Reclining in his chair with an easy smile on his face, Bruce Lee moved through the experienced questioning of host Pierre Berton with a charismatic grace. The interview, once considered lost, offered a rare insight into Lee and his perspective on living. Responding to a question by Berton, Lee’s eyes flashed, and seized by excitement, he launched into what would become one of his most famous quotes:
“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, 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.”
Lee’s philosophy, of keeping the mind supple and malleable, has an undeniable appeal and is drenched in the lingering echo of his eastern roots. The idea that the mind is capable of such malleability is a potent one – within efforts to progress in any field, the mind’s inability to adapt can often be an obstacle, but harnessing the mind’s ability to be formless offers limitless prospects and possibilities. So when Lee says, ‘be water, my friend’, it should come as no surprise that our immediate response is a simple ‘how?’.
But perhaps becoming like water isn’t the problem; cutting edge research into the neuroplasticity of our minds shows that the mind is already perfectly flexible, and in the right circumstances, happy to assume many shapes. The mind, in itself, is already water.
However, possessed of this inherent flexibility, why aren’t we seeing the implied boons of Lee’s philosophy?
The answer lies less in the fluidity of the mind, but in the vessel in which it is placed. When Lee said ‘Put water into a cup, it becomes the cup’, he couldn’t have been more right. But where he focused on the water – the focus should instead have been on the cup. When we construct the cup, we construct ourselves.
I call this ‘The Cup Theory’™ and it’s responsible for all the change I’ve experienced in my life.
WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN ‘CUP?’
The world in which we exist has an enormous effect on our identities, our beliefs and the direction of our lives. When we hold dreams and ambitions for ourselves, we owe it to ourselves to align that world with our dreams – otherwise, they will pass us by.
Imagine there was a man; let’s call him Bob, who wished to become a successful entrepreneur. He had his business plan, he had his idea, and he knew what he wanted to do. However, in his day to day life, he actually spent his hours working a role for which he had no interest, for a company that was not his. Exhausted from his commute home, he often lost himself in a bombardment of entertainment. On the days that he socialized, all his friends were settling down, and talking about investing money in the property market. Further to this, the sphere of ideas that pass between this social circle pertain in no way to those necessary for entrepreneurship – they are often to do with advancing a career and turning savings into assets, which he in turn questions whether he should do.
Despite his desire for entrepreneurship, the life in which he contained himself, the ideas which he introduced himself to, and the social stresses and norms to which he was exposed were all elements that shape and craft the complete opposite outcome – instead of approaching a future where he was his own boss, he was approaching a future where he was an employee; a career man.
These elements, that shape and craft our life outcomes, are what I am referring to when I say ‘The Cup Theory.’
THE OUTCOME ELEMENTS
The Cup Theory is another way of looking at your comfort zone. Your comfort zone being, the world in which you exist, in which you are comfortable existing. Taking this idea, the Cup Theory takes the elements within your world, evaluates the outcome they’re bringing into being, and removes or reinforces them based on how well they line up with the intended goal. This is how you construct your cup.
Examples of these elements could be our allocation of time and energy, financial responsibilities, stresses and motivators, social peers and norms, the ideas we are exposed to and reinforced beliefs.
Returning to Bob, let’s evaluate his life with regards to his ultimate goal of becoming an entrepreneur.
Here’s what Bob does:
- Bob spends most of his time working a 9-5.
- Bob spends most of his energy working a 9-5.
- Bob spends his free time-consuming entertainment due to fatigue.
- The social circle, in which he exists, reinforces traditional ideas of career planning and money allocation.
- Bob is considering promotion, and investing his savings in property.
Now here’s what would most likely produce his outcome:
- Spending 9-5 working on his business idea.
- Spending most of his energy working on his business idea.
- Spending his free time consuming relevant literature and challenging ideas to his business.
- Engaging with a social circle that challenges traditional ideas of career planning and money allocation, ideally, one that embraces risk and business creation.
- Focusing on building his businesses revenue, and investing his savings into his entrepreneurial efforts.
Logically then, to achieve his goal, Bob should just swap the two sets of inputs around. But given that Bob’s life currently has the typical demands on it (financial), how is he to go about enacting this overhaul?
The first step would be leaving his job, which opens up avenues of time and energy to be reallocated. The second step would be investing all his savings into supporting himself (as he is no longer employed) and his business whilst he gets it off the ground.
This transition stage is called the Risk stage. And it is essential.
THE RISK STAGE
There is no change without risk. In order to achieve the end result you desire, something must be sacrificed. Often, a lot. Lifestyle design hinges on the idea that you leave your comfort zone and create a new one, in the case of Bob; this meant leveraging his finances and risking his financial security. But there are other examples:
- In order to have a good dating life, you have to risk rejection.
- In order to become a good writer, you have to risk people hating your work.
- In order to live a life of adventure and exploration, you have to risk your safety.
These risks are compounded by the fact that they often clash directly with your life as you are used to it. If you are used to avoiding rejection, getting rejected can seem like the worst thing in the world. If you are used to a sheltered life, going to dangerous locations and risking death can make you shudder at the mere thought.
But a little resistance isn’t always a bad thing.
OUTSIDE CUP = INTERNAL CUP
The relationship between your comfort zone and The Cup Theory stretches beyond just the external. In fact, the cup that you build also includes the experiences of your internal world, specifically, your motivation.
Let’s go back to Bob.
In his quest to become a successful entrepreneur, Bob, due to his fear of failure and humiliation, keeps his ideas and plans to himself. The reason being, if he doesn’t tell anyone, they’ll never know he’ll fail. In his case, this is counterintuitive – because Bob is motivated by his fear of failure, and in his quest to succeed, Bob should put himself in a position where all of that motivation is on his side. And how should he do this?
By telling everyone what he sets out to do. That way, he has no choice but to succeed, lest he face social humiliation at his failure. This is the internal environment that is going to motivate him the most. By exposing himself to the most fear, he exposes to the most motivation.
The environment won’t be the same for everyone, but it is essential. One thing I say to guys who want to improve their dating life is – stop watching porn. Very soon you’ll have a huge amount of organic motivation on your side, driving you towards a better (and more satisfying) dating life.
There is a type of motivation that you respond to, and you owe to yourself to recognize this and harness it.
REINFORCEMENT OF STAGNATION
Because the Cup designs who you are going to end up likely becoming, it, due to its nature encourages a certain degree of stagnation. Everyone has friends who clung to the same social circle, did the same things, exchanged the same ideas and lived in the same place. Hell, there are even newspapers dedicated to the reinforcement of certain political ideologies. On the surface, this kind of pursuit can seem harmless – but in truth, it’s only as harmless as it corresponds to what it is you want to do.
For instance, take the example of your friends. If you want to achieve a certain goal that they have no interest in, hanging out with them all the time is going to draw you no closer to that goal, which will lead you to resent them. And given that you’re hanging out with them for your own enjoyment, resentment seems like a shitty attitude to have, and one that they don’t deserve. After all, it’s your goal, not theirs. The honest thing to do would be to see them less, as you devote your life more to your goal – that way when you do see them; you harbor no bad feelings towards them. Aka, you’re not a shit friend.
The idea here is a simple one – make sure you’re making the choice consciously, rather than comfort making it for you. Because the longer you spend engaging in circles of friendship and thought and ideology, the more you and your life will mirror these things – and in this instance, you need to ask yourself ‘is this who I want to be?’
‘Am I building my cup, or is it being built for me?’
WHO IS BUILDING YOUR CUP?
Take a look at your life. Take a look at where it is you want to be. Write down where you want to be in two, in five, in ten years. Is the Cup in which you exist going to make these outcomes happen? Is it even likely that these outcomes will happen?
Take a look at your life as it was two, five and ten years ago. Are you any more conscious in your life design than you were back then, or, as you were, are you being swept along in tides of emotion, insecurity, and conformity?
In my own life, I wanted to be traveling the world, visiting dangerous places, dating exotic women, running my own business and publishing my writing. In my actual life, I was only doing one of these (dating), and the rest of my life was similar to Bobs. Therefore, an enormous sacrifice was going to have to be made – both financial and in terms of comfort. Because if I stayed my course, the life I wanted would never happen.
When I realized this, I started preparing to take the risk I needed to take, knowing full well that in a year I would take it.
I didn’t want to be Bob.
YOU DON’T ALWAYS GET TO CHOOSE
Westerners like to say things like ‘if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?’ and the successful often laud the merits of hard work. The logic here being, as we’re in the land of equal opportunity, you must be willfully stupid or lazy if you aren’t successful, in which case you must deserve to be poor. This same understanding of life leads those without money to hate themselves for it – often carrying around a wounded self-esteem as a result. The American dream is hell when you’re on the wrong side of it.
And here’s the thing, this entire idea is toxic. Sometimes, our lot in life is chosen for us. Sometimes, we don’t get to build our own cup.
I once met a guy. He was charming, confident, a shrewd salesman and could make women laugh and swoon effortlessly. This is a guy who had all the elements necessary to breeze through life. But he was born in a small village in Bolivia, with no access to opportunity, and the demands of basic survival kept his ambitions limited to day to day living. He will, in all likelihood, live and die in the same town he was born. Where stray dogs run wild, and thieves roam unpoliced streets.
Another guy I met was the most confrontationally confident person I’ve ever encountered. A fierce and dominant individual, he could take on any challengers, and see them beaten and submissive. Not a bully by any stretch, in fact, someone who wouldn’t suffer them, and whose sheer force of will and self-respect drove him to heights of achievement. Now, stricken with a rare disease, he spends all his day in bed, often unable to think clearly, and on good days, scarcely able to walk for thirty minutes before having to rest and suffer through pain.
You don’t always get to choose. Both of these men had twice of what I had, and should be breezing through life – but they don’t get to. And that’s unfortunately how it is. The point here is this: if you do have the opportunity, perhaps it’s worth considering that you owe it to yourself to take it, and when you do, remember that there are those who never had the chance.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
When looking at our own lives, and where we want to go, it’s important to break down the elements that are influencing us, and contrast them with the outcome we desire. Further to this, it’s important to contrast the outcome we desire, with the responsibilities we currently have.
- Is it worth dreaming of becoming a world traveler, if you’re currently in a relationship with a girl who doesn’t want to do that?
- Is it worth dreaming of entrepreneurship, if you’ve got a child on the way and your financial demands are about to skyrocket?
- Is it worth dreaming of living a life that your chronic illness inherently prevents you from ever having?
Once the responsibilities of your life have been contrasted with your goal, you can begin to evaluate not just the life that you’re living, but also the goal that you’re pursuing. Not just whether you’ll achieve it, but whether it’s worth it. And if it is worth it, The Cup Theory offers the framework for you to design your life accordingly – a framework that takes an idea in your head, a dream, a fantasy, and through adjusting the influential elements of your life and psyche – brings it into reality. Or to Bruce Leeify it:
Make the cup. Become the cup.