Although Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) is best known for his legendary legacy in martial arts and film, he was also one of the most underappreciated philosophers of the twentieth century, instrumental in introducing Eastern traditions to Western audiences. A philosophy major in college, he fused ancient ideas with his own singular ethos informed by the intersection of physical and psychological discipline, the most famous manifestation of which is his water metaphor for resilience.
Early in his career, Lee was systematically sidelined by Hollywood’s studio system, which operated with extreme racial bias and still used white actors in yellowface to portray Asian characters based on flat stereotypes. Over and over, Lee was told in no uncertain terms that white audiences simply wouldn’t accept an Asian man as a lead character in a movie.
Even when he finally broke through and was cast as a lead, the studios continued to treat him as a brainless robot, there to entertain with his kung-fu skills. When they tried to cut all the philosophy out of Enter the Dragon because they wanted a vacantly entertaining action movie, Lee refused to go on set for two weeks, insisting that the kung-fu and the philosophy were inextricably entwined, each the vehicle for the other. Hollywood eventually had to relent and it was precisely the philosophical dimension that rendered the movie — just before the release of which Lee met his untimely death — a cultural icon and a beacon of racial empowerment associated with the Black Power movement, later acquired by the Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” artifact.
Lee saw philosophy as inseparable from everyday life, just as he saw the mind as inseparable from the body, each end of the battery constantly charging the other. He recorded his rigorous workout routine alongside his philosophical meditations, which he fleshed out in the course of living. Like Oliver Sacks, who carried a notebook everywhere, Lee always had a tiny 2×3″ pocketbook with him, which he filled with everything from training regimens to the phone numbers of his pupils (who included trainees like Chuck Norris and Steve McQueen) to poems, affirmations, and philosophical reflections. Even his handwriting, meticulously neat and measured to fit the tiny page, radiates Lee’s formidable discipline and orderliness.
But perhaps the most notable portion of his pocketbooks — or day timers, as they were called — were his affirmations, reminiscent of the rules of conduct Nobel laureate André Gide penned in his youthful journal and of artist Eugène Delacroix’s diaristic self-counsel. In these notes to himself, Lee articulated his personal philosophies aimed concretely at his own growth but resonating with universally applicable insight into our common psychology, behavior, and human nature.
With special permission from the Bruce Lee estate, here is an exclusive look at several pages from his 1968 pocketbook, penned shortly before Lee’s twenty-eighth birthday, each transcribed below, beginning with Napoleon Hill’s “Daily Success Creed,” which Lee copied into his notebooks: