Many regard him as the greatest martial arts master of all time. Look at any picture or video of Bruce Lee and you will see powerful, intense focus staring back at you. Bruce Lee’s approach to focusing his mind offers timeless lessons to help you perform at a new level of excellence.
He passed away nearly 50 years ago. He was only 32 and had starred in just a handful of action films. And yet, if you start a conversation today about martial arts, Bruce Lee will likely be the first name mentioned. Hundreds of martial arts films have been produced since Bruce Lee died in 1973, and yet it is Lee we think of almost exclusively when we think of that genre.
His unique style inspired several generations of martial artists and even boxers like Sugar Ray Leonard. He is widely believed to have changed how Hollywood depicted Asians. He is credited with being the “father of mixed martial arts.”
How did one person, whose movie career spanned less than five years, and who died so young, have such an outsized impact? Lee was, by all accounts, a supremely skilled martial artist. His physical feats are legendary. But behind his physical prowess was an approach to focus and mental discipline that set him apart from the crowd.
We can learn a lot about how to focus better by studying tried-and-true focusing techniques. We can learn even more by observing how the greats employed focus in their own lives to scale heights others could scarcely imagine.
Bruce Lee left behind numerous clues as well as explicit statements about how to use your mind optimally. They point to five general principles of focus that separate the greats from everyone else:
1. Focus is Your Superpower
Lee’s underlying philosophy was that the development of your mental focus, far more than native ability, will determine your level of success. He famously said,
“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.”
Neuroscientists now confirm from research what Lee knew from experience. Daniel Levitin, in his book, The Organized Mind, writes that “Even the smartest mind can’t beat the organized mind.” We all know people who had tremendous potential but could never quite get their act together. Meanwhile, others with more modest abilities somehow rose far higher than expected by using the abilities they did possess in a focused way.
Bruce Lee wasn’t merely talented. He trained with relentless focus. If you watch his films, you see a man whose mind is as fully present as his body is physically quick.
Your native abilities are what they are. You’re not going to move the needle at all by wishing you had more natural ability than you do. But it is entirely in your power to greatly magnify your abilities under the lens of constant and powerful focus.
Bruce Lee’s level of focus doesn’t come naturally. It must be earned. Lee himself worked hard at it. If you adopt his underlying philosophy that your level of focus will determine your success, you may be surprised at how far you can go.
2. To Access Your Superpower,
You Must Focus Very Deliberately
It's not enough to be able to focus. You must focus selectively on the small number of things that truly matter: As Lee put it so well:
“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.”
This is the principle that separates the best of the best from everyone else. Do just a few things, but do them really, really well. In martial arts, the application of this principle is obvious. The one who has practiced the same kick numerous times with unwavering focus during each repetition will be far more formidable than his opponent who did a lot of repetitions without his mind being fully present.
The same principle applies to everything else. Make a point of deliberately focusing whenever you are learning new information or a new skill. Bring all of your mind to bear intently on each repetition. You’ll find yourself making far more progress in far less time.
3. “Walk On” No Matter What
One of the lesser-known events of Bruce Lee’s life was his debilitating back injury. In 1969, years before making the films that made him famous, Lee severely injured a sacral nerve during a training session. The doctors told him his martial arts career was over, and he might never walk normally again.
Lee was confined to his bed the better part of a year. He took the opportunity to learn everything he could about his injury and develop his own path to recovery. He also wrote a lot during this time, creating the basis for what was to become his unique style of marital arts, and refining his underlying mental approach, which included looking within to overcome challenges rather than viewing external circumstances as the problem.
One day while bedridden, Lee wrote, “Walk on” on the back of his business card, and then placed the card in his line of vision as a constant reminder to keep working on recovering no matter what.
The pain in his back never fully went away, and did limit him in certain respects (he required a stuntman double for somersaults). And yet, despite medical experts insisting he could no longer kick, his movies amply attest that he did kick – and quite a lot more.
The exceptional in many fields often encountered seemingly impossible obstacles on their way to being exceptional. Like Lee, they “walked on,” focusing within to move forward.
4. Real Focus Requires Flexibility
What becomes apparent when watching Bruce Lee is that his focus was not simply intense, but also broad and flexible. He described this multi-faceted focus beautifully:
“Bring the mind into sharp focus and make it alert so it can immediately intuit truth, which is everywhere. The mind must be emancipated from old habits, prejudices, restrictive thought process and even ordinary thought itself.”
Notice that the first sentence describes the intense focus that Lee is known for. That is the prerequisite. To excel in anything, we must first become intensely aware of the present moment and all that is contained within it.
But that is only the prerequisite. To excel at the highest level, we must do what Lee describes in the second sentence. We find our own best and most authentic path by becoming aware of what exists beyond our own self-imposed constraints and how others think things must be done. Again, Lee in his own words:
“Research your own experience. Absorb what is useful. Reject what is useless. Add what is essentially your own. “
Lee exemplified this way of focusing in his own approach to martial arts. He never actually became a master in any one specific martial arts form. Instead, he developed his own form – called Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist) – which consisted of techniques he found useful from multiple martial arts disciplines as well as new techniques he developed.
Intense focus formed the backdrop which allowed him to then move beyond everyone else by looking at martial arts open-endedly rather than through an established, pre-determined method.
5. Your Limits Are Mostly Determined By
How You Focus on Them
This is the principle that ties it all together. Underlying the Jeet Kune Do form of martial arts that Lee created is the principle of “using no way as way; having no limitation as limitation.”
Once you are focusing intensively and persistently and thinking broadly and flexibly as outlined in the first four steps, the next and final step is to approach your task with a sense of being limitless. The concept of limits was not part of Lee’s thinking.
Surely, there have been martial artists with comparable physical ability and conditioning. What moved Lee to a different level was that he approached everything he did with the sense that anything and everything was possible.
True, you do have some limits. We all do. However, by approaching your work as if you don’t, and always assuming there is a way to move forward, reach higher, perform better – you will discover far fewer true limits. You will find solutions you otherwise would never have considered possible or even noticed.
That’s how Lee went on to be a great martial artist after the doctors told him it was impossible. It’s how he did everything he did.
To be clear, this is a far deeper concept than the stereotypical self-help mantras of “You can do it!” “Think positive” and the like. Lee was describing a wholly different paradigm for how we focus on our work and ourselves.
His new paradigm invites you to consider that there is something on the other side of what you perceive to be a limit, and to search for the inner resources to reach the other side. Or in Lee's own words:
“If you always put a limit on everything you do, physical or anything else it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”
We may not all become the Bruce Lee of our own area of endeavor. But by modeling Lee’s approach to a focused life you will begin to move beyond the plateaus and find yourself on the other side of what you previously thought were immovable limits.
For more information and inspiration on Bruce Lee, check out these resources at the Bruce Lee Foundation.