bruce lee was my first medical school professor

Bruce Lee was My First Medical School Professor


In A Rush?

  • Accurate medical diagnoses require adaptation and humanity.
  • I started my application essay for pediatric residency with a Bruce Lee quote. It raised eyebrows.
  • I promise I’m not crazy – keep reading.

I recently had a riveting debate with a software engineer in Silicon Valley about whether or not, the IBM Watson supercomputer could, one day, diagnose medical diseases better than doctors. While many algorithm-gurus are believers, most physicians, including myself, are not.

“Why do you think that Dr. Patel? Computers can analyze mountains of data faster than any human doctor.” While he was right with this call, the argument went a bit deeper.

“Hah – because, BOARDS DON’T HIT BACK.” This is the infamous quote I threw on my pediatric residency application essay 4 years ago.

Wait, what? Did you just quote Bruce Lee?

I’m fortunate he recognized the quote. (If you didn’t, put your life on hold and go watch “Enter the Dragon“.)

Absolutely! Actually, Bruce Lee’s teachings influence the way I practice pediatrics

To ensure he didn’t think I wanted to fight all my patients, I gave him a deeper explanation.

While studying Wing Chun Kung Fu in my childhood, I drilled the appropriate forms and sequences but the concept of fluidity and adaption was beaten into me. Figuratively (sometimes literally). We practiced a technique known as Chi Sao, or “sticking hands”, and while the fundamentals were consistent, the dynamics varied from person to person. I learned that real opponents do not let you run memorized movements all over them.

Consider a stagnant, wooden, board that isn’t difficult to break with the proper technique. Now imagine that board is moving and can hit you back. That useless piece of pine is now an animated combatant that wants to pummel your face.

This is precisely why Bruce Lee felt breaking boards wasn’t a realistic application of skill. 

Bruce set off and developed his own expression of Wing Chun, known as Jeet Kune Do, or “the way of the intercepting fist” and his underlying thesis lends itself beautifully to the art of medicine.

In Jeet Kune Do, it is not how much fixed knowledge you can accumulate, but what you can apply livingly that counts.


Doctors learn protocols (the equivalent of a martial arts form) for training, efficiency, and consistency. Should a child roll into an emergency department with an asthma attack, a concussion, or blood infection, your medical team will be prepared. But IBM Watson and board breaking martial artists need to grasp that patients are formless and represent an infinite pattern of cultural, economic, and social variables that defy any algorithm and require patience and humanity to decipher.

As Bruce Lee put it:

In building a statue, a sculptor doesn’t keep adding clay to his subject. Actually, he keeps chiselling away at the inessentials until the truth of its creation is revealed without obstructions.

And how are we identifying  the “truth” beneath inessentials in medicine? Pretend you’re working in a busy urgent care and three children, all the same age, waltz through the door with a fever and sore throat. Let’s say one child is from an affluent suburb, another from inner-city projects, and another lives on a rural sheep farm. From face value, you have similar cases but look closer and three unique approaches are needed to diagnose.

In the end, in some circuitous way, I defended my case and revisited the teachings of my very first medical school professor, Bruce Lee.

What’s My Point?

Learning is a continuum and part of the journey is training to be formless and shapeless, like water. Be water my friend.