Guiding Is Not Binding

Yesterday, my friend Mike asked me to leave some notes on his book manuscript. “I’ll just make a Google doc, and don’t worry, I’m not gonna fight the comments.” We talked about how, sometimes, when you ask people for feedback, they take the honor of being asked so seriously that they turn advice-giving into a competition. If you have counterpoints to their points, they’ll start arguing. They might demand you implement every tip that they give you or at least feel offended if you don’t. But that’s not the point, is it?

The point is to help the artist in charge — and, ultimately, only they can decide what to cut and what to keep. Our chat reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s fantastic piece of writing advice: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

The main reason Bruce Lee never published a comprehensive book about Jeet Kune Do, his own school of thought about the martial arts, is that he worried a “finished” framework would lead people into cultism, not the individualistic thinking he wanted them to practice. “He struggled so much with it,” his daughter Shannon writes in Be Water, My Friend, “that though he took many technique photos and wrote pages upon pages of text about his thoughts on combat, he could never bring himself to publish them, wanting to avoid the problem of concretization and creating ‘devout’ followers who would refuse to question their own experience.”

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, a book edited by Lee’s wife and Mito Uyehara of Black Belt magazine, was only released posthumously, and it is thanks to a high level of abstraction that it can stay true to Lee’s spirit and ideals, Shannon explains: “In seeking to guide the reader, it doesn’t seek to bind the reader, but rather allow the reader to be an active and flexible participant in their own process of understanding.”

Guiding is not binding. When you hope to teach, adding disclaimers is a service. Remind people to find their own way. Don’t demand they try to follow in your exact footsteps. Chances are, their shoe size differs from yours. Whether you guide out of your own volition or because you were lucky enough to be asked for your opinion, don’t strangle us with your insight. Wisdom doesn’t mind where it’s applied and when it’s ignored — and neither should you if you truly have other people’s best interests at heart.