Fuck the Karate Kid
Tuesday, February 16th, 2010
I think The Karate Kid ruined the modern world.
Not just that movie, but all of the movies like it (you certainly can’t let the Rocky sequels escape blame). Basically any movie with a training montage.
You know what I’m talking about; the main character is very bad at something, then there is a sequence in the middle of the film set to upbeat music that shows him practicing. When it’s done, he’s an expert.
When I run out of ideas for horror novels (which will happen about, oh, two horror novels from now) I want to write this up as a self-help book, probably titled Fuck the Karate Kid: Why Life is So Much Harder Than We Think, by Dr. David Wong. I also have to become a doctor at some point.
(NOTE: If you’re new here, hi, my name is David Wong and I wrote John Dies at the End, available everywhere in hardcover etc).
It seems so obvious that it actually feels insulting to point it out. But it’s not obvious; every adult I know–or at least the ones who are depressed–continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it’s with effort. It’s Effort Shock.
We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at their job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.
Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s ten or twenty times harder. Like losing weight. You make yourself miserable for six months and find yourself down a whopping four pounds. Let yourself go at a single all-you-can-eat buffet and you’ve gained it all back.
So, people bail on diets. Not just because they’re harder than they expected, but because they’re so much harder it seems unfair, almost criminally unjust. You can’t shake the bitter thought that, “This amount of effort should result in me looking like a panty model.”
And it applies to everything. America is full of frustrated, broken, baffled people because so many of us think, “If I work this hard, this many hours a week, I should have (a great job, a nice house, a nice car, etc). I don’t have that thing, therefore something has corrupted the system and kept me from getting what I deserve, and that something must be (my wife, my boss, the government, illegal immigrants etc).”
Or, think about the whole economic collapse and the bad credit bubble. You can imagine millions of working types saying, “All right, I have NO free time. I work every day, all day. I come home and take care of the kids. We live in a tiny house, with two shitty cars. And we are still deeper in debt every single month.” So they borrow and buy on credit because they have this unspoken assumption that, damn it, the universe will surely right itself at some point and the amount of money we should have been making all along (according to our level of effort) will come raining down.
All of it comes back to having those massively skewed expectations of the world. Even the people you think of as pessimists, they got their pessimism by continually seeing the world fail to live up to their expectations, which only happened because their expectations were grossly inaccurate in the first place.
You know that TV show where Gordon Ramsay tours various failing restaurants and swears at the owners until everything is fine again? Every episode is a great example. They all involve some haggard restaurant owner, a half a million dollars in debt, looking exhausted into the camera and saying, “How can we be losing money? I work ninety hours a week!”
The world demands more. So, so much more. How have we gotten to adulthood and failed to realize this? Why would our expectations of the world be so off? I blame the montages. Five breezy minutes, from sucking at karate to being great at karate, from morbid obesity to trim, from geeky girl to prom queen, from terrible garage band to awesome rock band.
In the real world, the winners of that Karate tournament in Karate Kid would be the kids who had been at it since they were in elementary school. Skipping video games and days out with their friends and birthday parties so they can practice, practice, practice. And that’s just what it takes to get “pretty good” at it. Want to know how long it takes to become an expert at something? About 10,000 hours, according to research.
That’s practicing two hours a day, every day, for almost 14 years.
As a lot of you know, I’m the Editor over at Cracked.com and what many of you don’t know is that we run the site on a unique, open submission system where anybody can submit an article idea, and everybody’s idea–whether submitted by a 15 year-old anime fan or a Nobel Prize-winning journalist–comes in through the same system, on equal footing. Then we have a way of filtering out the horrible ones and getting it down to just the ones we want to publish.
So I deal with literally thousands of aspiring writers and I never get tired of watching people experience Effort Shock, and seeing how they deal with it. It’s great to work with the special few who can fight through it. And it is a fight; people fucking freak out when they get into the writing process and realize how many hours a good article is going to suck from their free time.
Yeah, Cracked is just doing short little comedy articles, not building skyscrapers. But that makes it worse; because everything is written in a conversational style and is full of boner jokes, it seems to the casual observer like you should be able to sit down and just pound out an article in an hour or so (where this one took me about 30 hours).
I bring all of this up now because I’m giving a talk at JordanCon, a fantasy book convention in a couple of months about my ridiculous, roundabout path to getting my book published (if you’ll be in the South this spring, JordanCon will be held at the Crowne Plaza Ravinia at Perimeter April 23-25th in Atlanta, GA). And I hope I can convey this without turning everybody off.
John Dies at the End took eight years to get where it is now, in fancy hardcover on real book store shelves. But I wasn’t drinking and sleeping in my car that whole time, waiting to get discovered. I was working two jobs and updating a website three times a week and getting those ten thousand hours in.
Oh, I sure as fuck didn’t realize it at the time. Don’t let me come off as a guru here; I’m three years removed from looking at the Classifieds and seriously considering making ends meet with night jobs that would have had me cleaning toilets.
I walked out of college at 22 thinking I was going to be king of the world within a few years. Ten years later I had failed at one career, then failed at another, tried to go back to school twice, accumulated $15,000 in credit card debt, and was working at a job where I was one promotion above high school kids.
I felt like I was working myself to death. Year after year. And even then, so many things had to break my way to get what I have now. I lost hope and lowered my expectations over and over and over. Nothing that had happened in my life up to that point prepared me for it. Nobody told me.
Fucking Karate Kid.
Anyway. I know what will make us feel better:
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