5 Things Mr. Miyagi Taught Me About Being an Entrepreneur

So I had a strange dream last night. It happens sometimes when I’ve been losing sleep for a while, then suddenly get a full night’s worth. My brain doesn’t know what to do with all the extra time. It’s like a comedian who only has twenty minutes of material prepared, is told at the last minute they’ll be on stage for half an hour, suddenly has to ad lib to fill the time, and ends up telling slightly unsettling stories about some relative of theirs who only has eight toes.

In the dream, I sat in the passenger seat of an old green station wagon, driving from New Jersey to California. If not for the person driving the car, I might have thought the dream was triggered by last week’s article about moving across the country with my brother. But he wasn’t behind the wheel. It was my mother. Only … it wasn’t my mother. It was a mother. The one from the first Karate Kid movie.

Which my family and I had just watched about a week ago.

FUN FACT: The actress who plays Daniel’s mother in that movie is also named Randy Heller. She’s always called “Randee Heller” in movie credits, but apparently that’s only her screen name. Needless to say, this earned me some ribbing when I first saw the movie in the theaters with my friends back in high school.

Anyway, so there I was, Randy Heller, driving through the desert with my mother, Randy Heller. I’m sure Sigmund Freud would have a field day with that one. Yet before the Oedipal implications could be fully realized, we arrived at the same dumpy motel in California that becomes the LaRusso’s new home in the movie.

At this point, I expected to see the old lady from the movie sitting in a lawn chair by the mostly empty pool in the courtyard. Instead, it was old Mr. Miyagi himself, typing away on a shiny white MacBook in his lap.

There was an empty chair next to him, so I pulled up a seat.

“What are you working on?” I asked.

“Hai!” he responded, gruffly. “Miyagi in zone! No bother!”

“Fine,” I said. “I was just curious.”

So I sat there in silence for a while, wishing I had my own laptop with me, but remembered I had left it on my desk back in New Jersey. That sucks, I thought. How would I get my client work done? Which made no sense, of course, because I wasn’t really me, I was Daniel, a high school student. But dreams rarely make sense.

Finally, the old man closed his MacBook, smiled, and said, “Miyagi done.”

“What were you writing?” I asked.

“Scope of work for website messaging client,” he replied.

“Really? I thought you were a maintenance man.”

“Hai. Miyagi have side hustle for many years.”

“Good for you,” I said, nodding. “You know, I’m just starting out with my own business. Is there any … you know … ‘wax on wax off’ kind of advice you can give me?” I mimed the circular waxing motion with my hands, figuring he’d get the reference.

But he just stared at me like I was crazy. “Miyagi no understand.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Bad joke.”

“How long you have business?” he asked.

“Not very long. Less than a year at this point. I still don’t know if I made the right decision leaving my full-time job. It’s been harder than I expected.”

“Close eyes,” he said.

“Um. Okay.” I did as I was told. “Now what?”

“Concentrate. Think only future you want for you. Make a perfect picture. Wipe your mind clean of everything but perfect future. Nothing exists in whole world. No past. Only future. You got it?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Open eyes,” he said. “Remember picture?”

“Yeah.”

“Make future like picture. Just trust picture.”

I thought about this, then asked, “But how do I know my picture’s the right one?”

“If come from inside you …” The old man tapped my chest. “Always right one.”

“Wow,” I said. “Okay. Thanks. That’s actually helpful.”

“What kind business you have?” he asked.

“Similar to yours actually. When I first started last year, I was all over the place. I did some web development, some programming, some graphic design, some writing …”

“Hai, Randy-san,” he said, interrupting me. “Must talk.”

“Wait, but I was about to say …”

Miyagi made kind of an annoyed “tut-tut-tut” sound that shut me right up.

“Walk on road,” he said, making a road with his hands. “Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later …” He squeezed an invisible rag in his hands and made a weird noise with his mouth. “Get a squished, just like grape. Business same thing. You web dev do or writing do, safe. You all over the place do, then sooner or later …” Weird noise again. “Get a squished, just like grape.”

My first instinct was to ask what he had against grapes, but decided to keep this to myself. Instead, I just said, “Yeah. That’s why I decided to focus on writing.”

He nodded wisely at this. “You have clients?”

“A few, yes. Not as many as I’d like.”

“First learn stand,” he said. “Then learn fly.”

“Um. Sure. I guess so. Thanks. It’s just … you know, I have bills to pay. A family to support. What if I can’t get enough clients to do that? It’s a bit scary sometimes.”

“Hai, Randy-san. Is okay to lose to opponent. Must never lose to fear.”

This time, I nodded. “So, like … all we have to fear is fear itself?”

Miyagi squinted at me. “No understand.”

“It’s a famous quote from … you know, never mind. Not important. I really just want to learn the secret of being successful with my business. I’m working all the time. Even nights and weekends. But it’s hard to get traction.”

“Better to learn balance,” he said. “Balance is key. Balance good, business good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home. Understand?”

“You mean, like balance my work and life better?”

“Hai.” He gave me a curt nod. “Miyagi go now. Have networking event.”

“Oh. Okay. Well … thanks for all the advice.”

By that point, though, the old man had already walked around the corner and disappeared, leaving me sitting alone at the edge of the pool.

But something had changed. When I first got there, the pool had been mostly empty, as it was in the movie, the bottom covered by maybe a foot of brackish water. Now it was filled to the top with clear blue water, off the surface of which the sunlight glistened and winked. In fact, the entire courtyard seemed cleaner now. Shinier. Full of life.

Okay, so for the record, none of that actually happened. I mean, I did watch The Karate Kid with my family a week ago. And I did have some strange dreams last night. But none of them were about Miyagi or MacBooks or dumpy motels.

I just happened to be thinking about life/business coaches today. (In case you hadn’t noticed, there are quite a few on LinkedIn.) And it occurred to me that Mr. Miyagi might have made a good one. So I decided to channel him for a little while. To see what kind of homespun wisdom he might be able to offer me.

To summarize, below is what he had to say, along with my interpretation of what I think he was saying. He tends to be a little on the cryptic side.

If your vision comes from inside you, it’s always the right one.

We hear a lot these days about the need for entrepreneurs to “visualize” their success. But it’s important that the vision you’re pursuing is your vision. The one that comes from inside of you. It’s too easy to look at the success stories of others and try to emulate them. But the road to success is littered with the bodies of people who made this mistake. You should learn from the example of others, yes. But in the end, it’s important to pursue your own unique path.

Don’t walk in the middle of the road. Choose a side.

The road to success is also littered with the bodies of people who were “squished like grapes” because they didn’t have sense enough not to walk in the middle of it. When marketing your business, you should be able to state for prospective clients what exactly it is you do, what problem you solve, and how you are the best solution for them in as few words as possible. That’s hard to do if you’ve positioned yourself as somebody who does a little of everything for everybody, tempting as that path may be.

First learn to stand. Then learn to fly.

The entrepreneurial “overnight success” story is largely a myth. Even if it may seem to the outside world as if somebody has experienced huge success in a relatively short amount of time, the odds are good that it was built on years of learning and preparation and hard work. And that all happens on the ground, not in the sky. It’s great to “paint a picture” of yourself flying. But be sure to figure out how to use your legs first.

It’s okay to lose to an opponent, but never to fear.

Returning to that road to success, it’s important to understand that you’ll experience no shortage of external obstacles on it. Like your competition. Or budget crunches for your clients. Or bad economies. So some days and weeks and months, it’s going to be hard to eke out a win. And that’s okay. What’s not okay is letting your own internal fear and self-doubt defeat you before all of those other factors even have a chance to.

Balance is key. If your balance is good, everything is good.

When your business is you, and you are your business, it’s all too easy to get lost in it. One more hour here, another there. Prospecting for clients, doing the actual work for clients, maybe trying to find investors, tweaking your website, networking and engaging, creating content for LinkedIn. It all adds up. But if it closes you off from your family and friends, or worse, makes you lose your smile, is it worth it? Try to find a balance. Otherwise, when things get really bad, you’ll “fall over” far too easily.

This last lesson is the one I haven’t been following well enough myself so far this year. And it’s only going to get harder to follow as my business ramps up (a good problem to have) and I consider adding content like a weekly podcast to my lineup. But I figure if I ever stray too far off course, I can always just fire up the DVD player, or get a good night’s sleep, and see what wise old Mr. Miyagi has to say about it.


This article was originally published on LinkedIn on February 27, 2019.