Bruce Lee: Thesis Director
Think you'll just die if you have to finish that thesis? Then die.
There's an anecdote that's been floating around the web a lot lately, and it made me think of the work that has to get done sometimes in the academy, even when we're worn out to the point of being dispirited. In The Art of Expressing the Human Body (Tuttle, 1998), screenwriter Stirling Silliphant recalls being Bruce Lee's student:
Bruce had me up to three miles a day, really at a good pace. We’d run the three miles in twenty-one or twenty-two minutes. Just under eight minutes a mile [Note: when running on his own in 1968, Lee would get his time down to six-and-a half minutes per mile]. So this morning he said to me “We’re going to go five.” I said, “Bruce, I can’t go five. I’m a helluva lot older than you are, and I can’t do five.” He said, “When we get to three, we’ll shift gears and it’s only two more and you’ll do it.” I said “Okay, hell, I’ll go for it.” So we get to three, we go into the fourth mile and I’m okay for three or four minutes, and then I really begin to give out. I’m tired, my heart’s pounding, I can’t go any more and so I say to him, “Bruce if I run any more,”—and we’re still running—“if I run any more I’m liable to have a heart attack and die.” He said, “Then die.” It made me so mad that I went the full five miles. Afterward I went to the shower and then I wanted to talk to him about it. I said, you know, “Why did you say that?” He said, “Because you might as well be dead. Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.
It's certainly one answer to the self-pity we all generate when faced with a deadline or other writing anxiety. "If they don't like my story in workshop this time, I'll just die," we say. "If I have to push any harder on my thesis, I'll keel over, I will not make it." "Could I change topics? This assignment is gonna kill me."
And when you don't—after all, it's relatively unlikely, though of course I'm no doctor —come on by the office for chocolates, good coffee, and a little chat about how disconnected our sense of doom is from the ability to do the work. Anyway: You think you got problems? Let me tell you, your problems are nothing compared to my problems....
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