Be Like Water


Bruce Lee - Be Like Water

Life is full of resistance.  There are obstacles and barriers all trying to keep you away from reaching your dreams and goals.

My advice to you is this: be like water.

Well, it’s actually not my advice.  The source for this comes from a forty year old interview with martial arts star Bruce Lee.

Most people know Bruce Lee for his fighting prowess, but he was also a big proponent of Eastern philosophy.  Cobbling together various aspects of Taoism, Confucianism and just about anything else he could read, he pulled together a life philosophy that was uniquely his own.

This approach was reflected in his fighting style called Jeet Kune Do.  It relied on experimentation to get results.  Basically Bruce Lee would incorporate any styles or moves into his own that worked.  If they didn’t work, he’d get rid of them.

I find this philosophy fascinating because it works in most areas of life.  Learn what’s useful, leave out the rest.  Don’t waste your time and energy on things that won’t help you achieve your goals.

Here’s the full quote from that interview:

“Be like water making its way through cracks.  Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it.  If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.  Empty your mind, be formless.  Shapeless, like water.  If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.  You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle.  You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot.  Now, water can flow or it can crash.  Be water my friend.”

– Bruce Lee

I’ve found a lot of useful aspects to his philosophy just from the quote above.

“Be like water making its way through the cracks.”

No matter where you go or what you want to do, you’ll face obstacles.  That’s a universal truth about life.  The trick to doing more in life is to not stop just because you come headfirst into a barrier – the trick is to find a crack in those barriers so you can get around them.

Water is formless.  It’s so shapeless that it can fit into the tiniest cracks.  When you reach your barriers, you have to find that crack, no matter how small it is, and squeeze your way through it.

Seize opportunities that come your way, no matter how small they seem to be.  Sometimes all you need is the tiniest crack to reach your full potential.

“Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object and you shall find a way round or through it.”

Be someone who is always learning, always changing.  Becoming a better you takes subtle change and adjustment.

It’s not about compromise – it’s about finding the best path in life.

Keep in mind the old idiom of someone trying to “put a square peg into a round hole”.  Success might mean ditching the square peg and trying something else.

Love experimentation.  Learn to hold on to what works and avoid what doesn’t.

“Empty your mind, be formless.”

Wisdom is a formless state of mind.  It comes with emptying your mind of all pre-conceived notions about the world, other people and especially yourself.

Rid yourself of useless thinking – negative thoughts, unnecessary worrying and doubt.  These thoughts are rigid and will only weigh you down.

Open your mind to all possibilities and options.  Water is shapeless and will flow in any direction it’s given.  A shapeless mind thinks in open possibilities, not rigid impossibilities.

This will help you think clearly.  It will help clear your head in order to make better decisions.  You will flow naturally to the direction you want your life to go.

“Water can flow or it can crash.”

It’s water’s nature to be formless, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful.  One minute it can be flowing along, but the next it can be crashing against you in powerful waves.

That’s the beauty of water.  It has a calm pleasing nature to it, but has a unique strength all its own.

When you slide your hand into water, it will smoothly wrap itself around your hand.  If you slap the water, it will feel hard and push back.

That’s the way water is.  It’s soft enough to let calm, peaceful people into its gentle waves, but is powerful enough to push back those who try to cause it harm.

With shapelessness comes power.

Think of Life as an Experiment

There’s a beauty to Bruce Lee’s philosophy.  Something powerful about it resonates with me.

Whenever I seem to have trouble, I think about what Bruce Lee said and I meditate on water.  Usually my problems are a result of being too rigid or closing myself to possibilities.

Then I remember to be shapeless like water.

Empty my mind like water.  Be formless, not rigid.

Water is always changing form.  You could spend hours looking into the ocean and never see the waves ceasing.  The ocean is always changing shape, adapting to its situation and adjusting to its surroundings.

Water is a powerful force of nature.

As Bruce Lee would say, “Be water my friend.”
photo credit: Kevin Bluer

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  1. I love how you broke this quote down. It’s one of my favorites, mostly because I’ve always been fascinated with water. I love how it looks flowing, and how it’s ever changing. It’s true that we always hit obstacles and going around or through them is the only way to progress, just as water does.

    One day I hope to truly embrace this philosophy and apply it to my life more than I have.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Applying it takes practice. I’ve been thinking about this quote for a while and seeing and seeing how I can bring it into my daily routine.

  2. That’s so true. Water will always find a way through by using the path of least resistance.

    We often make life too difficult for ourselves but this is a reminder that all we have to do is relax and live for the moment.

  3. Love this, Steve. It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha: ‘Water can carve its way, even through stone.
    And when trapped,water makes a new path.’

    It really is about experimenting, adapting,and not taking no for an answer!

    But it’s also about reflecting, acknowledging setbacks and using that wisdom to move forward. Not so easy to do in the face of every day tasks.

    • I’ve learned a lot from experimentation. You try something new, examine what works and what doesn’t and learn as much as possible. It’s a useful way to live.

  4. Love the bit about experimentation. Too often we sit and plan and analyse where a bit real world action and having a go will do us more good.

    • Planning will only do so much. It takes real world action and experimentation to see what truly works. I used to spend too much time in the planning stage over analyzing things, but that can lead to paralysis. Eventually you just need to do it and see what happens.

  5. GREAT post, Steve!

    Ofc, I am biased. I’m a huge Bruce Lee fan.

    “This approach was reflected in his fighting style called Jeet Kune Do. It relied on experimentation to get results”

    — When I was 14-17 I practiced JKD. We said the maxim at the end of each training session. Part of that maxim was the phrase: “…adapt what is useful; Disregard that which is useless”

    It’s funny how much impact certain things can have on your life.

    • That’s really cool that you practiced JKD. I wish I would have tried it when I was young, but I’ve only lately been getting into Bruce Lee and his philosophy. I have to say that he’s opened my eyes and had a positive impact on my life. If you have recommendations of anything he’s done that I should check out, let me know.

  6. wonderful post my friend! I personally love the idea of water and becoming more productive (my area of interest). Reminds me of a quote from David Allen, where he talks about how your ideal mental state is like that of water:

    “Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact. … Anything that causes you to overreact or under react can control you, and often does. Responding inappropriately to your email, your staff, your projects, your unread magazines, your thoughts about what you need to do, your children, or your boss will lead to less effective results than you’d like.”

    • I like that quote. It reminds me of what Bruce Lee was saying here.

      It’s definitely true that anything that causes you to overreact or under react can control you. It’s at least affecting you which means it has some sort of power over you. If you remain calm and let less things affect you, you’ll be a lot more calmer.

  7. Reading a lot of leadership books and my own experience leading I’ve learned the importance of having a soft and hard side. The key is to learn to know which side to bring out in each situation, and which side our people really need at the time to better help them. Great post!

  8. Nice, I like it.


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  2. […] can be frustrating and lead to anger as you struggle against the new situation in front of you. “Be like water” as Bruce Lee put it, being adaptable enough to fit into the changes that will surely […]

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