What We Can Learn from the Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda has to be the greatest video game series of all time, right?

If you’ve never played a single Zelda game in your life, allow me to quickly explain: you’re a young boy named Link whose only possession is a wooden sword, and you’re tasked with defeating the evil Gannon and rescuing Princess Zelda. Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to relate if you have no clue what I’m talking about.  Just remember this: “a seemingly average kid sets out to become great, rescue the princess, and save the world.”

Think back to that very first game that came out in the 80’s, the one that started it all: the Legend of Zelda for the NES (bonus points if you had the gold cartridge).  Here are some important lessons about getting in shape that we can glean from this 8-bit masterpiece.

Be Wary of Shortcuts

After beating this game a few times, I came to the realization that entire levels can be bypassed! What kind of sucker goes through all of the levels in order when you can just jump ahead and use the shortcut, right!?

Well, I tried my hand at Level 8 with a wooden sword and a few hearts.  I got my ass kicked.

In the Legend of Zelda, all levels exist for a reason: You need to get stronger and build momentum off the early levels to allow you to survive in the later ones.  Sure, it certainly takes a lot longer to go through all the levels in order, but you’ll be far better prepared for battle and have a greater chance of success down the road.

  • If you’re building strength – Don’t be a hero and lift more than you should without learning the proper techniques first.  I spent a few weeks doing squats with just the bar to make sure I was doing them properly, and only then did I start adding weight (5 pounds a week).
  • If you’re losing weight – Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts, despite what you hear on TV and see in advertisements.  No magic pills you can take, no special machine to give you abs, no ‘secret diet’ that gets better results than others.  It’s hard work, healthy eating, and exercise.
  • If you want to run a marathon – Don’t just go sign up for one.  Try running a 5k first and see if you survive, then a 10k, then a half-marathon, and THEN conquer that full marathon (like Tony did this past weekend, congrats Endorphin Dude!).

Burn Every Bush, Bomb Every Wall

Back before the Internet and strategy guides, us kids had to figure out how to beat video games from trial and error. How do you kill that guy?  Turns out you had to shoot him in the eye three times with an arrow.  Did you know there was a secret heart container in a cave if you burned a certain nondescript bush?  How about that secret passageway if you bombed a hole in a specific wall that looked like every other freakin’ wall?

How did we learn about any of this stuff?

Because we TRIED IT OUT!

  • Before you go deciding you don’t like lifting weights, or that you think barefoot running is stupid, or that eating like a cavemen doesn’t make sense, TRY IT.
  • Before you make fun of Ultimate Frisbee, LARPing, or geocaching, TRY IT.
  • Before you tell yourself that it’s too hard or too far or not something you’re interested in, TRY IT.

Sure, you might fail, or you might fall down.  You also might LOVE it and succeed.

Only one way to find out…

Reward Yourself With Things That Can Reward You Back

I love the concept of awards and achievements. I’m not talking about eating a dozen cookies because “hey, I went to the gym!” either.  I’m talking about good rewards that actually help you push harder and live better.

Every time you beat a new level in a Legend of Zelda game, you generally receive a heart container (upping your health meter), a piece of the Triforce (which you need put back together in order to succeed), and a new weapon or item that allows you to advance further.

Add some real life prizes and achievements to your life, but make sure they’re prizes that take you closer to your goals, not farther away:

  • Once you lose 50 pounds, reward yourself with new workout clothes; you’ll feel better about yourself and actually WANT to go to the gym.
  • Once you complete 10 inverted rows for the first time, go buy yourself a pull up bar and work towards 10 of those.
  • Once you’ve completed your first 5k race, treat yourself to a new pair of shoes (or Vibrams) that will allow you to run faster next time.

Momentum is a powerful thing.  Enjoy each victory, celebrate your success, and use that momentum as stepping stone for your next goal.

The Impossible Is Possible

We play video games because they give us a chance to step into a fantasy world, doing impossible things like killing zombies and slaying dragons all from the comfort of our couches.

Put yourself in Link’s shoes for a second: you’re an ten year old kid with a crappy sword, and it’s your job to save the world and rescue a princess from an evil monster.  When I was ten, I played baseball and struggled with long division (that was 4th grade, right?).

So how did this little dude achieve greatness?

By putting one foot in front of the other.

Starting out, the thought of saving the world would be overwhelming to anybody, let alone a kid in a green tunic.  However, rather than concentrating on the big scary goal, Link focused on getting through the smaller ones, beating Level 1, then Level 2, then Level 3, and so on.  With each passing level, his strength and health grew, giving Link enough confidence to attack the next one.

Before all was said and done, this pre-teen from the forest was kicking ass and taking names, swinging the Master Sword and firing silver arrows like nobody’s business!

As Robert Heinlein famously remarked: “Everything is theoretically impossible until it is done.”

One day, I hope to attempt the Ninja Warrior course in Japan. It certainly seems impossible to me right now, but I know I can eventually get there if I take it one step at a time and stay focused.

What seems impossible to you right now? It might be 10 pull ups, losing 200 pounds, climbing a mountain, or completing a triathlon.  Whatever your “impossible” goal is, focus on finding smaller “levels” that you can conquer first.

What’s your “impossible” goal, and what’s one step you’re going to take today to get closer?



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83 thoughts on “What We Can Learn from the Legend of Zelda

  1. My impossible goal: Lose 40 Pounds and Write An Ebook too (It sounds like fun!)

    Today: Started off the day with a Protein filled pepperoni and cheese omlette, and ignoring my body's massive yearning for grain carbs.

    Thanks for the great post Steve!

  2. Epic article. Another analogy is that once you've struggled and made it to the next level, you've built knowledge and skills to show others how to do it too (ala Nerd Fitness :D).

  3. Impossible goal: lose 50 lbs OR lose 30 and be able to throw my girlfriend.

    Today: Complete my second workout in the Rookie level of the the Rebel Fitness Guide.

    (also, breakfast of english muffin and egg whites, yummy)

  4. My impossible goal is a 5k this September.

    And speaking of goals, were we supposed to start the next challenge this week? (I understand that you're busy, Steve, congrats on finishing the book!!!)

  5. Impossible goal: Survive a Triathlon (I just ran 5 miles for the first time in my life Wednesday and I always set my goals high)

    Great article and some good points and definitively my favorite game series. Thanks Steve.

  6. Hey Samantha!

    Due to the book launching I got all backed up, so I moved the launch of the next 28 day challenge to this Monday, August 2nd. You can sign up in the message board forums now!


  7. Awesome read man. My impossible goal is to run a half marathon. Ive been jogging 6 miles as of late, and im trying my best to shoot high.

  8. Great post Steve. I'm actually playing through Ocarina again, and am stuck on the Water Temple. I think I cheated as a kid, but I'm trying to do it straight through this time, lol. I have two impossible goals: 1) Dunk a basketball on a regulation rim. 2) Get on Ninja Warrior in Japan. I know the 2nd one is the same as you, but man I love that show. I'm in Japan now, and pondering forcing all my students into manual labor writing in letters to the television station begging them to let me in. It might just work. For dunking, today, my first step is resting and recovering from injuries. Next up, learning to squat and deadlift safely and progressing in that!

  9. Hey Matt!

    Yeah man, I don't remember how I beat the water temple as a kid either; that level was freaking impossible when I went back to play it again.

    You're in Japan now!? Go say what's up to Nagano for me 🙂

    As for dunking, squats, deadlifts, power-cleans, and box jumps are your friend 🙂


  10. Hey Super Mario!

    Nice of you to take some time out of your busy day saving the princess to join us 🙂

    If you can jog 6 miles, you can get to 7, and if you can do 7, you can get to 8…

    And once you're around 10, you can sign up for that half-marathon and your adrenaline should carry you the rest of the way.

  11. thanks for the shout Steve!

    I love the idea of rewarding yourself with things that reward yourself rather than rewarding yourself with things that will only set you back more.

  12. Great post Steve…even if I disagree and think Super Mario Bros. is the best game of all time. You're right though, incremental improvements and gradual, long-term thinking is key when making fitness/lifestyle changes. Well done!

  13. Great message. Nothing great was done in one swoop… thanks for helping us all stay focused and motivated 🙂

    PS: I've never been more excited to read your post; Zelda is my secret nerd card.

  14. Great message. Nothing great was done in one swoop… thanks for helping us all stay focused and motivated 🙂

    PS: I've never been more excited to read your post; Zelda is my secret nerd card.

  15. Steve,
    Awesome way to “link” Zelda to fitness. You hit the nail on the head with your points. My impossible goal is to get six pack abs…it's taking time but I know I'm slowly and patiently getting there.

  16. Getting on Sasuke (Ninja Warrior in US) isn’t that hard, especially for foreigners. They love getting foreigners to compete. I even know a handful of people who took it on. You should apply. The only thing you have going against you is that they only do it once or twice a year.

  17. Several years ago I biked across Canada. My friend gave me the best advice, as simple as it was. “Don’t worry about getting across the province, or even the country. Just, pick a point, say, that tree over there. And bike. Once you make it there, pick another point, and make it there. And before you know it, you’ll have crossed Canada!” One foot in front of the other, one pedal at a time. Took me four months, but I did it! Felt like I kicked Ganon’s ass when I was done!

  18. My impossible goal: Do a Planche Push-Up

    Today: Start Frog Stand training.

    Wicked post. Wicked Website – love it!


  19. Great Post! This is random but thanks for always having so many reference links in your blogs! They are super helpful!
    PS: My current goal is to be able to do 10 pull ups

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