What Cobra Kai Teaches Us about Empathy and Other-Awareness

Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and his star pupil, Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña)

Self-awareness is a hot topic nowadays.

You can hardly open a business or psychology book without coming across numerous mentions of emotional intelligence, EQ or self-awareness.

The theory of objective self-awareness goes back to 1972, when it was published by Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund. Daniel Goleman’s definition of self-awareness, immortalized in his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, simply puts it down to “knowing one’s internal states, preference, resources, and intuitions.”

I’ve written previously that we probably shouldn’t trust our intuitions, because they are a byproduct of evolutionary programming, genetics, fetal conditions, infancy and upbringing, past experience, microbiome activity and our current environment.

Given this, there is immense value in being self-aware. Knowing that a feeling in our gut willing us not to do something we really need to — like make an important presentation in front of a large audience — is really just evolutionary programming which is trying to mitigate our chances of being ostracised from our tribe so that we can survive. Perhaps that made sense thousands of years ago — when we relied upon our tribes for survival — but no so much today.

With self-awareness, we are better able to navigate the world without always falling victim to involuntary reactions that serve to sabotage us, rather than serve us.

But what about Other-Awareness?

Once we understand this concept, it is easy to identify numerous reasons for our own behaviors, yet we often fall short of appreciating the extent to which these factors play a role in other people’s behavior.

We often fall victim to the fundamental attribution error, a cognitive bias that suggests we unduly emphasize another’s character for their failings, and over-emphasize our circumstances for our own. We are quick to categorize and write people off as the ‘bad guys’, because it helps us to feel morally righteous and make sense of our world — but the world, and it’s people, are not black and white.

Self-awareness, without other awareness, can only do so much for someone in a world where we essentially need to collaborate with other people.

To best navigate the complexities of human relationships, one must also develop ‘other-awareness’, and gain an appreciation for the circumstances that shape someone else’s decisions and behaviours, so that we can become more empathetic and tailor our responses and behavior with them accordingly — that’s if we want to develop and maintain healthy relationships and optimize outcomes.

A Pop-Culture Case Study

The failings of the human mind to incorporate other-awareness in how we navigate the world was demonstrated beautifully in the most unlikely of places; The Karate Kid inspired Cobra Kai television series.

Fans of The Karate Kid, the iconic 1984 feature film, will remember Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) as the skinny Italian kid from Newark, New Jersey who moved all the way to Reseda, Los Angeles, only to be subject to constant bullying and violent attacks from local karate champion, and apparent rich kid, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), and his buddies from the notorious — yet ever so cool — Cobra Kai dojo.

LaRusso feels the wrath of the skeleton-costume adorned Cobra Kai

Everybody who watched The Karate Kid growing up remembers gloriously raising a fist to the air the first time they watched LaRusso deliver the match-winning crane kick to Lawrence’s face, earning him the adulation of the crowd, the respect of his mentor, Mr. Miyagi, and the devotion of his girl, Ali Mills.

LaRusso earns his redemption using the now iconic crane kick

From the perspective of the one-eyed onlooker, justice had been served; that is if we look at it purely through the unempathetic lens of LaRusso.

The Cobra Kai television series picks up the lives of both Lawrence and LaRusso a good 35 years later.

In it, we learn that Lawrence, while he may have come across as a privileged bully, wasn’t the one-dimensional character we thought he was.

The internet is full of ‘Daniel is the Real Bully’ memes which observe that:

  • Lawrence grew up with an abusive, neglectful stepfather
  • He sought out a father figure in the guise of his dojo’s sensei, the Vietnam veteran John Kreese, who instilled in a young Lawrence values like “strike hard, strike first, no mercy”
  • LaRusso moved to town and quickly became a thorn in Lawrence’s side, making moves on and ultimately stealing his girlfriend Ali away
  • LaRusso continued to antagonize Lawrence; during a school dance he went as far as threading a hose over a toilet cubicle to pour water on Lawrence who was essentially minding his own business rolling a joint
  • In many ways, LaRusso came across as the hot-tempered, arrogant trouble maker, and Lawrence was merely responding to his antagonisms

Knowing all of this, we begin to develop a certain empathy for Lawrence’s attitude and behavior, and why he was the way he was in The Karate Kid. The entire Cobra Kai series revolves predominantly around his redemption arc, and ultimately leaves the viewer rooting, not for the ‘balance’ seeking LaRusso (who displays anything but during the series), but the blonde-haired Lawrence.

In fact, I went full 180 and found myself repping Cobra Kai at a recent keynote that I gave (below).

Subtly telling 200 business owners to strike hard and strike first

We also observe that with new experiences, Lawrence’s character also begins to change for the better.

It’s funny and scary how our perceptions of other people, and our behaviors towards them, can shift so dramatically once we apply a little other-awareness, or conversely and perhaps more commonly when we apply none at all.

Where might you be foregoing ‘other-awareness’ in your personal or professional relationships, and what might a perspective shift do for the strength of or outcomes of those relationships?

PS. #CobraKaiNeverDies 🐍

Steve Glaveski is the co-founder of Collective Campus, author of Employee to Entrepreneur and host of the Future Squared podcast. He’s a chronic autodidact, and he’s into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and do standup comedy.