I think about the movie The Karate Kid, a lot. Not the remake with Jaden Smith, and not the YouTube Red reboot Cobra Kai, but the original, from 1984, starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita and Elisabeth Shue.
You may ask, of course, why I think of this movie so much, and frankly what I’m about to say probably won’t surprise you. The Karate Kid is a rather simple story, but its themes are still relevant today.
In the movie, Daniel LaRusso moves with his single parent mom from Newark, NJ to the San Fernando Valley, in LA. While trying to integrate into a new neighborhood, new school, new life, he runs afoul of some kids who proceed to bully him.
One night, while the bullies beat him up, Pat Morita’s character, the now-iconic Mr. Miyagi, comes to his rescue. He does some karate and dispels with the bullies, who when they’re not kicking Daniel’s ass, also train karate at the Cobra Kai dojo.
The next day, Daniel asks Mr. Miyagi if he can help teach him karate; Miyagi demurs, and instead brings Daniel down to Cobra Kai, hoping to squash things. But John Cleese, the sensei, isn’t hearing it. Before long they reach a compromise— Daniel and his main bully, Johnny, will face off at the All Valley Karate Championships, where they’ll be on equal footing. Until then, no more bullying. Cleese agrees and they part ways.
Next, Daniel begins his training. And this is the part that I think about a lot, because it’s here where Daniel takes part in the famous “wax on, wax off” scenes. Thinking he’s going to learn how to kick and punch, Daniel is surprised when Mr. Miyagi hands him a rag and instead tells him to wax his cars.
What the hell am I doing this for, Daniel thinks. But he continues. Next he is sanding a floor, finishing a fence, painting a house. Before long, he’s tired, frustrated, and most importantly read to get up. Mr. Miyagi, you’re wasting my goddamn time with this crap, he more or less says.
At which point Mr. Miyagi attacks. And Daniel, using the moves he learned waxing the cars, sanding the floor, finishing the fence, and painting the house, blocks him. You see, Mr. Miyagi says, maybe you aren’t wasting your time.
The point is that sometimes menial tasks which appear to have no purpose at all, are teaching you everything you need to know. And even though in the moment they frustrate you, make you want give up, it’s in this process where all the magic is actually happening.