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.

Sure, the new Cobra-Kai show on YouTube is absolutely incredible, but 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?


PS – I bet more than a few NF readers will say “The Goonies.” 


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32 thoughts on “5 Life Lessons Learned From The Karate Kid

  1. Great article, I believe, there are a lot of lessons available in the movies (Hell, there's a lot to learn even from video games :-D)

    My favorite is pretty much Mad Max trilogy (the road warrior as the best). It tells a story of determination and survival and persistence, in a quite hopeless situation. But Max isn't stopped even because he had a broken knee, several car crashes etc. Skill is important, but the Drive in the heart to do the things necessary is just amazing. And it doesn't have to be over-expressed passion and noise about oneself and goals, it can as well be just silent diamond-hard determination. (I actually see this even as better option:-)

    So pull the knob of the supercharger, and attack the world with a laconic expression 😉

  2. Great comment CastIron.

    Nerd Fail, I know, but I've only seen part of one of the Mad Max movies…NetFlix to the rescue!


  3. I actually heard the new one wasn't terrible, but that still doesn't mean I want to see it.

    Agreed on Ninja Turtles and Star Wars. Throw in Indiana Jones and you got yourself some great 80's cinema.

    Except for the 3rd Ninja Turtles movie where they go back in time, and the voices of all the actors are different (if I remember correctly) and their suits were somewhat different too…


  4. Hey Jimmy!

    I'm a huge Sports Guy fan, but it was really this article of his, along with his articles about the Shawshank Redemption, that really made me a fan. I actually went back and read this yesterday after writing my article because it's so damn funny.


  5. Steve, this is REALLY good stuff and what it's all about!

    Though already an adult when I saw it, gotta throw Braveheart in there- an underdog who showed how persistence can beat resistance.

    (spoiler) Yes he is killed at the end, but died without regret, still gives the finger to the “man” and (depending how you interpret it, believe, etc) is reunited with his love.

  6. Great article. Love the whole bit about fear. Over the last 2 years I have been basically making myself do things just because I'm afraid of them. If I feel a twinge of irrational fear at all…then I HAVE to do it. It really is an invigorating way of doing things.

    I think the movies that really defined my childhood were probably the old Disney Classics (Lion king, Mulan, etc.) I don't think I can really narrow it down to just one thing that I learned from them. I can still watch them and find applicable thoughts and concepts. 😀

  7. I can honestly say that within the last 9 months, my favorite site on the internet to read has been Nerdfitness. Not just in comparison to other exercise blogs, but all my favorite sites.

    Get busy living Steve.

  8. Excellent visitation of Karate Kid. So many awesome lessons to be learned 🙂

    My favorite movie as a kid was probably Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Not too many good life lessons to be learned, I suppose.. the main one is 'Don't F#@% with Pee Wee. He will wreck your life.”

  9. Monty Python’s Life of Brian ending scene song has become my soundtrack to life with, “Always look on the bright side of life”. There are no finer words of wisdom. I have to say though Steve, Karate Kid was also my favorite film as a child. That film sparked for me an intense fascination in martial arts from a very young age which has stayed with me all the way into adulthood despite never getting the chance to seriously study anything until a few years ago.

  10. Great article……..brings back fond memories of practising my Crane kick in the mirror down Clearview Terrace.


  12. Wow.. awesome article and very true to very word. I think that is why I love movies that use martial arts as a theme, they tend to have great morals. My mother raised me on martial arts and samurai movies, so it is hard to pick just one. I was also inspired by the characters’ story-lines within fighting video games. They all inspired and influenced me so much.

    It would be easier for me to name video game characters that have influenced and even, in a strange way, saved me, both as a child and even now after 20 years of hiatus. In the recent years I went back to reading and studying the characters I had admired during the worse time period of my childhood years to overcome the rough times I’m going through now. I had Transformers, but what really got me over the abused I faced as a child was Street Fighter, particularly Street Fighter 2 series, and Mortal Kombat 2 and 3. Being abused at home and then facing more of it at school, both physically and mentality, you could say playing as Ken, Ryu, Akuma, Kung Lao, Kabul and Shiva in the games became more than just outlets for me, they were life savers to stable my unstable life. I paid attention to their story-lines carefully, and even though I didn’t memorized them then as I am now, I did took them as morals.

    1.) Ken and Ryu taught me about friendship, loyalty, helping others as much as possible and to never give up. Even when times get tough keep going.

    2.) Akuma, I could easily write a 150 page book on what he has done for me between then and now, so I’ll try to shorten what I have to say of him as much as possible. One of the biggest influences he gave was and is to never let anyone, not even those closest to you, family or teacher, to convince you what you can or can’t do. I can relate to him when I had teachers who told me I couldn’t do something. In Akumas’ case it was Dark Hadou, for me it was education. For Akuma it was “You can do that, it will consume you.” For me it was “You can’t do that, you have learning disabilities.” Akuma taught me to ignore the negative speeches and just go for it. He taught me to not let others influence your self worth and allow them to limit your goals in life. To never succumb to just being good at something or do the minimal, but to be the very best you can be and to always go beyond what is expected from you (to go beyond just 100% effort). To always demonstrate your full potential, regardless what others may say. He also renewed my love of nature and to keep things simple. Even as a child, reminded me to not be caught up with materialism and hyper-consumerism of modern affluent society. To avoid distractions. In an odd way, Akuma introduced me to voluntary simplicity and from there I researched concepts such as self-reliance and self-sufficiency. He sent me on a path to learn about economic bondage, economic inequality, and how these are the real causes of all of the wars, famines, lifestyle diseases and unnecessary deaths in the world. He got me to look into Freeganism, small house movement, Slow movement and learn about who Jacque Fresco is and his Venus Project. I could go on, but as I had stated eariler I would keep Akuma as short as possible.

    3.) Kung Lao taught me to respect my heritage and learn from my ancestors.

    4.) Kabul taught me to never judge on appearances, the soul is everything. He also taught me to never let the judgement of others to ruin my own happiness and quality of life.

    5.) Shiva taught me to be a strong female and to protect friends and family. Loyalty is important. I have more to say, but my mind went into something else and lost track. Sorry.

    Well those are my influences and what they taught me. Hope people like them, if not, that is cool too.

  13. I was stabbed, kicked, had maggots pored onto my hair, I nearly lost a leg due to beat downs and inflections,… the list goes on and on what had been done to me as a kid. I rarely fought back, and when I did I would be the one expelled from school, not the instigators who tormented me. Now that I looked back at it all I could see why so many of my peers back then respect me so much now as adults. I had been called Buddha by a few and others really thought my mom should had transferred me to another school, but didn’t. I think those acts that were bestowed upon us as kids really made us stronger adults than anyone around us. I know people within my adult age group who end up giving up so readily over things that aren’t even remotely as terrible as to what I had been through as a kid. In a twisted way, I’m glad they had happened. Where would I be and what kind of person I would be if those events never had happened?

  14. When I was growing up I was all about No Retreat, No Surrender. I never really internalised the lessons but damn I love that movie.

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  16. This is a great article. The Karate Kid is my favorite movie. I have watched it at least a hundred times and you brought insight I hadn’t yet entirely gleened. My favorite scene in The Karate Kid is the bonsai trimming scene where Miyagi tells Daniel to ‘close eye’ imagine the tree and then make the perfect picture.

    This isn’t just a lesson in horticulture. It is a metaphor for goal-setting. Imagine what what would happen in our lives if we ‘close eye’ imagine the lives we want and then make the perfect picture.

    I happened upon this somewhat after the fact but great piece, man.

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