“Absorb what is useful, Discard what is not, Add what is uniquely your own.”
Bruce Lee once said the above quote, and from what I have been able to read about its origins, he was referring to martial arts training. However, I find it to be very powerful, and applicable to any area of life.
What this quote means to me
To me, what the quotes says is to learn from as many different sources you can, but understand that not all you learn might be correct, or at least right for you, and combine the useful things into what works for you.
I like this because I have always been impatient by nature, and I have always looked for ways to get as much output as possible out of as little as possible. Now, don´t read this as me being lazy, I mean this in the sense of trying to get as much out of my efforts as possible, not so I can put in less effort, but as I can put in a lot of effort and get more out of it than the other guy putting in the same amount of effort.
This has often gotten me to try and find books or other material by “gurus” in different fields, and consume it with the idea that if I apply exactly what they write, I will succeed in whatever I am trying to do at that moment, because that is what happened to the writer of the book or material. I have, often the hard way, learnt that that is not the case however, and the right way to go about learning something new, or succeeding in something new, is to learn from many different sources, try out different things yourself, and with a combination of the things learnt through study and experience, build your own way.
Another important thing I think Bruce Lee says with this quote, is that you should always be critical to what you are shown or taught by any one source. You might have immense trust in one source, but you should still be critical of everything that comes from that source, so your trust doesn´t blind you from seeing and discarding that which is not truly useful. Even if a piece of advice or learning is well meant, and coming from a close and trusted source that has helped you many times before, many different circumstances might play a role in why it does not apply to you this time, and blindly following it might cause you a disservice.
Be your own
Another very important message in this quote is, to me, that it tells you to go your own way, as opposed to following in everybody else´s footsteps. It tells you to learn from everyone before you, but improve on it and do something new with it. I find this to be immensely important, and something that is maybe often lost in a world of idolizing and wishing to be our heroes. Often we look at our idols and wish we had what they have, wish we were them. There are a few problems in this, one is that we wish to be someone, based on the limited knowledge we have of only a very small part of their lives, but that is for a completely separate discussion. The other is that we wish we were someone who already exists, instead of being our own, thus denying our own identity.
It is important to note that, what I am saying here is not that if you just look at 10 different pop stars, you will become one yourself. What I am saying is that instead of sitting at home watching YouTube videos of your favourite star, wishing you were them, you should study, and study immensely, 10 different instead, try to learn about their background, their struggles, the path they have taken, how they ended up there and everything else you can, and then start applying the best you have learned from each of them in your own unique way. That will get you a lot closer to becoming a star yourself.
Learn from as many sources as you can
What I have also found myself, and which I believe this quote also indirectly says, is that you should always try and learn from many different sources, including sources that might not immediately be linked to whatever you are studying or trying to succeed in at that given moment. An example of this could be, that if you are looking to improve your focus and discipline, maybe because you want to be better at studying to prepare for exams, interesting sources for you to study could be as diverse as Buddhist monks and long distance runners, or other endurance athletes. You might find that starting to practice meditation or intermittent fasting will help you. Or maybe the path for you is to learn to set your goals and targets in a different way.
Another good reason to branch out is that, more often than not, the traits that make some people good or exceptional in a certain field tend to be similar, despite the fields they operate in are very different. Now, don´t take me wrong, if you want to be good at playing football, you shouldn´t be looking at a tennis player playing tennis. But if you want to learn how to stay motivated, how to stay disciplined, learn good habits for effectiveness, what and how to eat, when and how to train, etc., there are many places outside of football where you could look, including at how the top Tennis players live their lives.
Accept that sometimes you have to discard it all
Another thing, which I think this quote touches on is that you might end up in a learning situation where none of it is applicable to you. You might read a book, study a great achiever in a certain field, do a course or watch a Ted talk where absolutely none of it is useful, which is absolutely fine, and in itself, also a form of learning. You don´t have to assume you can extract something out of everything, actually often you cannot, as the one teaching you might have motives for misleading you, be in a situation so different to yours that it can´t be applied to you or simply not be qualified to be a teacher in this area. The beauty in executing what Bruce Lee advocates in his quote, is to know exactly what to absorb, and what to discard, and sometimes this is all of it.
Just because many seem to agree, doesn´t mean that they are right
Important to note is also that the more different sources you choose to study, the better, as the more different viewpoints you get, and the bigger the chance of you drawing parallels and being able to apply some of it yourself. However, even when having a lot of different learning sources, be critical and wary of all of them, as they might all be wrong, and a danger is, if they seem to echo the same thing, you might not notice it. An example of this could be the Anti wax movement, a very interesting phenomenon where there are a bunch of people who have a lot of trust and credibility, but from entirely different areas, go out and have strong opinions on something, and more or less echo the same opinions, and thereby manage to convince a large group of people that what they say is right. There are a lot of American actors who are very outspoken against vaccines, saying it amongst many other ills, cause autism. And because there are a lot of these famous people, that many like and trust, and they echo the same, many choose to believe them. This is very interesting for many reasons, especially because people seems to believe these stars, despite them not being qualified in any way to speak out on these matters, over countless doctors, researchers and scientists who unanimously say the opposite, maybe except for a few nutcases. In fact, they keep saying, and every study keeps proving, that vaccines are important, do not cause autism and that this sudden resistance to them has brought back otherwise extinct diseases, such as polio.
So, it doesn´t matter how much you branch out, if you consistently only seek the advice of people who are not qualified to teach you on a certain matter, you are likely to receive poor learning.
Look for sources that disagree with you
It is also important when studying, look not only for different people from different areas and professions but also actively looking for people of different background and opinions to yourself. If you constantly look for people who share your opinion, you are never going to learn anything new, and you might just be reinforced in wrong ideas you already have. The internet, that gives everybody a voice, and especially lately with the dramatic rise in “fake news”, this has become ever more important. No matter what you search for in Google, you will find countless sources that agree with you, but that does not mean it is true. This is where it is important to actively study both sides of the subject, and be good at understanding what and who to trust, and who and what to not.
Add to the pool of sources
The last piece of advice I can deduct from this quote is that Bruce Lee thought of learning from many and then building your own unique way. By doing so, you then also add a new unique source of learning for other people to study, instead of simply replicating an already existing source of learning.
You are adding another source of learning from new people learning in the future.
Thank you for reading,
(I wrote a short summary of this and posted it on Medium. You can find that version here)