5 Life Lessons Learned From The Karate Kid

Other than Top Gun, no movie molded my childhood moreso than the Karate Kid.

Thanks to Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi, I spent a good portion of my early years attending Karate classes, practicing the crane kick in my back yard on tree stumps, and cleaning the windows of our house only using the “wax on, wax off” motion.  To say I was obsessed with the Karate Kid would be an understatement.

Why did this movie leave such a lasting impression on me?

Let’s see: a skinny, out-of-shape kid goes against the popular crowd (Cobra Kai), trains in an unorthodox manner (thanks to Mr. Miyagi), and ultimately levels up his life while winning the girl of his dreams (and kicking the crap out of the town bully).

That’s pretty much every nerd’s dream, and I LOVE a good underdog story.

Although they’ve recently remade the Karate Kid with Will Smith’s kid and Jackie Chan, nothing will ever top the original in my eyes.  Here are five life lessons we can learn from Mr. Miayagi, Daniel-san, and the Karate Kid.

“Either you karate do ‘yes’ or karate do ‘no.’ You karate do ‘guess so,’ *squish!*”

When Mr. Miyagi asked Daniel if he was ready to learn Karate, Daniel’s response of “I guess so” pissed him off to no end.  The old man compared Daniel’s half-assed response to walking down a road: walking on the left side of the road is fine, walking on the right side of the road is fine, but walking down the middle of the road will eventually get you squished.

Like Yoda has taught us, “Do or do not.  There is no try.” The people who “try to get in shape” or say “I guess I’ll get in shape” will most likely fail.  If you want to lose weight and level up your life, you need to attack it with 100% of your heart and mind.  Giving it a shot for a week or two isn’t going to get you results, and thinking about it only half of the time isn’t going to get you where you want to be either.

This journey needs to become part of who you are:

  • Mentally, you’re focused. You have specific goals in mind that you want to accomplish, and then you set out to do them.  Whether it’s win the All-Valley Karate Tournament, lose 50 pounds, and/or run a marathon, you must recognize the fact that every day is an opportunity for you to get one step closer.
  • You’re not “on a diet.” Instead, you’re making conscious decisions every day to eat healthier food and follow a plan that you can stick with indefinitely.
  • You’re training with conviction. Half-assing it on a treadmill while chugging a Gatorade doesn’t count as a workout.  When exercising, be focused and efficient – if you pushed hard enough there should be sweat dripping off of you by the the time you’re done.

“First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule, Daniel-san, not mine.”

Daniel desperately wanted to learn how to do the crane kick after just a few lessons.  Miyagi responded that there’s a specific order of things in Karate just like in nature.  It is nature’s progression that allows animals to survive in the wild, and it’s Karate’s progression that would ultimately allow Daniel-san to succeed as a student.

Had Miyagi put the kid up on the stump and forced him to learn a Crane Kick before anything else, he might have failed miserably and given up.  Instead, he taught Daniel progressively more difficult strikes, balancing techniques, and blocks, built up his confidence, and only then did he allow Daniel-san to learn the Crane Kick.

Your life is no different.

If you’re 200 pounds overweight, don’t try to run a marathon tomorrow. Instead, you must learn to walk a mile, then two, then learn to run a 5k, 10k, half-marathon, and finally a full marathon.  Baby steps!

If you want to get stronger, don’t go into a gym and load 300 pounds onto a bar to bench press. Instead, start with an small amount of weight, learn the proper movement, and progress steadily each week, getting stronger and building momentum until you reach your goal.

If you want to acquire a new skill – Parkour, Capoeira, Rock Climbing, whatever – check your ego at the door. Take the beginner class, don’t overestimate your skills, and advance from there.  Who cares if you’re taking a Karate class with a bunch of 6-year olds, at least you don’t have to wait for your mom to come pick you up after (hopefully).

“In Okinawa, all Miyagi know two things: fish and karate.”

Growing up in Okinawa, Mr. Miyagi learned two things from his father: fishing, and karate.  How did he find time to become a great Karate master AND a great fisherman?  Because he found a good balance in his life and recognized the importance of having both.

[Side note: a great fisherman who happens to also be in incredible shape…sounds a lot like my Ninja Warrior hero, Makoto Nagano!]

Personally, I enjoy fitness and exercise, but I am no gym rat. In fact, I only go to the gym three times a week for about an hour each time.  Being in shape is part of my life, but it’s not the only thing that makes me happy.  I consider myself more of a gamer/nerd/writer/piano player/gambler/artist/reader  who happens to also be in pretty good shape.

I encourage you to find that balance in your life as well.  You can still be a great…

  • father, husband, wife, mother, friend, employee, and/or boss while having fun…
  • playing video games, taking photography classes, and/or going to the movies…
  • while ALSO living a healthy lifestyle.

Good time management and a solid balance of work and fun is crucial to your happiness. As I’ve said previously, find a way to incorporate a healthy lifestyle into what you are, but not at the expense of who you are.

Mr. Miyagi said it best: “Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance, everything be better.”

“Hey, what kind of belt do you have?”Canvas. JC Penney, $3.98. You like?”

When asked by Daniel-san what kind of belt he had, Miyagi gave a smart-ass answer that was also quite deep philosophically.  How the hell does one of the best Karate teachers out there not have any idea what level belt he is?

Because at the end of the day it just doesn’t matter.

Competitions, contests, and achievements are great motivators to help you move forward, but never forget that the only person you’re really competing with when it comes to your health is yourself.  Who cares if you ran in a 5k race and got beat by a 10-year old girl?  Who cares if you can only bench 20 pounds while the cute girl next to you is putting up 135 for a set of 10?  After you’ve checked your ego (a common theme today), think of it like this:

  • So you got beat by a 10 year old in a 5k. Suck it up, remember your time from this race, and make sure you run your next race at least one second faster.  If you’re getting faster, that’s all that matters.
  • So you’re getting ‘outlifted’ at the gym. Suck it up, remember how much you lifted and how many times you lifted it, and then next time make sure you either lift more weight or the same amount for more repetitions.  If you’re getting stronger, that’s all that matters.
  • So you only lost one pound this week while your cubicle-mate lost 5 pounds. Suck it up, remember that you still lost weight, and continue to find ways to level up your life and the success will follow.  If you’re making progress, that’s all that matters.

Having a class system to determine your level is nice, but don’t let it be the only benchmark you use to determine your success. No matter how big, slow or weak you are compared to those around you, it really only matters if you’re getting healthier, faster, and stronger compared to the You from yesterday.

“You mean there were times when you were scared to fight?” “Always scared.”

Mr. Miyagi, the guy who could single-handedly defeat six Cobra Kai at once, was always scared to fight.  And yet, he still took care of business when necessary.  This might be the most important lesson of all and one I’ll always remember.

We’re surrounded these days with images and movies of heroic men who march bravely into battle without an ounce of fear:

Thanks to these heroes, it’s tough to not feel inadequate when that initial fear sets in, no matter how inconsequential the action you’re afraid of might be.  Maybe you’re scared to go to the gym for the first time, try rock climbing, eat sushi, wear a bathing suit, run a marathon, ask out that cute waitress, whatever.  Don’t worry; it happens to everybody.  What’s not okay is to allow that fear to become so irrationally over-sized in your mind that it paralyzes you from taking action.

Courage is not being fearless, but rather carrying on to perform the action despite being afraid.  As Miyagi said in Karate Kid III: “It’s okay to lose to opponent. It’s never okay to lose to FEAR!”

Unless it’s going to actually kill you, sometimes you just have to get out of your head, turn off your brain, and go for it.

What movie defined your childhood?

Hopefully I’m not the only one around here that practiced the crane kick in his back yard. Sure The Karate Kid Parts II and III weren’t nearly as good, but Part II gave us Peter Cetera and The Glory of Love, and Part III gave us the psychopath that is Terry Silver.  What’s not to like!

This is one movie from my childhood that I’ll never forget.

What was yours, and what did you learn from it?

-Steve

PS – I bet more than a few NF readers will say “The Goonies.” Don’t worry, I’ve already started planning a Goonies article. 

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