#42 Underdog and the Top Dog


Bruce Lee played many characters that were unassuming and didn’t want to get into fights, but then could kick everyone’s butt in 10 seconds when he needed to. As a small Asian man, no one expected that sort of power from him. Because of the characters he played, many people think of Bruce Lee as an Underdog who became a Top Dog through dedicated training. He gave everyone who felt underestimated or undervalued hope and strength.

In this episode, we talk about Bruce Lee’s broader philosophical ideas of The Underdog and the Top Dog. An Underdog is a person thought to have little chance of winning a fight or a contest; a person who has little status in society. And the Top Dog is usually an aggressive Alpha-type person.

Bruce called the Top Dog and the Underdog the "two clowns" of our personality.

“The Top Dog usually is righteous and authoritarian; he knows best. He is sometimes right, but always righteous. The top dog is bully and works with “you should’ and “you shouldn’t.” The top dog manipulates with demands and threats of catastrophe, such as – “I you don’t, then…you won’t be loved, you won’t get to heaven, you will die…” and so on.” “The Under Dog manipulates with being defensive, apologetic, wheedling, playing the crybaby, and such. The underdog has no power. The underdog works like this, “I tried my best; I can’t help it if I fail. I have good intentions.” So you see the underdog is cunning, and he usually gets the better of the top dog because the underdog is not as primitive.”

We all have both characters within us and they often struggle for control.

“So the top dog and the underdog strive for control. They strive for each other for control. The person is fragmented into controlled and controller. The inner conflict is never complete because both the top dog and the underdog fight for their life.”

What stories do we tell ourselves to keep ourselves Underdogs or Top Dogs? Even if you tend to lean one way or another, take note of the duality within ourselves.

“This is the basis for the self-torture game. We usually take for granted that the top dog is right, and in many cases the top dog makes impossible, perfectionistic demands. So if you are cursed with perfectionism, you are absolutely sunk.”

People often view Bruce Lee as a perfectionist, but he was actually against perfectionism as the ideal.

“The ideal is a yardstick which gives you the opportunity to brow beat yourself, to berate yourself and others. Since this ideal is an impossibility, you can never live up to it. You are merely in love with this ideal and there is no end to the self-torture, the self-nagging, self-castigating. It hides under the mask of “self-improvement.” It never works.”

Beating yourself up to achieve an ideal might have short-term results but in the long-term it’s harmful. Often when you put perfectionist demands on yourself it is paralyzing and can fill you with shame when you can’t achieve perfectionism.

“If a person tried to meet the top dog’s demands, the result is a “nervous breakdown.” This is one of the tools of the underdog. Once we recognize the structure of our behavior and understand how, by listening, we can bring about a reconciliation of these two fighting clowns, then we realize that we cannot deliberately bring about changes in ourselves or in others.”

The Underdog can give up responsibility for their actions, stating: “Well, I tried,” and playing the victim. Don’t get caught in the image of either of these characters.

“This is a very decisive point: many people dedicate their lives to actualizing a concept of what they should be like, rather than actualizing themselves. The difference between self-actualizing and self-image actualizing is very important. Most people only live for their image.”

Both the Underdog and Top Dog are images or presentations of what we think will work for us in any given moment. All of us can play either role depending on who we’re in front of.

“Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are so busy projecting themselves as this or that. This is again the curse of the ideal. The curse is that you should not be what you are.” “Every external control, even internalized external control (“you should”), interferes with the healthy working of the organism. There is only one thing that should control the situation. If you understand the situation you are in and let the situation that you are in control your actions, then you learn how to cope with life.”

Don’t just run a “program” for each situation, you have to be present in the moment.

Bruce gave this example: “For example, you don’t drive according to a program; you drive according to the situation (when you’re tired, when it’s raining and so forth.)”

And so you should be in life especially as we live in a more and more automated life. While some automation is helpful, it can take you out of the present moment. Practice being in the present moment. Give yourself a beat when responding to something, instead of that habitual response.

Both the Underdog and Top Dog are masks keeping you from your real, true self. Even though being a “Top Dog” sounds appealing and strong, it is a dictator over your true self. The “Underdog” is the whiner, and is an excuse to do nothing. It’s a self-torture game.

“The less confident we are in ourselves, the less we are in touch with ourselves and the world, the more we want control.”

These masks are draining your true power and eating away at your confidence. A helpful measure of something is how does it make you feel? These masks don’t make you feel good which indicates that they’re not healthy approaches. Bruce felt that these approaches were dishonest.

“What I detest most are dishonest people who talk more than they are capable of doing and also people who use false humility as a means to cover their obnoxious inadequacy.”

The goal is to integrate both these sides into daily life and use them with the intention of presence and harmony.

At the bottom of his essay on the Underdog and the Top Dog, Bruce writes:


Take Action:

Do you identify more strongly with Underdog or Top Dog? Can you identify the two sides within yourself? Once you notice where you let the Top Dog out or the Underdog out, try in that moment to reel it back to create more space and resist the habitual reaction.

If you’d like to share how you’re doing with this action item you can email us at hello@brucelee.com.


(Awesome Asians and Hapas)

David Henry Hwang

This week our #AAHA shout out goes to Tony Award Winning playwright, screenwriter, and theater professor David Henry Hwang. His early plays dealt with the role of the Chinese American and Asian American in the modern world. David has won many awards including the Obie Award for FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) and was the first Asian American playwright to win a Tony Award for his play M. Butterfly. M. Butterfly premiered on Broadway in 1988 and won many awards. After that he became a frequent collaborator as a librettist with world-renowned composer Philip Glass. He completely reworked the Rodgers and Hammerstein play Flower Drum Song which was the first musical with an all-Asian cast. In 2014, David premiered his play Kung Fu about the life of Bruce Lee at the Signature Theater Off-Broadway. David has done a lot of amazing work and is really amazing at shining a light on the depictions of Asians and Chinese in America. We think you’re awesome David Hwang!


This week our #BruceLeeMoment comes from listener Tommy N.:

“Namaste, The Bruce Lee Podcast has been of great benefit to me during this transformational times. Finding my true purpose to becoming a chef and realizing this has given me boundless energy. Coming form a mixed asian background, Finnish and Vietnamese, I have always felt isolated and never been able to fit in, even though I am known as a person who mingles in many social circles, I find myself being drained and need to retreat to do my meditation, yoga, reading, and things I honestly enjoy. Thankfully through finding my true self, I have met my twin dragon, the one who I'm travelling with now on this spiritual journey of becoming our true selves. I recognize that there is a global spiritual awakening, similar to the times of Buddha and Lao Tzu, where people are becoming increasingly aware and this is compounded by the vast amount of 'free' knowledge available to us. Listening to the podcasts and stretching, meditating, cooking organic food, going to the market, creating new recipes, really going with the flow and bettering myself, I realize that Bruce Lee was able to realize the 'Buddha' potential and was able to work daily on cleansing the mind, body, spirit, of uncleanliness that pervades our 'toxic' 'ecosystem environments. Finding ones true purpose truly accelerates and creates internal energy and allows us to connect with people who are 'real' and also on a similar path, which is a beautiful thing of life. The more I am myself, the more I find myself in hilarious situations where I would just be laughing and crying at the ridiculousness of it all. I found myself the other day running around doing Tai Chi and Qi Gong in my underwear, hugging the tree, and calling my parents and telling them how much I appreciate them. With each podcast, I have a greater understanding and clearer transparency of the documentation of my life, and what I am doing with my time. I am picking up new skills and learning to enjoy the 'mistakes' of life for what they are; lessons. Thank you so much, I'm sure Bruce Lee would be really ecstatic to see how we are sharing his vision and bettering ourselves through our own 'Bruce Lee' or 'Buddha' potentials that we all have inside ourselves. Namaste!”

Share your #AAHA and #BruceLeeMoment recommendations with us via social media @BruceLee or email us at hello@brucelee.com.


Lydy Walker30