Do you feel let down by all the advice—books, articles, interviews, podcasts—from and about successful people? Of course you do. These people have an additional 10, 20, 30 years’ experience—even if you’re the same age. You can’t make up the difference by reading a few articles. You have to invest years of time and cultivate the right habits. But here’s the thing about habits: They are both causes and effects.
Take Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, who is known to start his day at 3:45 a.m. Maybe he has always woken up at this hour, and eventually that habit played a role in his achieving his current position. Or perhaps it’s a habit after the fact; simply a coping mechanism to stay on top of his 800 emails per day. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. Cook rose through the ranks and changed his alarm so he would rise earlier. Little by little, one day at a time. Sometimes it may have been a preemptive move and other times a more reactive one.
Life isn’t a straight line. Most relationships are bilateral. Two things that are connected tend to influence one another. It’s rarely as simple as X leads to Y. We see Banksy shredding their own painting and wish we had the courage to pull a creative stunt like that. But maybe bold Banksy is the result of hundreds of much smaller, less significant creative acts. Maybe Y led to X.
Our advice culture has imposed a singular, narrow view on a question that has as many answers as there are people on this planet: How should you live? This view is like looking at an iceberg through a telescope. You see only what’s on the surface, but it’s a focused picture, so you think you are seeing everything. The view confuses specificity for entirety. With habits, there is no entirety. You have to keep adapting, honing, changing.
There is no one uniform set of habits that leads to success. It has never existed and it never will. We can find many unique habit sets that correlate to success, but that doesn’t mean any one has a higher cause-to-effect ratio than another. Plus, whatever set you choose will continue to change and evolve. Instead of listening to the people who hand us a telescope, we must think independently. We must look at ourselves.
Striking Thoughts is a compendium of 825 aphorisms from Bruce Lee. It’s a collection because, unlike many sources of advice, Lee didn’t believe it was necessary to follow one correct set of ideas in order to live a good life:
Independent inquiry is needed in your search for truth, not dependence on anyone else’s view or a mere book.
This may sound daunting, as we tend to want simple solutions to difficult problems, but according to Bruce, neither actually exists. There are only questions and answers, both of which are hard-won products of thinking, and neither can provide universal solutions that last forever.
In science, all hypotheses must be falsifiable. If you can’t disprove a claim, you can’t test it. Even the best theories are just constructs made of hypotheses, waiting to be proven wrong, waiting for you to provide evidence that will make them collapse.
In our lives, that evidence is mistakes. A mistake is valuable because it falsifies a prior assumption. Unlike a successfully cultivated behavior that may or may not lead you where you want to go, a mistake gives you a single raw point of actual data as to what not to do. Mistakes make you think.
What’s unfortunate about mistakes is that you have to make them. The only way to the data leads through failure. There is no way around this. We will all make many mistakes in our lifetimes. What differentiates us is whether we’re willing to learn from them. Are we willing to think? To sit with the mistake until we’ve extracted the data?
Lee describes the archetype of the person willing to think in “The Parable of the Butcher”:
There was a fine butcher who used the same knife year after year, yet it never lost its delicate, precise edge. After a lifetime of service, it was still as useful and effective as when it was new. When asked how he had preserved his knife’s fine edge, he said: “I follow the line of the hard bone. I do not attempt to cut it, nor to smash it, nor to contend with it in any way. That would only destroy my knife.” In daily living, one must follow the course of the barrier. To try to assail it will only destroy the instrument.
In other words, never learn the same lesson twice. You will only lose your edge.
The simplest way for a child to learn not to touch a hot stove is to touch a hot stove. The pain is powerful and immediate, and so is the lesson, but it also leads to a burned hand. If you hold your hand just above the stove, your hand might still hurt, but you’ll learn the lesson without burning it. This is following the course of the barrier.
To a certain extent, you can learn from other people’s mistakes. You can think about their burned hands and extract some data. But the further you move away from your own life, your own circle, the higher your hand lingers above the stove. At some point, you won’t feel any heat, so you can’t learn. While it’s better to study the failures of the people around you than the successes of distant or unknown people, nothing beats independent inquiry. Gather your own data. Falsify your hypotheses. Dare to make mistakes.
In his introduction to Lee’s book, John Little notes that we are encouraged—and often choose—to look outside ourselves, to anyone but ourselves, to find answers to our biggest questions. He points to one of Bruce’s aphorisms: “We have more faith in what we imitate than in what we originate.”
When it comes to the premier human inquiry, the issue of how we should live, imitation isn’t just a terrible answer. It’s a way to avoid asking the question. As long as we do that, it won’t matter when we get up. Even if it’s at 3:45 a.m.