What Chadwick Boseman and Bruce Lee Taught Us About Work and Purpose

Modern superheroes show us how to master ourselves

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Like many of us this past weekend, the news of Chadwick Boseman’s death pierced through me like a thunderous lightning bolt. How could a regal halcyon figure, who practically embodies Black Panther on and off screen, leave our chaotic world so abruptly? How would I make sense of this in a time of already high-flying grief? 

As I contemplate Boseman’s secret battle with cancer that led to his untimely death, this pivotal moment has also reminded me of another renowned artist in modern history who was confronted with his own premature death at age 32 from a sudden brain edema. 

It was not too long ago when Bruce Lee, a film and martial arts legend known for his agile kung fu skills and pithy philosophies, graced our TV and movie screens and popularized kung fu in mainstream Western culture. Growing up, Lee exemplified the epitome of a modern-day superhero—one who was unafraid of obstacles and dedicated to breaking through Asian stereotypes. Chadwick’s portrayal of Black Panther and notable real-life African American figures inspired a new generation of young people to be proud of their ancestry.  

Even though Boseman and Lee came from distinctly different cultures, their approach to work and life’s purpose complemented each other.

Both overcame immense struggles during their youth through their mindset to achieve greatness 

As a teenager, Bruce was often bullied and involved in fights. He would subsequently learn to win a fight in a non-violent manner utilizing his mind to defeat the bully, which he called The Art of Fighting Without Fighting.

Chadwick grew up seeing Confederate flags on trucks and experienced racism on a daily basis. It was his friend’s tragic “random” death that propelled him into drama and acting.  

As marketers, we need to be more aware of and share struggles we are going through on and off the computer screen.

Both sought integrity and a hunger to lead a purposeful creative life

As marketers, we must champion ideologies and beliefs that we stand for. Leading and building a brand with integrity is essentially an act of courage.

Both sought out work as fuel for their passion and life’s purpose

“Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose,” Boseman said when he gave a commencement speech at Howard University, his alma mater, in 2018.

As marketers, show vulnerability. Own the mistakes you’ve made and learn from them. These experiences can pay dividends to a fruitful, rewarding career path.

Both adopted a growth mindset 

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water,” Lee once said. “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.”

Marketers should always be ready to adapt to changing environments. The pandemic has forced us to embrace unexpected turns. We can learn to embrace discomfort with curiosity and bravery.

Both were monumental representations of their diversity

“We know what it’s like to be a tail and not the head. We know what it’s like to be beneath and not above,” Boseman said when Black Panther won Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the 2019 Screen Actors Guild Awards. “And that is what we went to work with every day because we knew, not that we would be around during awards season and that it would make a billion dollars, but we knew that we had something special that we wanted to give the world.”

As marketers, we can embrace and introduce our cultural heritage into mainstream media to break barriers and to differentiate our work through our unique identities/ethnicities.

In the end, we can see how these two masters and storytellers built their legacies by bringing their whole, holistic selves to work. I, for one, am in awe of their grit and determination to overcome life’s uncertainties and unexpected challenges. I look forward to inspiring others to stymie gender and ethnic stereotypes once and for all, and honor authentic, honest dialogues in both my personal and professional spheres.

At a time when we are in dire need of superheroes, perhaps embracing yourself as larger than life would be an epic beginning.