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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Whose narrative are you living your life according to?  Long ago I was quick to presume myself to be the exclusive author of my life story.   Upon further reflection I now realize that was an oversimplification on my part.  Like so many others, I have inherited stories that continue to shape my perception of things. 

Our life is a composition of many stories.  For instance, we each have a story that we tell ourselves surrounding family, friends, love, career, health and community.  These narratives inevitably shape so many of our life’s choices.

In his book, The Power of Story, Jim Loehr asserts the importance of conducting a full inventory and audit of our personal stories:

Individual and collective disasters happen when we don’t examine our story to see if it’s really ours anymore, when we don’t look hard to see if perhaps someone or something else has infiltrated it without our conscious knowledge or consent.  If you don’t activate your built-in bullshit detector, if you don’t start listening to your intuition, you make your evolving story vulnerable to hijacking, to rerouting, to programming.

Innovative thinkers and leaders of the world are those who think outside the box.  They see what many of us overlook because they carefully examine, question and reinvent what the majority take for granted.

This takes time and effort.  In Dale Carnegie’s book, The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking, he mentioned what Norman Thomas, an exceptional public speaker, had to say about the importance of investing plenty of time brooding over one’s topic:

“If a speech is to be of any importance at all, the speaker should live with the theme or message, turning it over and over in his mind.  He will be surprised at how many useful illustrations or ways of putting his case will come to him as he walks the streets, or reads a newspaper, or gets ready for bed, or wakes up in the morning.  Mediocre speaking very often is merely the inevitable and the appropriate reflection of mediocre thinking and the consequence of imperfect acquaintance with the subject in hand.”

Could not the same thing be said about our lives?   Would it not make sense to conclude that a mediocre life is the by-product of an imperfect acquaintance with oneself?   Since few of us will approach the creation of our lives as a professional speaker might compose a speech, deliberately meditating over every theme and refining each point, it should be no surprise that so few of us produce life stories worth recounting.

With this theme of life story in mind, I would like to make a case study of a certain incident in the life of Bruce Lee.   Though Bruce Lee became famous for his acting in American and Hong Kong movies, many serious students of martial arts recognize him for founding a revolutionary martial arts philosophy known as Jeet Kune Do (JKD). 

JKD incorporates many styles while being guided with the primary aim of delivering maximum impact with minimal effort.   Though Bruce Lee was trained in a traditional wing chun system of kung fu under the renowned master Sifu Yip Man, he came to develop his own non-traditional style.  What brought about the need in Bruce to develop such an innovative style and to eventually make such bold remarks:

A so-called martial artist is the result of three thousand years of propaganda and conditioning…Because one does not want to be disturbed, to be made uncertain, he establishes a pattern of conduct, of thought, a pattern of relationship to man. He then becomes a slave to that pattern and takes the pattern to be the real thing.

When Bruce co-founded the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute based on the wing chun system, he was issued a challenge from the Chinese community. Upset over his insistence on teaching Caucasians the secrets of their martial arts, they sent a challenger to fight him with an ultimatum that if he lost he would have to close his martial arts school or stop teaching Caucasians.  Bruce would not stand for being bullied by anyone and took on the challenger.   In The Bruce Lee Story, a biography of his life written by his wife, Linda Lee, she describes the fight in some detail.  Though Bruce won the fight, the incident had a profound effect on him.

Bruce’s whole life was an evolving process, and this has never been seen to greater effect than in his work with the martial arts.  The clash I have just described with the kung fu challenger from San Francisco caused Bruce to question his own personal expression of martial arts.  Until this battle, he had largely been content to improvise and expand on his original wing chun style but then he suddenly realized that although he won with comparative ease, his performance had been neither crisp nor efficient.  The fight, he realized, ought to have ended within a few seconds of him striking the first blow.  Instead, it had dragged on for three minutes.  In addition, at its conclusion Bruce had felt unusually winded, which proved to him that he was in a far from perfect physical condition. So he began to dissect the fight, seeking to find ways where he could have improved his performance.. Ultimately he concluded that the basis of wing chun was restrictive for him.  It placed too much importance on hand techniques, had very few kicking techniques and therefor was, essentially, partial.  Once he realized the physical limitations of the wing chun style, he began to branch out, to explore, to test new movements, to rethink the traditional styles.  He did not do this by jumping from style to style or instructor to instructor, but rather by searching inwardly for the best within himself, rejecting the unsuitable and retaining the appropriate. 

Most people if placed in Bruce’s position would have viewed the defeat of the Chinese kung fu challenger as an affirmation of their superiority.   Such success would only reinforce their confidence in their martial arts.  Why did Bruce have such a radically different reaction? Instead of exalting in his triumph, we find Bruce questioning himself.  He was aspiring for something far greater than victory.  Bruce wanted to find the easiest and quickest path to annihilating his opponent.  He sought a martial arts that would empower him to deliver maximum devastation with minimal effort.  His life story embodied the pursuit of excellence at all costs.  By dissecting the fight he won and looking for the deficiencies in his technique, conditioning and approach, Bruce was able to evolve beyond wing chun to give birth to Jeet Kune Do.

We don’t have to be blessed with any supernatural gifts to assert more power and influence over the narrative of our life stories.  All we truly need is to invest sincerity of time and effort in thinking, questioning and imagining new possibilities for ourselves.

Taking a hard look at our personal narratives will deepen our self-awareness of what is going on and put us in the empowered position of making different choices.  We have to know what is going on inside our minds before we can edit the storyline as we deem fit. 

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