Tired of Life Kicking Your Ass? Learn to Fight Back Like a True ‘Cobra Kai’

Editor’s Note: This article was originally written in June, 2018 when I discovered Cobra Kai season 1 after its initial release on YouTube. I then wrote this article and leveraged it land my dream job editing this show. I have since edited Seasons 2-5 of this series, and I’m also an associate producer.

Interested in learning how I landed my dream job editing Cobra Kai even though I didn’t know any of the producers or directors?

Click here to listen to my in-depth interview with Cobra Kai creators Jon Hurwitz, Josh Heald, and Hayden Schlossberg

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the last thirty years, you’re no doubt familiar with The Karate Kid – the inspiring underdog story of Daniel Larusso, an awkward teen from Newark who moves to ‘The Valley’ and is relentlessly bullied until he learns to defend himself and find balance in his life thanks to his neighbor, mentor, father figure, and sensei Mr. Miyagi.

You’re also no doubt familiar with the iconic scene where Daniel Larusso wins the All Valley Karate Tournament, defeating his nemesis Johnny Lawrence of Cobra Kai with his infamous “Crane kick.”

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How is it possible this was THIRTY FOUR YEARS AGO???

Despite three decades of sequels (and a remake I will not mention any further), what the saga has yet to reveal is the ripple effect of taking that crane kick to the face. If you’ve ever wondered how losing to Daniel Larusso changed the life of Johnny Lawrence, the wait is finally over thanks to the brilliant new YouTube Red (Ahem…NETFLIX) series Cobra Kai.

If you’re not familiar with The Karate Kid saga, Cobra Kai is incredibly entertaining, funny, poignant, completely self-aware, and inspiring. I highly recommend it as the next binge worthy show on your watchlist.

If you’re a “Child of the 80’s” and you grew up with The Karate Kid like I did, then Cobra Kai is quite possibly the Best. Thing. Ever.

Before reading ahead be aware this article is not a review of Cobra Kai (but if it were, I’d give it 5 out of 5 “crane kicks”).

Also be warned THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SEASON 1 SPOILERS if you haven’t watched yet.

While there’s no question the filmmakers crafted this series with great love, care, and admiration for the original saga, what’s not quite as evident upon a first viewing are the powerful life lessons hidden deep within.

In our current climate of divisive politics and the reemergence of bigotry, racism, and hatred for those who might think or act differently than you, it’s fitting that our newest hero is Johnny Lawrence, the most notorious bully in cinematic history (and the embodiment of everyone who made my life hell growing up as a “creative” child).

How ‘The Karate Kid’ Saved My Life

Being highly creative, introverted, and scrawny from a very early age, I was always labeled “different” (well…the kids labeled me much worse, let’s just leave it at that). I have memories dating back to preschool of the first time I was bullied, and unfortunately those memories span well into my junior year of high school.

I’ve been sucker-punched in the gut, slapped on the back of the head, tripped, had my locker super glued shut, been spit on, had gum put in my hair, had my head shoved in a toilet (and then had it flushed for what was termed a “Swirly”), been dragged through the mud, and been verbally abused and called more names than I can recount.

Yup. Been there, done that.

Movies became my escape from the nightmare that was elementary through high school, and The Karate Kid was THE formative film of my youth. I spent countless hours practicing the crane kick against anything I could find, including throwing my mattress against a wall. Kicking the crap out of my twin bed only got me so far, however, so eventually at the encouragement of my dad I formally started martial arts in my early teens.

I did not study martial arts as a means of getting in shape, and it was not a fun extracurricular activity to boost my college applications. I studied martial arts for over a decade and earned a black belt for one reason only: Survival.

I credit much of my success in life to the lessons learned from overcoming adversity in my youth, and luckily I haven’t been physically bullied for over twenty years.

But that doesn’t mean the bullying has stopped.

When you become an adult bullying often takes much subtler forms, and unfortunately if you do creative work for a living, there’s a high probability you were probably one of the “weird kids” like me and you are still a socially awkward introvert.

While you may not get spit on in the hallways anymore, you have probably been taken advantage of or outright bullied in some way in your professional career:

Whatever or whomever the figurative (or literal) bully might be in your life, there’s no better place to learn how to defend yourself and fight back than stealing from the enemy’s playbook.

Here are five life lessons from Johnny Lawrence, the most notorious bully in cinematic history, to inspire you to take back your self respect and kick some ass like a true Cobra Kai.

Lesson #1: “If you’re gonna be something other than a nerd with a scar on his lip, then you gotta flip the script.”

At some point after his loss to Daniel Larusso Johnny Lawrence bumped into Marty McFly and borrowed the DeLorean because he clearly time-traveled from the 80’s. He skipped the last thirty four years of participation trophies, sensitivity training, helicopter parents, social justice warriors, political correctness, and the bubble wrap that we smother kids with today to shield them from potential danger and failure.

As he explains to his very first student Miguel on day one of training:

“We do not allow weakness in this dojo. You can leave your asthma and your peanut allergies and all that other made up bullshit outside. You don’t want to be a pussy, you want to have balls.”

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Sensei, don’t you think you’re doing a lot of genderizing?

A few months later as his dojo becomes more popular, Johnny reluctantly finds himself inundated with every freak, loser, pussy, and nerd in school who wants to learn karate. And Johnny is merciless in pointing out how different, weird, and weak they really are. In one iconic scene he relentlessly badgers Eli Moskewitz who was born with a cleft palate.

“If you don’t want me to call you ‘Lip’ then don’t have a weird lip.”

Because of his facial deformity, Eli has lived his whole life being bullied, leaving him weak. The principal even announces to the whole school that Eli’s mom called complaining about kids cyberbullying her child. The sheer embarrassment leaves poor Eli in tears.

While his methods might be questionable, the lesson Johnny teaches Eli is that despite the bad luck of being born with a facial deformity, he has the power to flip the negative script he constantly rewrites every day about being a loser and instead become whoever he wants to be (lip scar included).

Eli of course storms out of class in a huff leaving one to assume he’s gone home crying to mommy once again. But instead Eli chooses to “flip the script,” and he comes back to class the next day as “Hawk.”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a loser or a nerd or a freak. All that matters is that you become badass.”

If you’re a grown adult and life is pushing you around, or even worse you are the victim of bullying, there is no excuse for others treating you with disrespect. But you’re also no longer a defenseless child who needs mommy to call the principal.

You can either accept other people treating you like crap because:

“This is just the way things are in my business,”

“This is what it takes to climb the ladder,”

or even worse, “I probably deserve it”

…Or you can flip the script.

Rather than thinking “I really need this job right now” everytime someone pushes you around, you can instead rewrite that script to read:

There is no opportunity valuable enough that it gives you the right to treat me with disrespect.

If people still treat you like crap even after making it clear that you are someone who deserves respect, then have the confidence to leave your job knowing there is always another opportunity out there somewhere.

Lesson #2: “You want a fair fight? You can’t think your enemies are always going to play by the rules. You have to be prepared for anything.”

If you’re familiar with the original Karate Kid series, than you already know the Cobra Kai dojo is infamous for fighting dirty. In Johnny’s mind not much has changed in the last thirty-four years, and he continues to teach the same approach…only in a much more endearing way.

Rather than teaching his students how to fight dirty offensively, he instead strengthens their defenses by subjecting them to bullying far worse than just calling out their facial deformities. His methods include using pitching machines to throw baseballs at them, handing all of his students beef jerky and then unleashing hungry pit bulls, and class sessions where everyone gets punched in the face (hard) to get rid of all the ‘flinchers.’

“Did you just flinch, virgin?”

Now I don’t recommend starting a fight climb at your office to get rid of all the ‘flinchers,’ but if you want to be prepared for the long hours, the stress, the impossible deadlines, and people looking for every opportunity to take advantage of your time and your creative talents, you have to start taking care of yourself.

When the fight comes to you, you need to have the energy to defend yourself.

You aren’t going to get stronger and develop self respect by sitting for sixteen straight hours eating M&M’s, chips, pizza, and chasing your afternoon Starbucks with Red Bull.

I guarantee that proudly wearing your “sleep deprivation badge of honor” and bragging about it to your boss or co-workers will not win you any brownie points either. Demonstrate that you’re okay running yourself into the ground, and others will assume it’s okay to do the same.

Pushing yourself beyond your limits only leads to one destination: Burnoutsville.

Take a good look at the way you treat yourself and then honestly ask if you’re treating your body and your mind with the same respect you want others to treat you with. If you’re less than satisfied with your ability to fight back, it’s time to level the playing field.

If people at work give you a hard time or make offhand remarks because you’re overweight, they’re assholes. But losing 25 pounds wouldn’t hurt either.

If you walk around the office with your shoulders shrugged forwards and your eyes fixed on the floor because you don’t have the confidence to look people straight in the eye, that doesn’t given them the right to passively belittle you. But hitting the gym or a spinning class a couple days a week could do you a world of good.

Running Spartan Races isn’t my hobby because I enjoy torturing myself, I train for obstacle course racing because it helps me develop “Obstacle Immunity” and better manage the assholes of life.

If there’s a crisis at work and people are losing their minds, I’m generally the calm at the center of the storm because I’ve prepared both my body and mind to handle extreme amounts of physical and mental stress.

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A shitty Monday is much easier to manage if you just spent your weekend crawling through mud and under barbed wire while getting sprayed in the face with a fire hose.

You don’t need to sign up for a Spartan Race to manage a crazy job or fight back against bullies at work, but you do need to start treating yourself with more respect if you expect others to do the same.

My first recommendation if you’re not sure where to begin is to step away from your desk, take a 15 minute walking break, and get moving.

And if you work at a job where it’s unacceptable to take a 15 minute break, it’s time to find a new job.

Lesson #3: “Just because someone lives in a nice house doesn’t mean nice things are going on inside.”

For thirty four years we’ve known Johnny Lawrence as only one thing: A bully. He’s a rich kid who lives in Encino Hills, gets the pretty girls, wins all the karate tournaments, rides to school on a dirt bike, and is virtually invincible.

The moment that Cobra Kai goes from being great to downright awesome is when we flashback to Johnny as a young kid and learn that he too was scrawny, weak, and (gasp!) a nerd.

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Holy crap: Johnny Lawrence was a nerd too! Just. Like. Us.

After a series of random events, Johnny and Daniel are forced to spend the day together and get to know each other better as adults. Upon learning that like Daniel Johnny also grew up in a broken household without a Dad, Daniel instantly softens and sees Johnny in a completely different light.

Perhaps for the first time in his entire life, Daniel feels something he has never felt before for the guy that made his life a living hell: Compassion.

Different. But same.

The next time you are treated with disrespect by a client, colleague, or your boss, instead of immediately getting angry and thinking about what an asshole they are, try stepping into their shoes for a second. I’ll bet good money you’re being treated poorly because someone higher up is treating that person the same way.

If you’re an assistant and the person you’re working for yells at you, odds are they are being pushed harder and treated even worse than how they are treating you.

If you’re a freelancer and the client you’re working for takes advantage of you, doesn’t pay you, or belittles your lack of talent, most likely the company financing your client is squeezing them equally hard (or harder).

And most importantly, if you’re constantly being pressured or bullied, take a second to make sure you’re not taking out that aggression on others.

While I am embarrassed to admit it, despite being relentlessly bullied as a child, I also got in trouble on more than one occasion because…wait for it…I bullied other kids. I regret behaving that way to this day, and being a young teenager was no excuse. I’ve spent a lifetime changing my behavior realizing the only thing that hurts worse than being bullied is when you look in the mirror and realize you might be the bully yourself.

When someone treats you with disrespect, instead of making your default reaction anger, try compassion instead. If it worked for The Buddha, Martin Luther King Jr, and Gandhi, it might work for you too.

Maybe for once in your life it’s not all about you. Maybe their poor behavior is about them and what’s going on in their life right now.

Or they could also just be an asshole.

Lesson #4: “Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.”

These are the three foundational principles of Cobra Kai.

If we’re talking martial arts philosophy, I do not condone this approach. When the potential for a physical altercation presents itself, I was taught to first talk my way out of a fight. If that simply isn’t possible, the next step is to walk away from the fight. And if the fight insists on pursuing me, then I use my years of training to fight the fight…but only after they strike first.

Dealing with life in general is unfortunately not so simple. If life wants to pick a fight with you, you can’t use that as an excuse for why your life sucks.

A Cobra Kai never plays the role of the victim.

“You wake up one morning feeling great, and then life throws a spinning heel kick to your balls and takes a steaming shit in your mouth. Life shows no mercy. We do whatever it takes to keep moving forwards. We do whatever it takes to win.”

While there is no excuse for others treating you with disrespect, there is also no excuse for allowing it.

If you allow a superior to get away with making you work one unpaid weekend, I guarantee they’ll keep asking.

If you allow a client to not pay you on time, if you keep coming back for more what incentive do they have to every pay you in time in the future?

If you don’t stand up for yourself, report bad behavior, or outright quit when someone verbally harasses or abuses you, you are expliciting demonstrating that you will accept harassment and abuse in the future.

To be clear: If this behavior comes out of nowhere and you are caught blindsided, there is no defense for that and your only option is to react after the damage has been done (and it’s not your fault). But if it’s not the first time, the blame must be shared.

Fool me once, shame on you. But fool me twice?

If your gut reaction about your new job is that someone might take advantage of your time or possibly not pay you, don’t wait and “hope” that it all goes okay…

…Strike first.

Make it clear you will not work without a written contract and a portion of payment up front. If they refuse, you haven’t lost a job opportunity, you’ve avoided a shitshow.

If a co-worker or superior belittles you, demeans you, harasses you, and outright abuses you, don’t wait for the problem to go away or for this person to change…

…Strike hard.

After doing your best to approach the situation with compassion (see lesson #3), the next step is to confront this person (in a respectful and professional manner, of course) and make it crystal clear this behavior will not be allowed to continue. You might be surprised at how quickly bullies back down when they get a taste of their own medicine.

If you’re not getting the opportunities you feel you deserve in your career, don’t use that as an excuse for why you’re stuck or unhappy even if you’re being harassed or discriminated against…

…Show no mercy.

Continue to show up every single day energetic, attentive, and passionate, and do amazing work no matter how tough the situation might be. The number one weapon you have that will help you rise above your competition is consistency. (If you don’t have the energy to show up as your best self consistently, refer once again to lesson #2 and get moving, and then continue to lesson #5)

Lesson #5: “You want to learn how to kick ass? First you have to learn how to kick.”

One of the things that I love and respect about Cobra Kai is how it follows the tried and true formula of the original Karate Kid and successfully achieves the impossible by having Johnny Lawrence fill the Mr. Miyagi role.

Daniel begged Mr. Miyagi to learn how to punch but instead spent his afternoons waxing cars, painting fences, and sanding floors. This of course led to the iconic scene where Daniel discovers all of his grunt work was designed for a very specific purpose: Developing the muscle memory and perfecting the proper technique to defend himself, a la “Wax on, wax off.”

Like Daniel, Johhny’s first student Miguel is also eager to learn karate as quickly as possible so he can fight back against his bullies, but in true Johnny Lawrence fashion he makes his first student Miguel wash the windows, the mats, and even clean the toilets.

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“Sensei, is there any particular way you want me to wash these windows?”

“Nah, I don’t give a shit. Whatever is easiest.”

While Johnny’s methods might not be as polished or iconic as “Wax on, wax off,” the lesson is the same:

If you intend to become the best version of yourself, you have to do it one step at a time…and you have to start at the beginning.

No matter how useless, menial, or benign the task you’re doing might seem, as long as the people asking you to do it are treating you with respect (and paying you), there is always a lesson to be learned. Just because a job sucks doesn’t mean someone is a bully because they asked you to do it.

You might think you’re too good to get people’s lunches, file paperwork, change the trash bags, or capitalize the first letter of every single folder on your boss’ computer because they’re OCD, but if you do each of these tasks with focus and attention to detail coupled with a smile, people will notice.

How you do anything is how you do everything.

Attention to detail, consistently following through, and showing up every day with a positive attitude are what get you to the top spot on people’s contact lists, not how amazing you are using a certain piece of software.

Furthermore if you’re dying to reach the top of your career ladder and think you don’t need to put in the time, think again. You are not a special unique snowflake that has been blessed with amazing creative talents the likes of which the world has never seen before. Those whom you admire in your industry who have reached the top got where they are because they have dedicated their life to their craft. They have spent decades figuratively “sanding the floor” and “painting the fence,” and there is no shortcut just for you.

Most importantly: Just showing up is not enough.

Adults don’t get participation trophies.

Doing your job well for a year doesn’t automatically qualify you for a promotion – performance, attitude, and real-world experience matter. So if you’re making excuses about why you haven’t reached a certain level of success, instead of pointing fingers at those around you for holding you down, have the confidence to look inwards and see if there’s something about you that still needs to improve.

Shed Your Cobra Skin and Find Your True Power

Whether you’re fighting figurative bullies in your life or literal assholes, it is your responsibility to defend yourself. Nobody is going to save you but you.

  • If you’re tired of people treating you with disrespect, stop blaming circumstances and instead flip the script.
  • If you’re expecting life to give you a fair fight, think again. You have to expect the unexpected and be prepared.
  • Before rushing to judgment against those treating you with disrespect, try taking an alternate approach and show a little compassion.
  • Stop playing the role of the victim and take responsibility for every event in your life. Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.
  • No matter what you hope to achieve, you have to be willing to do the grunt work to reach your desired destination, and your attitude matters. How you do anything is how you do everything.

Ready to shed your your cobra skin and find your true power?

» Click here to join my ‘Optimizer’ coaching & mentorship program

Zack Arnold (ACE) is an award-winning Hollywood film editor & producer (Cobra Kai, Empire, Burn Notice, Unsolved, Glee), a documentary director, father of 2, an American Ninja Warrior, and the creator of Optimize Yourself. He believes we all deserve to love what we do for a living...but not at the expense of our health, our relationships, or our sanity. He provides the education, motivation, and inspiration to help ambitious creative professionals DO better and BE better. “Doing” better means learning how to more effectively manage your time and creative energy so you can produce higher quality work in less time. “Being” better means doing all of the above while still prioritizing the most important people and passions in your life…all without burning out in the process. Click to download Zack’s “Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Creativity (And Avoiding Burnout).”