been on the deportation list then. But she’d been determined to follow her husband, and went with him on the same train to Auschwitz.

They’d been divided at the gate, and Frankl remembered weeping on the second night in Auschwitz. The day was his wife’s 24th birthday, and he didn’t know if she was still alive to see it.

As Frankl walked, slipping on icy spots, he thought of his wife. He imagined her in front of him, and she became real to him. He saw her face, her smile, he heard her answering his questions and encouraging him along the way.

Before the war, he’d bought his wife a pendant, a small golden globe with blue enamel oceans. On a gold band wrapping around the globe were engraved the words, “The whole world turns on love.” As Frankl marched, the sun began to rise, and it dawned in him how, “Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self.”

The men soon arrived at their work site, and Frankl resumed his previous day’s place in the ditch. Sparks flew as he struck the ground with his worn-out pickaxe, as the guards cursed and beat those who fell. Frankl kept Tilly in his mind. He talked with her, and it gave him strength. He felt love, his love for her and her love for him, giving him comfort among the bleakness surrounding him.

The salvation of man is through love and in love.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl was born on March 26, 1905, in Vienna, Austria. From the age of three, Frankl already knew that he wanted to be a doctor.

He was well acquainted with Sigmund Freud and Alfred Alder, the foremost psychiatrists of his time. When he turned 19, he published an essay in Freud’s International Journal of Psychoanalysis, and a year later, he published another in Alder’s journal.

But over time, Frankl distanced himself from his two mentors. He felt that both Freud and Alder explained human behaviour too much in terms of emotional problems, instead of emotional health.

Frankl began formulating his own practice of psychology, which he called logotherapy. The word logotherapy comes from two Greek words, logos, which translates to ‘meaning,’ and therapeia, which means ‘therapy’. Logotherapy, therefore, is a way of treating people’s problems by helping them find meaning in their lives.

Frankl believed that man is mainly driven by a need to find meaning in life, and he taught that there are three main ways to do so:

  • The first is through action or creation: meaning through action
  • The second is through an experience, a human encounter, or love: meaning through experience
  • The third is through difficult or even fatal situations that are outside of our control: meaning through suffering

After six years of schooling, Frankl received his medical doctor (MD) degree in 1930. When he finished his residency in 1937, he opened a private practice. Little did he know that he would soon be practicing logotherapy not in clinics and hospitals, but in the concentration camps of World War II.

In October 1944, the Nazis called Viktor Frankl to be deported. He and his wife Tilly arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, where they were separated from each other. Frankl had hidden his life’s work, a manuscript about logotherapy, inside his coat, but the guards forced him to give up the coat on entering the camp.

Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, 1944. Jews were sent either to work or to the gas chamber. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, 1944. Jews were sent either to work or to the gas chamber. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The guards humiliated him by shaving all the hair on his body, and forced him to shower naked with the other prisoners. When he emerged, the guards shouted at him to find something to wear from a pile of ragged clothes, which once belonged to people who had now been gassed.

Frankl took a thin coat from the heap, and as he slipped his hands into the pockets, he found a slip of paper inside. He took it out, and found a page torn from a Jewish prayer-book. The Shema Yisrael was written on it, the same prayer that Frankl had heard his father say every day when he was a boy:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One God; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

Shema Yisrael

Grasping the page in his hands, Frankl felt the prayer was a “challenge to me to live what I had written, to practice what I preached,” as he faced the dark days that now lay ahead of him.

Viktor Frankl would endure more than two and a half years of suffering, starvation and humiliation in four concentration camps throughout the war. He worked as a manual labourer for most of his time in the camps, building railroads, digging ditches, and building new camps.

One day, his captors forced Frankl to limp for kilometres in biting cold, with terrible sores on his feet. He was almost in tears, and wondered if there would be anything to eat that night, how he could find a piece of wire to tie his shoes, and whether he should trade his last cigarette for a bowl of soup.

After a while, Frankl found himself disgusted with his preoccupation of “the little problems of our miserable life.” He forced himself to think of something else, and saw himself standing on the platform of a pleasant lecture room. He imagined himself giving a talk on the psychology of the concentration camps, and the warmth of his imagined future helped him go on.

Over time, Frankl found that it wasn’t always the physically strong who survived the camps’ brutality.

Instead, he discovered that those who found a reason for living, in spite of their suffering, had better chances of surviving, while it was only a matter of time for those who had given up hope.

Frankl fought to find purpose and meaning in the camps, and he helped others to do the same. Even though it was forbidden, Frankl would counsel people who wanted to kill themselves, helping them find something to live for.

He spoke to his fellow prisoners about finding faith for the future, about loved ones or special tasks that were waiting for them, about how a person could find meaning even in suffering. And if it came to it, even finding meaning in dying.

Frankl himself kept two hopes burning: The first was to rewrite the manuscript he’d lost and share logotherapy with the world. The second was to see his wife and family once again.

On April 27, 1945, Viktor Frankl was finally liberated from Türkheim camp.

Prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau during liberation. By the Russian government. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau during liberation. Photograph by the Russian government. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

He had lived through the horrors of the concentration camps, but upon returning to Vienna, he received the devastating news that his wife Tilly had not survived.

After they were separated at Auschwitz, Tilly was sent to the Bergen-Belsen camp. Although she made it to the end of the war and saw her camp liberated, she was among 17,000 of the remaining 60,000 prisoners who died of starvation, exhaustion, and disease before they could be helped.

It wasn’t only Tilly who had died. Frankl’s parents, brother and sister-in-law had all perished in the war. Viktor Frankl was alone. He had endured unspeakable anguish and survived, by dreaming of the day when he would be reunited with his family … and now that dream was extinguished.

When Frankl visited his friends, he would break down and cry. His friends worried that he might kill himself. He felt that he was a man, who “… for years had thought he had reached the absolute limit of all possible suffering now found that suffering has no limits, and that he could suffer still more, and still more intensely.” In the camps, Frankl had not hoped for happiness, but he hadn’t expected yet more unhappiness after liberation.

And yet, just as his will to meaning had given him the will to survive in the camps, it helped him once more in this tragic period. Even as he thought of killing himself, Frankl felt that life was asking more from him, that his life must still have a purpose.

He told a friend, “When all this happens to someone, to be tested in such a way, … it must have some meaning. I have a feeling … that I am destined for something.”

During the war, Frankl fanned the embers of two hopes. He had lost one, so now, he turned to the other. He wanted to die, but he decided he would at least finish the book he had started before the war. Finding a brief purpose, once again, helped him live through those difficult times.

After he took The Doctor and the Soul to his publisher, Frankl felt that he needed to write another book about his personal experiences in the camps. He dictated the entire manuscript in just nine days, and the book was published as Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager (translated as A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp), titled Man’s Search for Meaning in English.

In time to come, Man’s Search for Meaning would go on to sell more than 10 million copies in 24 languages throughout the world.

A year after the war, Viktor Frankl became the chief of neurology at the Vienna Policlinic Hospital. He was still depressed, and he gained a reputation at the hospital for being difficult to work with.

One day, Frankl met 24-year old Eleonore Schwindt, an oral surgery assistant at the hospital, and the two fell in love. On a July day in 1947, Elly Schwindt and Viktor Frankl married, and not long after, they welcomed the birth of their baby daughter, Gabriele.

Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, grew more and more popular. Frankl and Elly began travelling to speak around the world, and the logotherapy movement spread.

Frankl’s life was starting anew, and he began to feel joy again. He had found purpose during the war in meaning through suffering, and it had given him the strength to endure.

After the war, he found meaning again in meaning through action, by writing, speaking and sharing logotherapy with the world.

And he regained love lost in meaning through experience, with his wife Elly and daughter Gabriele.

Afterword: Starting Over after Tragedy

How do you start over again after tragedy?

After writing about starting over again in ‘Bruce Lee and the Beginner’s Mind’, I wanted to dedicate a series, to look at the lives of exceptional people who have all started over again at some point in their lives.

When I thought about who to write about, the first name I thought of was Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychologist who survived the Holocaust, and came through it with a remarkable message of hope for all mankind.

Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is an essential read. Not just for anyone who wants to know how man can endure and even find meaning in suffering. But also to remember the horrors of the war, so we don’t doom ourselves to repeat it.

While I drew from Frank’s book for his time in the camps and the essence of logotherapy, I wanted to find out more about how he rebuilt his life after the war. I am indebted to Anna Redsand’s biography Viktor Frankl: A Life Worth Living, which helped to fill in the gaps of Frankl’s life before and after his time in the camps.

In closing, there are three aspects about logotherapy that struck me as I was writing this post.

The first is that logotherapy is imminently practical. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl stressed “…the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.” Logotherapy “is a method less retrospective and less introspective. Logotherapy focuses on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in the future.”

Just as he lived, Frankl felt that the meaning of one’s life was to be found through action, experience, and (unavoidable) suffering.

You can’t discover the meaning of your life through endless navel-gazing, but by participating in the world, and nobody but you can find the meaning of your own, unique life.

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

Viktor Frankl

The second is that not all suffering is bad. To suffer unnecessarily is foolish, but suffering can sometimes point the way to a more positive path. When someone is depressed because of dissatisfaction at work, that dissatisfaction may simply be a signal for her to make changes in her life, and not a sign that she’s mentally ill.

Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.

Viktor Frankl

The third, and this connects with the second, is that sometimes there’s simply no way out of a hopeless situation. Frankl was clear that in the concentration camps, death was often inevitable.

And yet, when faced with a fate which we cannot change, we can still change ourselves in the midst of suffering, and find meaning in the doing.

And it’s in finding meaning — a purpose to which we can dedicate ourselves — that Frankl says is the key to staying resilient in the face of suffering. It’s vital to find something to draw us forward and give us faith for the future. Otherwise, we risk collapsing to our fears. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

And among us has not suffered? Who has not had to endure difficult conditions which we could not change? In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote that how we face these conditions is the very last — or I would say, the very first — of our human freedoms. To start over, remember Frankl’s words, forged in one of the darkest periods in human history:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.

Viktor Frankl

Bruce Lee and the Beginner’s Mind

Bruce Lee was a brash teenager when he first moved to America. Having studied gung-fu in Hong Kong, he opened a school in Oakland to teach whoever wanted to come.

That didn’t sit well with the gung-fu community, who thought that Chinese martial arts should only be taught to Chinese.

(To put this into perspective, it was 1964. The United States had just enacted the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, sex, and religion. Before the Act, segregation was still legal, with separate facilities for white and black races.)

The gung-fu community told Lee to stop teaching non-Chinese or fight a challenge. If Lee lost, he would close his school. If Lee won, he could teach anybody he wanted. Lee chose to fight.

On the day of the challenge, Lee tore into his opponent, who conceded defeat after three minutes1. Although he’d won, Lee was perturbed over how a match that should have been won in a minute had taken three.

Lee realized that his training methods had limited his performance. To improve, he would have to rethink everything.

It was time to start over.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This is how Shunryu Suzuki opens his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The beginner’s mind, or shoshin in Japanese, helps us to keep learning, even after years of familiarity.

Bruce Lee explored possibilities. At a time when martial arts were delineated between styles, Lee took from all of them: he blended fencing, gung-fu, and boxing, and started weightlifting.

The Jeet Kune Do symbol, which reads ‘having no way as way, having no limitation as limitation’.

He called his new philosophy Jeet Kune Do, from the Cantonese ‘way of the intercepting fist’, which he saw as a process of continual exploration:

So styles tend to separate man — because they have their own doctrines and the doctrine became the Gospel Truth that you cannot change! But, if you do not have styles, if you just say “here I am as a human being. How can I express myself totally and completely?” — now that way, you won’t create a style because style is a crystallization. That way is a process of continuing growth.

Bruce Lee

Lee later illustrated Jeet Kune Do in the climactic showdown of the film Way of the Dragon, in which he fights a martial artist played by Chuck Norris. 

At first, Norris has the upper hand. But after taking a beating, Lee adapts and changes his fighting tactics. Norris is unable to break out of his conditioned movements, and loses to Lee’s fluidity.

Nine years after winning the right to teach freely, Lee passed away at 32. Jeet Kune Do endures, with practitioners all over the world. Lee is remembered as a master martial artist today, but he was one unafraid to be a beginner again.

Tteuran, Seoul

The herbal tea was bitter, but it knocked life back into my tired bones, sip by sip. I stared at the small garden, not looking at anything, just letting myself still. I really liked it here.

Tteuran is a rustic teahouse, tucked away in an Ikseon-dong alley. It serves traditional Korean tea and snacks, inside of a Korean hanok. I visited when writing my travel photography guide in South Korea. Its owner, Kim Aeran, makes you feel right at home.

I learned about Tteuran from Robert Koehler’s article on Ikseon-dong, it was his gorgeous photographs that tempted me to visit. I’m glad I did.

How to get to Tteuran

South Korea isn’t well represented on Google Maps, and my GPS-tagged images are all over the map. But this address is roughly where Tteuran is.

South Korea, Seoul, Jongno-gu, Ikseon-dong, 166–76 뜰안

Tteuran takes a little effort to find, this is how I got there. I took two routes. On my first visit, I walked there after visiting the Bukchon Hanok Village.

  1. From Anguk Station Exit 4, walk down Samil-daero.
  2. Look for a corner pharmacy, this is where you take the left into a small alley.
  3. Walk straight, you will see an open-air carpark within five minutes. Tteuran is right in front of this carpark.
Walk into this alley when you see the corner pharmacy (it’s the one with the blue cross and bright orange signs).

On my second visit, I walked from Jongno 3 (sam)-ga Station, which was closer.

  1. From Jongno 3 (sam)-ga Station, take Exit 5 towards the Nakwon Music Arcade.
  2. Walk along Samil-daero, in the direction of Anguk Station. The Nakwon Music Arcade building should be on your left side.
  3. When you see the same corner pharmacy, take a right (if your back is facing Jongno 3 [sam]-ga Station) into the alley.
  4. Walk straight, you will see an open-air carpark within five minutes. Tteuran is right in front of this carpark, this is what it looks like from the outside.
This is what Tteuran looks like from the outside.

I think Tteuran is closed on Mondays. You can try dropping them a message on Facebook to check opening hours.

The Tiger and the Rabbit

My parents
My father as a young man in Paris
My father as a young man.

A friend once pointed to a photograph and asked when I’d been to Paris–but I’d never been. He was looking at a photo of my dad from the 1970s, when my father had gone to France as a young engineer.

I look just like him. We have the same high foreheads, sloping eyes, and sharp noses. We could be mistaken for each other in photographs, if not for either being young at the wrong time.

My dad was born in the year of the tiger, and he’s always been one to me: a fierce spirit living life with bold, leaping strides. As the years passed, those leaps have gotten shorter, but I still see the tiger inside.

Myself as a young man in Kyoto
I as a young man.

I wish his life has turned out better, but it hasn’t always been a bed of roses.

As I passed my 30s , my face filled out with a roundness my dad never had, but which resembles my mom’s.

My mom was born in the year of the rabbit, and her gentle soul reminds me of one. She’s the spirit of love; always giving. The years have turned her hair snowy white, but her generosity has never waned.

Even today, when I find her falling asleep in front of the TV more often, she still cooks her heart out whenever we all get together.

My mother as a young woman
My mother as a young woman.

I’ve come to know my parents as the people they are, and not the giants I imagined they were. They’ve inspired, disappointed, frustrated, and inspired me. They’ve loved me, and I’ve done my best to love them back.

For their courage, love, and generosity in the face of everything we’ve gone through, and for all we–their children–have put them through, I want to tell my parents that they are my heroes, now, and always.

I see the tiger and the rabbit every time I look in the mirror, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Fear and Creativity on the Nakasendo

I fought the Resistance for 10 days in Japan, for a photography project between HardwareZone and Canon.

I lumbered through the Nakasendo trail for hours with a weighty backpack, soaked in rain, to get one photo I loved. I marched with sore feet through the streets of Kyoto, until the one perfect image showed itself at the end of the evening light.

Magome, Japan

The journey wasn’t the enemy—I woke up everyday feeling like the luckiest person on Earth. It was pushing beyond my creative comfort zone that summoned the demons of Resistance for a brawl: self-doubt, fear, despondency.

What is the Resistance? In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield introduces the Resistance this way:

Most of us have two lives: the life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Resistance is the voice inside your head that whispers: “You’re not good enough. Who do you think you are? Don’t even try, you’ll only fail.”

(Or worse: “You can always start tomorrow.”)

Kyoto, Japan

I learned three things about the Resistance.

The first is it never goes away. Resistance has been with me for as long as I can remember. No matter how many rounds we go, Resistance returns. You are never out of this fight.

The second thing I’ve learned is that I’m not alone in this battle.

Even Joe McNally, a National Geographic photographer, struggles:

Know there will be days out there that feel like you’re trying to walk in heavy clothes through a raging surf. The waves knock you about like a tenpin, you have the agility of the Michelin Man, and you take five steps just to make the progress of one. The muck you are walking in feels like concrete about to set. Even the cameras feel heavier than normal as you lift them to your (on this day) unseeing eyes.

Joe McNally, Sketching Light

The third lesson is the Resistance can be beaten. Fear comes…and you can do the work anyway.

In Japan, I performed the same ritual at the end of each day. I ate dinner, reviewed the day’s photos, and flagged my spirits by watching videos of photographers at work.

Hearing them speak about their difficulties, and knowing I was not the only wrestling with problems, inspired me to face Resistance again the next day—to reach for the unlived life beyond it.

I Wrote a Book

HWM MegaGuide 3.0

HWM MegaGuide: Dig­i­tal Pho­tog­ra­phy 3.0 is the lat­est revi­sion to the MegaGuide which Hard­ware Mag­a­zine has been pub­lish­ing for the last six years. It is designed to help the begin­ner learn about her cam­era and how to take bet­ter pic­tures with com­po­si­tion basics like the rule of thirds, per­spec­tive, and color.

Nearly every­thing in MG 3.0 has been reor­ga­nized and rewrit­ten to be imme­di­ately prac­ti­cal, easy to under­stand, and beau­ti­ful to own.

Although much of the mate­r­ial is brand new, MG 3.0 builds on the foun­da­tion laid by the pre­vi­ous MegaGuides. I also worked with a first-rate team.

David Chieng and Augus­tine Tan were instru­men­tal at help­ing us gain clar­ity dur­ing the early plan­ning stages. Ken Koh took over the reins and defined the look of the book as well as con­tributed some of his amaz­ing pho­tographs for the book. Zachary Chan was the steady hand that guided it to pub­li­ca­tion. Hafeez Sim helped con­tribute a chap­ter. Angel Theng pro­vided essen­tial help at every stage. Jimmy Tang, our chief edi­tor, had the wis­dom to give us the space and time to make some­thing fantastic.

I had no idea just much I’d set myself up for, and how much writ­ing almost an entire book would con­sume my life. But if there’s one thing work­ing on this project showed me, it’s the power of a small tal­ented team to get great things done when given the space and sup­port to do so.

I’m remark­ably proud of what our team has accom­plished in the short time that we had. I hope you check out our book and that you find it use­ful.

My Friend the Monk

It’s been a couple of months since I visited my friend Phra Paiboon in the forest monastery of Wat Pa Don Hiay Soke. I’ve edited my video interview with him and I hope you enjoy it.

I had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with Phra Paiboon. We talked a lot, about Buddhism and life, and visited places off the beaten path. I met many friendly people, and I’m grateful for the experience.

Special Thanks

This video wouldn’t have been possible without three people. 

First, my friend Junming of Haroko Studio was the one who persuaded me to do it. 

Secondly, Jason of Brotherhood Films who taught me what I needed to know to film something, and generously lent me the equipment I needed. 

Thirdly, my fiancé, who was a hundred percent behind me going off for a week to a secluded village in Thailand. I can’t thank the three of them enough.

Special thanks to Phra Paiboon for agreeing to do this, and for the patience of everyone at Wat Pa Don Hiay Soke. Thanks too to the friends I made there; Sor and Zai, who helped me breach the language barrier, and kindly made sure I stayed fed.

Photographing Tokyo: 1 in 36

Tokyo, Japan

I heard the phrase “1 in 36” more than a decade ago. We shot in film with rolls of 36, and a photographer told me if he got 1 good image in 36, he could consider himself a good photographer.

I didn’t get it. Isn’t it the mark of a pro that every shot would be a great one? I started to understand when I looked through a veteran’s images straight off a shoot. It surprised me to see how bad a lot of them were. But the good ones were really good.

I shot over 6,000 photos during a 6-day trip to Tokyo, and out of those I have some I’m happy with, and a handful that I’m very happy with. Whenever I got discouraged in the field, telling myself “1 in 36” kept me going.

Keep Going

I’m back from a 2-week visit to Japan, where 6 days of that were training. I’ve been a student of the Bujinkan for the past 8-10 years, although while training in Japan I felt like I’d only started.

After one difficult session, I asked a fellow student for advice on the train home. He confided that he had also found the training difficult. This was someone who had trained for 20 years so his reply surprised me.

“That’s the beauty of this art,” he shared. “There’s no end to how much you can still learn. But that’s also why people stop training — they can’t take that feeling of becoming a beginner again and again.”

It’s this ability that characterizes the Bujinkan’s oft-repeated mantra: ‘keep going’. The Japanese character for nin, or ‘perseverance’, has the heart under a knife: 忍 No matter how many wounds you take, persevere.

After another class, a senior instructor said it was okay if we didn’t get everything he had taught that day.

“The most important point is to keep going.”

People create all their barriers for themselves. It’s really such a foolish thing to do. We create our own obstacles and lose our own way in the search for truth. So it represents no barrier for me now. All that it’s necessary to do when one faces a barrier is just keep walking, paying it no attention. Just keep going, keep walking, and the obstacles disappear! In my case, when I appear to be in trouble and I think I won’t make it, I just keep walking. And so it continues, even today.

Masaaki Hatsumi, The Grandmaster’s Book of Ninja Training