4 Mentoring Lessons Gen Z Can Learn From the Karate Kid Trilogy and Cobra Kai The latest season of Cobra Kai, along with The Karate Kid trilogy, has some tremendous mentoring takeaways. Here are four of the most important lessons for Gen Z.

By Dr. Santor Nishizaki

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As I watched the latest season of Cobra Kai (season 5), I saw some tremendous mentoring takeaways throughout the show. In combination with The Karate Kid trilogy, I thought it would be helpful to share these lessons with Gen Z'ers as they are starting their careers amid the pandemic and as they are continuing navigating remote, hybrid or in-person work. Here are four mentoring lessons for Gen Z below (note: this post contains spoilers for Cobra Kai).

1. Choose the right mentor for you

The return of Terry Silver's character (driven by greed and deception — some of us may see this in the corporate world), teaches that you should choose a mentor with high integrity and values aligned with your own but whose strengths complement your weaknesses. For example, having a risk-averse mentor will help you see what you may not anticipate if you are open to risk. Also, making sure your mentor is not overextended is very important. Sometimes mentors get "voluntold" to participate in mentoring programs but are too busy to give even a minimal effort. Don't get discouraged, and try your best to ride it out — but seek an informal mentor with the time and energy to help guide you on your career path.

Related: The 6 Most Important Traits to Look for When Choosing a Mentor

2. Mentors are human beings, too

In Cobra Kai, karate instructors (senseis) Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence constantly struggle with their core values throughout the series. Daniel works with the pain he endured being bullied by Johnny and the rest of the Cobra Kai gang. Johnny struggles with his life choices (abandoning his kid and working odd jobs), transitioning to being a karate sensei and having a second chance at being a good father. This lesson translates into the corporate world very well. We don't know what's going on in our mentors' lives; instead of putting them on a pedestal, we need to be patient and understand that they're human beings like the rest of us and don't always have everything figured out. Also, there's no secret handbook given to mentors on how to succeed.

3. Be prepared to learn and work hard

As we saw in the Karate Kid trilogy and Cobra Kai, it took a lot of hard work and a growth mindset for the protagonists to succeed (Eagle Fang + Miyagi Do = entry to the Sekai Taikai International Tournament). I researched the reasons why mentoring programs or relationships fall apart when I was developing a mentoring program for a professional association to help avoid mentoring failures. One of the leading causes of mentoring relationships and mentoring program failure is that mentees are not prepared to learn or to work hard, and they let the relationship deteriorate. I witnessed this issue first-hand, even though we did our best to prevent this from happening. One of the best tools that Gen Z has that we "elder millennials" didn't grow up with is Google. Just doing a simple Google search on "questions to ask my mentor" will give you tons of results and advice.

Related: Why Does Mentoring Fail and How to Prevent it?

4. Wax on, wax off: Connect work with purpose

One of the best (and most memorable) scenes of The Karate Kid was when Mr. Miyagi required Daniel LaRusso to mindlessly paint his fence and wax his cars. Daniel finally had enough and said he wanted to learn karate, not work for free. Once he started storming off, Mr. Miyagi showed him that he was creating muscle memory so that he'd be able to block punches and kicks. Not much has changed since this movie came out: We need to understand, as mentees, employees and even family members, how the work we do plays into the bigger picture/purpose for which we allocate our time and energy. We also need to understand that sometimes being patient and trusting the process can lead to tremendous growth.

If you're reading this and don't have a mentor — don't worry, it's okay! I didn't get my first mentor until I interned for one of my professors in business school, and he has profoundly impacted my life; we still grab lunch frequently to this day. Some tips I give my undergraduate students (in addition to the four above) are to reach out to folks you admire (at work or outside of work), and ask them if they're available to grab lunch to hear more about how they got to where they are today. If they're too busy for lunch, ask them if they're available for a quick 15-minute Zoom or coffee. Don't take it personally if they decline, but follow up with them every couple of months to see if they're available.

Related: How to Ask Someone to Be Your Mentor

As you're navigating the new world of remote, hybrid or in-person work, be vulnerable and proactive by contacting someone you respect to help mentor and acclimate you to your company's culture. Make sure you choose the right mentor, be patient, be prepared to learn and work hard, and ask how your work contributes to the bigger picture. If the person you want to be your mentor is too busy, move on to someone who has the time and passion to help. Lastly, don't forget to pay it forward and devote your time to mentoring others (preferably while listening to "You're the Best" by Joe Esposito).

Dr. Santor Nishizaki

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor


Dr. Santor Nishizaki is the author of Working with Gen Z: A Handbook to Recruit, Retain, and Reimagine the Future Workforce After Covid-19, and his work on Gen Z has been featured in the WSJ, Forbes, CNN.com, and more. He is a Ph.D. professor at Pepperdine University and CEO of the MCG.

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