This weekend’s epic snowstorm that hit the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast drove many of us to watch movies, and I took the opportunity to revisit an old favorite. After a few pleas and a little begging, I convinced my boys (ages 9 and 6) to watch The Karate Kid (original version) with me. Outside of Star Wars (and there are certainly parallels between both movies, such as Yoda/Mr. Miyagi and Luke Skywalker/Daniel-san), I am not sure there is a movie quoted as often in everyday life as The Karate Kid (although maybe just for my generation, who grew up in the 1980s!). “Wax on, wax off,” “Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything,” “Sweep the leg,” “Get him in a body bag, Johnny,” “No mercy,” and more are all part of our vocabulary. We watch movies and TV for entertainment value, but I try and make sure the movies I show my children also provide lessons that reinforce the values my wife and I are trying to instill. Here are some takeaways that I (and hopefully my kids) got from the movie.
Released in 1984, The Karate Kid is a classic underdog story. It follows the story of teenager Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) as he tries to fight back against bullies from the Cobra Kai karate dojo. After being attacked by the Cobra Kai students, Daniel is shocked to find himself being saved by his apartment building’s maintenance man, a kind old man named Miyagi. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing to teach him the discipline of karate, so that Daniel can face his enemies in an upcoming karate tournament.
- Life will knock you down … a lot. From almost the first scene, Daniel is having a tough time in his new home of southern California. He is getting bullied both physically and mentally. I am constantly getting reminded how imperfect life is, and regardless of your plans, something else will likely happen. In business, we have things like “disaster recovery” plans to ensure we are planning for the worst. Even though I like to remain positive in almost all situations, we need to recognize that life is simply going to knock us down a lot. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can get down to business to change things for the better.
- Every time you get knocked down, you get back up. We have talked a lot about resiliency at Learning House. While this is not an easy skill to build, it is possible. Daniel had resiliency, despite occasionally getting discouraged. One of the most important things you can do when you get knocked down is get up again. Daniel truly embodied the expression, “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” In the last scene, when he could barely walk (spoiler alert!), he still made his way on to the mat to fight and defeat his opponent. It’s almost a mantra for me at this point: “Get back up, every time I fall.”
- Practice the fundamentals and don’t worry about the fancy stuff. Bruce Lee has a great quote: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” When Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing, he makes him go through a series of training exercises that seem unrelated to karate, such as waxing a car, sanding a floor, painting a fence, etc. He does the same motion hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Practicing these basic movements made them second nature, helping him excel at karate. This reminds me of the famous story of Herschel Walker, the former NFL running back. He used to do approximately 3,500 push-ups a day and 3,500 sit-ups a day, and that was pretty much it for his workout. After having a stellar NFL career, he became an MMA fighter at age 53. You don’t always need the fancy machines to get the results you want in the gym and on the field.
- First learn stand, then learn fly. Daniel desperately wanted to learn how to do the Crane Kick. Had Miyagi put the kid up on the stump and forced him to learn a Crane Kick before anything else, Daniel might have failed miserably and given up. Instead, Miyagi taught Daniel progressively more difficult strikes, balancing techniques and blocks, which built up his confidence. Only then did he allow Daniel-san to learn the Crane Kick. Oftentimes, we want to rush our growth, but it’s unnecessary and can even be counterproductive. If you put in the hard work, the rewards will come.
- Books can only take you so far. I love the scene when Mr. Miyagi enters Daniel’s apartment to fix his faucet. Daniel is “practicing” karate by reading a book about karate. Having gone through five years of intensive Tae Kwon Do training, I understand there is no way a book would have taught me the lessons I learned from experience and working with great instructors. This is also a great lesson for us in our industry. There is definitely a push in society and media to outsource education to online videos and exercises. Can you learn how to swim by reading a book? At least for the next decade or so, I don’t think there is any replacement for learning through experience and with great instruction.
- Revenge is probably never in your best interest. Daniel-san thought it would be funny to splash water on the Cobra Kai member, Johnny, who was his primary enemy. Daniel had a moment of bravado, perhaps trying to impress his new girlfriend. I think all would agree not to play practical jokes on the guys who want to hurt you. Of course, Mr. Miyagi saves him, but that is unlikely to occur in real life. More importantly, revenge does not really help you further your goals, or, said another way, two wrongs don’t make a right.
- Nothing in life is free. People who saw the movie thought Mr. Miyagi was just teaching Daniel karate by making him do all that work around the house (wax on; wax off). But he was teaching him how to earn his keep. What was Mr. Miyagi supposed to do? Teach him for free? You think the Cobra Kais were getting taught for free? No way. You want something, then you have to pay for it one way or another. That’s life.
- Don’t listen to stupid people (even if they claim to be a “master”). Although this is not made clear, it’s hard to believe that Johnny lost the final match to Daniel-san. Not only was Daniel injured, but Johnny was clearly the superior opponent. It is my belief that Johnny had had enough with Kreese (Mr. Sweep the leg) and thus tanked the match because he knew that his teacher was asking him and his fellow Cobra Kais to fight unfairly.
- Belts don’t matter. There is a great scene when Daniel asks Mr. Miyagi what belt he has (expecting to hear black belt). Mr. Miyagi answers, “Canvas. JC Penney, $3.98. You like?” Then he goes on to say, “Daniel-san … [taps his head] Karate here. [taps his heart] Karate here. [points to his belt] Karate never here. Understand?” I think all of us, including me, get caught up sometimes on external validation. In the end, it is what is in your head and heart that matters.
- Money isn’t always the answer. The Karate Kid cost $10 million to make. In Hollywood terms, this is essentially nothing. In the end, it was the story and the ideas that matter and get to the heart of individuals (customers of the movie). Oftentimes in business, we think the answer is, “spend more money.” It’s not. We have to be smart and creative on how we approach our consumers, and we can find more efficient ways to achieve our goals and add tons of value to our customers.
Movies quite possibly are my favorite leisure activity as they bring great entertainment value, but they also often have poignant messages and lessons to learn. What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from movies?