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“Be Water, My Friends”

October 28, 2020


A few days ago a colleague of mine, recently retired, concluded an email with “Be Water, My Friends,” an adage made famous by the actor and martial artist Bruce Lee. I know little about Bruce Lee, but reading these words at that specific time, one of change and uncertainty for many of us, resonated with me. Taking a break from my long “to do” list, I did a little research and came across this quote, which deepened my understanding of his philosophy:

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.” – Bruce Lee

Life today is marked by both unpredictability and impatience. We find it difficult to wait for an answer, whether that’s an email from a coworker or the results of a national election. In uncertain times, one response is to become rigid, to enforce structure on our days in an attempt to regain control, or perhaps to prove our worth. Although I won’t attempt to capture the complexity of Lee’s philosophy, it serves as a welcome reminder to be open and adaptable in the midst of change and even chaos.

The importance of adaptability even relates to the small, yet surprisingly challenging task of writing this newsletter post. I embarked with a sense of what I thought my readers expected of me: I would compose a neatly written essay on patience and the writing process, with takeaways applicable to writing in the DBA program and particularly the dissertation. I became frustrated when I was uninspired to write this imagined article. Unlike water, which changes form and has no expectations of what it will encounter, I was rigidly attached to my original plan. And despite teaching students to embrace the messiness of writing–as Anne Lamott puts it, our “shitty first drafts.” I struggled with impatience, not understanding why I grasped for words of wisdom. I know the frustration of spending hours putting words to paper, only to use a fraction of that work. At such points, including this one, I remind myself that writing is thinking–it is through writing that we develop our ideas, arrive at new realizations, and begin to form a cogent narrative.

To illustrate, an openness to Bruce Lee’s water metaphor helped me tap into my intuition and ultimately, if circuitously, arrive at my original topic of patience and writing. For those writing the dissertation, specifically, you may have a plan for your research question, methods, even your timeline to completion. While having a plan is wise and necessary, expect to encounter forks in the road ahead of you. On my own path to the dissertation, I faced unforeseen challenges that required me to change my topic and advisor; what helped me remain centered and motivated was a conviction that there are many good dissertations (after all, a good dissertation is a done dissertation), and that the unexpected obstacles were themselves an integral, even required, part of earning a doctorate that would only prepare me to meet future challenges. It has just now occurred to me that the times when I became like water were among my most productive and enriching, as a student of writing and as a student of life.