Business Lessons from Bruce Lee and the World Cup

World Cup

By Mars Dorian, {grow} Contributing Columnist

Bruce Lee once said something so profound, it’s stayed with me ever since I first heard it:

You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water, my friend.

I recently stumbled upon these wise words again when I really needed them. I was in the middle of my business review, an exercise I do twice a year, and frowned when I looked at the numbers from the last couple months. 2014 started off with a bang, but the recently business hadn’t been great, to say the least. So, pragmatist that I am, what did I do about it?

First, I complained.

Then I complained some more.

After I was sick of complaining, I upgraded to blaming. Others, of course. But as I soon realized, complaining is not a business strategy.

The Truth Dawned on Me

According to Bruce Lee’s water metaphor, I became about as liquid as a frozen ice cube. The kind you’d need a flamethrower to melt. My business was stagnant because I couldn’t adapt to changes. I had become stale. I realized that:

  • My website was (and still is) un-responsive, which is a no-go in the mobile future.
  • I had stopped networking and connecting with people.
  • I had been focusing on offering the wrong illustration services to customers, ones that didn’t seem relevant anymore.

Thankfully, I’m on the road to changing these mistakes, because I want my rigid ice cube to morph back into liquid water again. And, as the World Cup is upon us again, I looked to the businesses in my neighborhood for inspiration.

Let Me Explain…

In Berlin, the World Cup is setting the streets on fire, literally. When the Dutch team defeated Spain, the orange fans unleashed a volley of firecrackers that turned the night into a very noisy day. This will be the new normal for the next month: locals and tourists alike will march through the streets, screaming their lungs out and consuming massive amounts of alcohol, all in honor of the World Cup. Kitchen staffs and livers will work overtime. Some teams will lose, but every business connected to tourism wins, especially if it can remain formless, like water. For example:

  • A corner shop in my neighborhood, normally known for selling cheap tools, now sells flags and German soccer merchandise. When the Dutch team won, the shop owners coincidentally displayed an unusual amount of Dutch flags. Go figure.
  • Bars entice people with outdoor seating opportunities and wide screens to watch the games. They even create country-specific cocktails.
  • Ice-cream and kebab vendors offer food in the colors of the German flag. One family restaurant has set up an extra World Cup-themed snack bar in a nearby park, serving up foods based on the teams playing that day.

I could go on, but the message is clear. The businesses that behave like water and adapt to the arrival of the World Cup make a Killing, with a capital K. I asked three of these businesses whether the World Cup had helped their business, and each told me they saw a revenue increase upwards of 500%.

On the other hand, the uptight businesses that refuse to accommodate the World Cup festivities — or worse, complain about them — lose out, big time. The funny thing is that many of these businesses may not care about the games themselves, or even the World Cup at all, but they know their customers do, and they adapt.

I take inspiration from this. I don’t have to like change, but I’d be a fool to ignore it.

So what happens when the World Cup is over? The ice-cube businesses will continue to complain. The fluid, water-like businesses will go back to business as usual, and will keep their eyes out for the next big event on the horizon.

My lessons

My walk through my neighborhood (and lack of clients) has taught me a couple valuable lessons:

  1. Complaining is not a business strategy.
  2. To stay rigid and unchanging, like an ice cube, is to ignore the changing forms of the business world. This will kill your career.
  3. Remaining flexible and fluid, like water, will allow you to adapt to anything you encounter, whether you like it or not.

So, in the words of the mighty Bruce Lee, “Be formless like water, my friend.”


Mars Dorian describes himself as a creative marketeer with a moon-melting passion for human potential and technology. You can follow his adventures at www.marsdorian.com/ Original illustration by the author.

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  • Hi, Mars.

    A timely post from you today, particularly the part about networking and getting out into the world and letting the shapes and forms around us help us to recalibrate our business plans. Well said, Bruce and Mars!

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  • MaureenMonte

    I like your authentic observations about yourself – self-awareness is very attractive and builds success. I study martial arts, and it does change the way one looks at achievement and effective means of reaching it. Also, I like your new illustration. It “feels different” than your others, testimony to your accomplishment. Great work – you’ll get there.

  • Wow…coincidence…I recently watched the interview with Bruce Lee on youtube where he said those words. I will behave like water, and believe that wabi-sabi – seeing perfection in imperfection – is to lead a quietly successful, fulfilling life. Cheers! Kaarina

  • Be like water could be the motto for indie publishers as well. I see the same limber attitudes and adaptability there. I am learning. You’d think water would be the easy course, too. LOL Great post. 😉

  • Sandra Isaac

    This is my new mantra! Hopefully I won’t behave like water to the point that I’m just a puddle on the floor! Seriously…great post. It will help when I run into roadblocks at work. It is not posted on my “cubicle farm” turf boarder.

  • Funny you say that – I’m one week away from publishing my first book. I read a lot about the traditional publishing biz, and their difficulties to adapt. They’re the ice cubes of today, rigid and stiff, unable to adapt to the new landscape today.

  • I keep watching that clip over and over again – too bad the quality is so bad. I’d love to have that clip in HD resolution and sound. His advice will be valid for decades (centuries?) to come.

  • Much good fortune to you on the release! After a lot of years mixing it up with trad publishing, I am LOVING the indie life. Apparently this old dog was able to learn a few new tricks. LOL

  • Herb Silverman

    Water, huh? Good analogy today with an important point to be flexible and proactive in the case of ever-changing parameters. My question is always though about balance between the “fluid” (which is sometimes exciting, but scary,) and the “ice cube” (which does have some advantage of continuity, right?) Or am I all wet?

  • That’s for sure. Even with the poor quality, the message comes through loud and clear:)

  • Hey Herb,
    I think everyone is an ice cube for most of the time – we’re lazy creatures after all, and we want to keep things as they are. The problem only arises when we dwell there. That’s where observing comes in – always checking what’s going on in the market, adapting to it, and “relaxing” as an ice cube in the down times. After all, we don’t have to change business practices every single day, at least not yet 😉
    So treat it like a rhythm – ice cube / adapt / ice cube / adapt etc.

  • Mars,

    Your first three bullet points are very similar to mine. Argh!! Part of my new “flexibility plan” is simply built on just doing (vs. too much planning). This means being proactive every day … taking those opportunities and running with them 🙂 Been working very well over the past few months as I roll out new services, and build a new site/podcast … to stay rigid and unchanging will kill you fo sho these days. Cheers, Mr. Dorian 😉

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