I don't have Bruce Lee's book, so maybe I just need more context about what he meant.

But as both a student and instructor, I'm bemused by the possibilities from this oft-quoted saying. What does it mean, and when is it intended to be used? Or should it?

To me, it would seem a student new to the arts should not be distracted by the outlet of "discard what is not useful / add what is your own" as a means to justify adding something not intended to be part of the style, or to allow bad habits to creep in.

Unless... that is exactly what was meant?

I often see students give up on a technique they get confounded on; rather than plow through, it seems they take the easier path to discard it as not being useful (to them). This sounds wrong for many reasons, but it surely can't be for the purpose of "adding what is uniquely your own" or "it's just not useful".

I also note that some styles - notably Kukkiwon Taekwondo (see: Olympics) and many Karate styles are so uber-focused on their forms (kata) that there never appears to be room for adding what is your own. Indeed, a foot turned this way or that is grounds for losing points - so there is no apparent room for what is uniquely your own. Perhaps, this is not area where such philosophy was intended?

4 Answers 4


Fighting Specialization: Everyone cannot excel at everything

Ultimately, you do not need many techniques to win a fight. What is the point of studying all of the kicks if you only need a handful, and learning all of them distracts from becoming good at a few? You are better off specializing in the handful of techniques and becoming proficient in them.

Transmission v. origination

Some martial artists follow the model that the founder has gifted a unique, complete system that must be studied in perpetuity to understand its nuance and perfection.

Transmission is never perfect. Your teacher probably did not master all techniques equally, and now they have the task of transmitting this knowledge to you. You will also not master everything your teacher did. And likewise, your students won't either.

How do we ever make collective progress instead of failing to live up to the standards of the last generation? You have to perform your own research and contribute something your own.

Bruce Lee was not a fan of forms

Bruce Lee felt forms were too restrictive, and there were better ways to learn. He discarded forms because he did not find them useful and his system Jeet Kune Do was intentionally designed without forms. Bruce Lee's approach to martial arts is similarly followed by mixed-martial arts today: take the best elements you can find from different sources and put them together to (what is useful), discard what is not (forms, dead techniques), and make a new system.

In/out of style

I think Bruce Lee would answer that useful things are in the style, and non-useful things are not. The hangup of whether things are in the style or not mean you are already constricted by form.

Bruce Lee developed Jeet Kune Do but wished he didn't have a name for it!

Because the very words, Jeet Kune Do, already indicate that it's another martial arts form

Any form or style does restrict and his belief is now in conflict

From Bruce Lee's Fighting Method: Advanced Techniques by Bruce Lee and M. Uyehara, Ohara Publications, Santa Clarita, California 1977.

Training for beginners

I don't know how beginners were supposed to be trained under this philosophy. My guess is students are basically supposed to try many things and see what sticks. Teachers need to have studied sufficiently broadly to have many things for the students to try out.


I think what Bruce Lee and those who have said similar things both before and after him are getting at is that it's a process, not a set product. Through this process, you take what seems to work "better" at the time you're testing it, and you discard the "worse" which came before.

At any point in that journey, you can never say you've found the ultimate set of techniques which are the best in absolute terms, because it necessarily depends on you as an individual and everything you've experienced prior to arriving at this point in time. And it's also because you're limited as a human being. You can't explore everything there is. Your knowledge will never be complete.

That's what Jeet Kune Do is supposed to be. It's a process. It's not a rigid set of techniques culled from Bruce Lee's investigation into martial arts. Or at least, it shouldn't be.

Bruce Lee famously began with Wing Chun kung-fu as his foundation, but gradually, as he learned more about other fighting styles, little by little he put each piece under the microscope and determined that there were better techniques and strategies for dealing with fighting in different scenarios. He held on to the last tiny pieces of Wing Chun until there was nothing left to hold. He simply found better answers than Wing Chun offered.

Wing Chun, on the other hand, was someone else's answer at some point in their martial arts journey. It was simply better than what came before.

Now on to your question about how this philosophy fits in with beginners and not just people who are already quite skilled. The answer is hopefully a little more clear now. To a beginner, everything seems better. They begin with whatever style they want. But if they apply the philosophy of Jeet Kune Do, they will grow beyond the bounds of that first style they learned.

Eventually, after a lot of experience and careful analysis, an individual who goes through this process may come to realize that there is no style which has all the answers and which is best at everything. Because after all, what is a style but a collection of techniques, ideas, and strategies that someone put together? We're all finite and therefore limited. So styles should also be limited.

As for MMA, it is perhaps the best example of Jeet Kune Do in practice today, albeit with a focus on sport instead of survival. Anyone who has watched it progress from UFC 1 to today has seen a real evolution at work. At first, anyone who knew ground fighting could win. Since then we've seen fighters being able to dominate using a striking style derived from traditional martial arts. We've seen the rise of wrestling's influence. We've seen boxing's influence. We've seen muay thai's influence. We've seen some Capoeira. We've seen San Da kung-fu. We've seen Judo. We've even seen some practical use of Taekwondo.

Each fighter is taking bits and pieces of other things they've learned and putting it to the test in MMA. Sometimes it catches on, and for a while everyone seems to go out and learn those techniques. It's because people see how it can give them an advantage in some circumstances.

What can we say about techniques in absolute terms? Must we always speak of a particular individual's use of the technique, rather than considering the merits of the technique on its own? In other words, can we say there are better techniques and worse techniques?

The answer is yes, we can say some techniques are better than others on their own merits, but let's qualify that.

We know from MMA that there are "low percentage" techniques. These are techniques that are seldomly used in MMA and do not score very reliably. But that in and of itself doesn't mean that they're inferior techniques. It could just mean that nobody is skilled enough in those techniques to be able to use them.

Yes and no. There are reasons why you don't see, for example, a lot of people doing the outer-wrist throw, and it's not because there are no former black belt Aikido practitioners doing MMA. There are. It's just that this particular technique first requires that you catch someone's hand while they aren't tensed up, while they aren't flailing said hand, and while they aren't doing something to you which requires your attention, all while letting you do the throw instead of attacking you or tensing up their arm. Needless to say, this is completely unrealistic and unlikely to occur in a real MMA fight.

But don't take my word or anyone's word for that matter. Put it to the test yourself. That's what Bruce Lee did. You have to actively try it on live, fully resisting opponents. The more the better. This is called "pressure testing". You'll learn quickly if it works or not.

There just aren't a lot of opportunities that come up in a fight whereby the outer-wrist throw can be used successfully.

Judo has something similar to say about this. The way Judo organizes its throws in terms of which ones you learn first is very practical. They teach the most effective throws first. What does that mean? Are some throws more powerful than others? No. That's not what they mean by "effective" in this case. Instead, they mean that the throws you learn first are the ones that apply in the most situations you'll encounter in real life. The throws you learn last will be throws that you can only use in special, less frequent circumstances.

In other words, it's about opportunity. Which is another way of saying probability.

So this all comes down to what is "probably" going to be the most effective way of spending our time, given that we all have a limited amount of time to live our lives. We will never know for certain what's best in absolute terms, but we can use our intuition, experience, and reasoning skills to determine what makes the most sense for our own selves at any given moment in our lives.

Hope that helps.


While Steve and Mattm's answer are excellent and do a great job of putting the quote into the context of Bruce Lee's life, I would like to add my take on it.

Bruce Lee's quote is not aimed at beginners (aka 2/3 years of training) but at those that already learned the basics of an art (whatever that art is, shodan or 3/4 years of training) and are now branching outwards. It is about about shuhari (守破離), mostly the later parts of ha (破) detach/digress and ri (離) leave/separate. It is about yourself finding your own way and incorporating into your repertoire of weapons. It is not to be shackled by the dogma of the art but keep it efficient and useful for yourself.

In Shodokan Aikido, we have randori-ho which is a training method leading from very easy avoidance to full on competition through many stages. It is there to teach students what of the many kata techniques they know (and must learn rigidly) work for them. Some chose one over an other because it feels right. Because one is practising with increasing resistance, one must get better at understanding what the technique is about which is what kata teaches.

Bruce Lee would advise to take what works and leave the rest -- as per the quote. He would probably advise to look for weaknesses in Aikido and find an art that complement it: kicks, punches, elbows, ground work, knife work, whatever…


Absord means to use a martial art block what is useful means to use that martial art block to open up with counter attack. Just like using forced moves in a chess game...

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    I hope you don't feel too discouraged by how often your posts seem to be getting downvoted. We have our own particular standards around here, and the relative quiet of the site has resulted in it largely being populated by the most invested members. Feel free to join us to chat at chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/79444/open-roda. We're not around all the time, but a handful of us check around on a vaguely daily basis and you can always flag someone by using the "@" notation. Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 12:45
  • Thank you. I was beginning to think those comments and down votes were created by bad bots. Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 13:29
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    As the site documentation reminds us, "comments are not the place for discussion", so I'd be glad to talk on the chat. But long story short, your answers need a bit more substance and background to them, rather than personal anecdote (and possibly a bit more proofreading). Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 13:55

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