Mental Health Recovery and the Karate Kid

One of the biggest problems people have with mental health recovery is they focus on the end goal instead of on the process.

When working through mental health recovery we have the tendency to focus on where we want to be or on a finish line that doesn’t exist. This limits our ability to navigate the journey and develop the skills necessary to change our lives.

“First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule Daniel son, not mine” – Mr. Miyagi

What can we learn from the Karate Kid and Mr. Miyagi?

Photo Credit – Here

In early recovery, I often focused on the people in my recovery groups that were ‘ahead’ of me. This caused me to wish I wasn’t where I was, it perpetuated my habit of comparing myself to others and made me feel I wasn’t good enough. My teacher kept bringing me back to the present and to the routine tasks of everyday recovery. He would always say “Mike, our focus is on the process, not the finish line” He helped me understand that there is no finish line. Our recovery happens on its own time, and if we rush because we think we need to complete it, then we miss the point.

He kept reminding me of the Karate Kid and Mr. Miyagi. If you haven’t seen this movie, the first lesson the Karate kid learns is to ‘wax on, wax off’. His sensei Mr. Miyagi has him do many tasks that on the surface seem to have no utility. Wax this car, he says, paint this fence, scrub this floor. The Karate Kid was bothered by his insistence that he ‘wax on, wax off’.  He focused on where he thought he should be, rather than where he was. It wasn’t until the day came when the skills he learned in the mundane everyday tasks came to be his greatest strength and helped him when he needed them most.

I’m lucky I had my own version of Mr. Miyagi to guide me into the present and focus on ‘Wax on, wax off’ rather than where I thought I should be. By focusing on what I was doing to the best of my ability, I built a structure with a strong foundation that wouldn’t collapse under the stress of recovery. To this day, I ‘wax on, wax off’ because that’s where the magic lies and where I’ve cultivated the toolkit that builds my resilience and well-being.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t know where you want to go, or set goals for yourself because those things are essential to recovery. What I am saying, is to keep your focus on the small mundane, day-to-day tasks of the process. Do them with the highest level of commitment you can muster every time you do them. If you can do that, I promise you, the imagined finish line you need to cross will disappear and the journey that replaces it will bring you a joy and fulfillment you can’t imagine.

“We should work on our process, not the outcome of our processes.” W. Edwards Deming 

I have ah-ha moments where things come together in unimaginable ways. Through years of focused, but not always perfect ‘wax on, wax off’ I embrace and even cherish the simple, but not easy tasks that are the foundations of my health and well-being. I encourage you to fall in love with the process and see the value in doing the work, rather than what the work creates. If you do this, you’ll be thrilled with the outcome and you’ll get to enjoy it that much more.

I challenge you to ask yourself these questions.

Do I get lost in an imagined ‘finish line’?

Do I get caught up in the ‘fruits’ of my labour, instead of the labour itself?


One foot in front of the other.
Every step is the most important step.


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