Your Style is a Cage


Learning styles are dumb, and I’ll explain why. But first let’s talk about Bruce Lee.


I’ve never really cared for Bruce Lee and I only recently just watched Enter the Dragon. Yes – you read that right – it took me 35 years to watch my first Bruce Lee movie.

Aside from repeated childhood viewings of Karate Kid, I’ve never been into martial arts movies. Growing up Asian American meant constantly being reminded by other kids of my otherness, so I think I spent much of my childhood trying to disassociate myself from everything Asian. And yes, on more than one occasion, someone has yelled out, “Hey, Bruce Lee!” when trying to get my attention.

That kind of thing breeds resentment.

So I was a bit surprised to be so deeply affected by a recent visit to a Bruce Lee exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum here in Seattle. While I’ve seen TV shows and documentaries on Bruce’s influence on how Asians are perceived in American culture, I’ve never really understood it until I walked through this exhibit. One of the most profound juxtapositions was seeing antique depictions of Asian American men as bizarre, sexless aliens in contrast with the ripped badassery of Bruce.

How America pictured Asian Americans, pre-Bruce.

The exhibit was also full of handwritten letters and journals, giving insight not only into how he built his film career, but also his martial arts philosophy of Jeet Kun Do. One sentence in particular jumped out at me (I’m almost certain I’m remembering this wrong) – “I want to fight without style.”

This seemed an odd aspiration to have. Fight without style? Isn’t martial arts all about picking your style and becoming a master at it? After some brief Googling, though, it became clear to me that this idea of operating without style was central to Bruce’s philosophy:

“I have not invented a “new style,” composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from “this” method or “that” method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds.”

In speaking of the benefits of this way thinking, he writes:

“If you do not have a style, if you just say: Well, here I am as a human being, how can I express myself totally and completely? Now, that way you won’t create a style, because style is a crystallization. That way, it’s a process of continuing growth.”

In Bruce’s world, style isn’t something you shouldn’t seek out, because it’s a cage that prevents you from growing, learning, and adapting to new challenges. While he was talking about martial arts styles, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with styles that we deal with in the business world.

What is your Myers-Briggs? What is your DiSC? What’s your Dave Mitchell type? What generation do you belong to? Are you an INTP/D/Millenial/Achiever/Romantic/Gemini/Tactile Learner? Or are you an ESTJ/SC/Boomer/Dreamer/Mastermind/Libra/Visual Learner? Do these boxes do anything besides put us inside more boxes?

It feels particularly egregious when we force people into learning styles. I will admit that there is such a thing as a learning preference – if you successfully learned something from a YouTube video, you’re probably going to have preference for learning through YouTube videos. That’s fine.

But the heart of learning isn’t about doing what you’ve done before. It’s about facing new challenges and going beyond where you were before. When we are truly learning at our peak, we are (to borrow a line from Bruce Lee) a lot like water – formless, adaptable, ever-changing, without style.

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