Life Lessons from Rocky Balboa
Updated: May 21
If you read my blog, you know that I’m a huge New England Patriots fan. But as a Patriots fan, I can still acknowledge that other teams are also admirable and worthy of praise. The Philadelphia Eagles are an incredible team, and so in honor of the upcoming Super Bowl, I wanted to write a blog post about Philadelphia’s favorite son, Rocky Balboa.
The Rocky movies have almost become cliché, and it’s easy to forget how great the first film was. That first Rocky movie is a work of art, and it deserved that Oscar. Sylvester Stallone is an amazing writer; apparently, he wrote the screenplay to Rocky in just 3 days. That blows my mind. And a writer who can keep making the Rocky character fresh, all the way up to the most recent incarnation, with “Creed” – it’s impressive.
You could write a book about the life wisdom in the Rocky movies, but let’s keep it short and sweet today. Here are 5 things I’ve learned from watching Rocky Balboa.
1. It’s tough – really tough – to start something new
Probably my favorite scene in any movie ever, is when you see Rocky wake up at 4:00 am to begin training for his bout with the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. There’s something so human, and so real about this scene. As we all know, it just sucks when you’re starting out on a new goal, whatever it is. When you’re pushing yourself to do better – you’re pushing against the crushing weight of inertia and the all-powerful resistance of the status quo, which fights back with everything it's got. You can see it in the loneliness in this scene, with the dark lighting and the morning radio program that nobody’s listening to, and the newspaper truck on the empty city street. You can feel it when Rocky pants his way up those steps, and grabs his side with the weary pain of muscle cramps and exhaustion. There’s nothing romantic here – it’s just gritty, sweaty grinding in the cold morning air – willpower against stagnancy – it hurts, and you can feel it. He’s not ‘Rocky Balboa’ yet – he’s just an unknown journeyman who works on the docks. He’s going to lose big time – probably get knocked out by the champ in the first round, and everybody knows it. But you can feel the raw hunger that Rocky feels for a better life – for a shot at his dream, and you can feel the weight of the impossible battle before him. And there he is, grinding it out alone on those steps when nobody else cares, and everybody else is sleeping. This is the heart of the champion. Best scene in any movie, ever.
Rocky waking up early on a cold Philadelphia morning:
2. Try and find the good in people
I know that Rocky V was not the highlight of the franchise, for sure, but a bad Rocky movie is still better than most other good movies. And it had some great lines. Here’s one of them:
Rocky: “Hey yo kid don't punch me, I'm getting brittle as it is... Look at this, you know. I've been running up and down these steps for 20 years, and I never knew there was valuable pictures in this building.”
Rocky Jr.: “Well you’re never too old to learn somethin' new. You’re gonna’ love Piccaso.”
Rocky: “Yeah, yeah well I love almost everybody.”
And it’s true – Rocky likes almost everybody he meets, except for maybe loan shark Tony Gazzo’s driver, Buddy, who’s just a mean dude. I didn’t like Buddy when I saw the movie for the first time, and I still don’t like him. I’ve never met anybody who liked Buddy. He’s not a nice guy, as Tony Gazzo said:
“Some guys, they just hate for no reason. Capisce?”
Buddy hates for no reason. And Rocky looks for the good in people, for no reason. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his relationship with Paulie, Adrian’s angry and alcoholic brother, who rampages through the house with a baseball bat. It’s hard to find something good about Paulie, but Rocky tries real hard. But he also doesn’t take crap from Paulie, while he’s looking for his good side. Rocky has a good heart, but he’s nobody’s doormat, either – a tough balance to strike.
I always imagined that Stallone created Paulie as a literary device – a diametrically opposed character to contrast with Rocky. Both are living on the hard, gray streets of Philadelphia with little prospects for the future, but whereas Paulie chooses anger, self-pity, and escapism through alcohol, Rocky chooses optimism and striving for something better. Here’s the harsh choice that Stallone presents us with: you can be like Paulie, or you can be like Rocky. Take your pick.
3. Do what you’re meant to do
There’s that painful scene in Rocky II when Rocky goes for the job interview – he wants to get a “good office job,” and make a living wearing a suit and tie, sitting behind a desk, without getting punched all day. Who can blame him? But he’s meant to be a fighter, and he ultimately reconciles himself to that reality. Rocky loves boxing, and he’s good at it – even though it’s not wise, and it’s not safe, and it’s not conventional. But it’s his true path, and what a waste it would’ve been if Rocky had taken a good office job instead of doing what he was meant to do. Nobody is as good at being Rocky as Rocky is. As Emerson said,
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
4. Most of success is a hard slog of resilience, not a dramatic victory
The original Rocky movie was apparently inspired after Stallone watched the Muhammad Ali – Chuck Wepner fight in March of 1975, in which Chuck Wepner surpassed all expectations by going 15 rounds with the heavyweight champion of the world, who was just coming off his unbelievable defeat of George Foreman in Zaire, in the epic “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, in October of 1974. The story wouldn’t have been realistic if Rocky had dramatically defeated Apollo Creed; the victory in this movie is about endurance: Rocky goes 15 rounds with the best in the world, and that’s plenty of victory for this movie, because it’s real.
This is the theme that runs throughout all the Rocky movies – they’re not about dominance; they’re about resilience. And isn’t this the hero’s journey, in this day and age? When college is obscenely expensive, and house prices are ridiculously inflated, and jobs are being lost to robots, and everybody’s feeling the pressures of just getting by in this dystopian world of political dysfunction and random violence? Amidst all this, you’ve got quiet heroes like Rocky Balboa just making it through the 15 rounds of daily life, doing their best, trying to find the good in people, taking the punches and still getting up every morning when it would be so easy to fall down, and turn into the angry, bitter character that is Paulie. Rocky doesn’t go that route, and that’s enough to tip your hat and cheer.
Here’s Rocky giving his son some battle-hardened words of advice in Rocky V,
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna’ hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!”
5. Respect yourself
Just as Rocky stands up to the violence of Paulie and his baseball bat, he also stands up to the everyday rudeness of bullies, as embodied by the very obnoxious director of the “Beast Aftershave” commercial, in Rocky II. Rocky is trying to earn some money capitalizing on his fame from his long-shot battle with Apollo Creed, in Rocky I. He doesn’t want to fight again, so he turns to making commercials, but he can’t read very well, so it doesn’t go very well, and this nasty director is extremely condescending and snide with him. And so Rocky stands up for himself, in a very dignified way, without losing his cool.
Rocky: “You’re a rude guy. I’m trying very hard, and you’re being rude.”
And sometimes, that’s all it takes. But it’s not easy, of course – a lot of folks just don’t want the conflict, so they let things slide. And before you know it, you’ve lost your self-respect. But not Rocky – he’s a champ inside and outside the ring. Because while it’s hard to stand up to the heavyweight champion of the world, it’s also hard to stand up to that rude coworker who likes to put you down, in a quietly pernicious way.
So, I’m hoping that the Patriots win on Super Bowl Sunday, but if they have to lose, then I can’t imagine a more deserving city than the home of that famous southpaw who showed us all how winning is done.
Carl McCoy, Copyright 2018
Check out my new book, "Job Hunter Road," a hilarious account of what it takes to go beyond the 9-5 daily grind, and to reclaim a passionate and unstoppable career by the force of your own will.