Life Lessons From Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Awesome New Autobiography

Seven tough-love takeaways, from ending victimhood to embracing boredom

November 19, 2023 11:00 pm
Arnold Schwarzenegger sitting on the beach, in his 20s, grinning. We look at the life lessons in his new book, "Be Useful"
That man came a long way to get where he is today. His new book offers a toolkit for finding success in your own life.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Imagine you’re loafing through a lift at your local gym and Arnold Schwarzenegger walks over to ask what you’re doing.

You say, “Shoulder presses?” as if answering a pop quiz, because surely whatever iteration of the shoulder press he’s used to is more impressive than the garden variety flexion you’re doing. But this is a patient Terminator: He sits back, listens, fixes your form, teaches you a couple cool tricks and watches you put it all into action.

Then he asks you the question again: What are you doing? That’s to say, why are you in the gym anyway? What are you trying to accomplish in here? How does it relate to any of the million things going on out there?

Schwarzenegger would much rather go to public gyms than work out in a private, F-off studio — he’s always preferred to be amongst people when he lifts. And lately, by his own admission, he’s has made a habit of walking up to random gymgoers and hitting them with the Big Questions.

“They’ll pause, then they’ll stammer,” he writes in his new self-help memoir Be Useful. “[But] eventually, most of them give me an honest answer. ‘My doctor said I need to lose twenty pounds and get my blood pressure under control.’ ‘I just want to look good at the beach.’ ‘I have young kids and want to be able to chase them around and wrestle with them.’”

“These are all great answers,” he concludes. “I can work with all of them.”

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In the last half-decade, the 76-year-old has staged a surprising fourth act, combining a sage social media presence with a digital wellness club, and now the best-selling autobiography. He’s found that for all his reinvention (and failures along the way), people — young men, especially — really seem to respond to his toolkit. When they find themselves floundering, increasingly anxious or alone, perhaps sleepwalking through the same tired workout, Arnold’s attitude and approach represent a reboot worth giving a go — a potential north star.

In Be Useful, Schwarzenegger codifies the core principles that have guided his life. It’s a colorful read, full of refreshingly tough love, and it’s named for the best advice he says he ever received, from his father. All 263 pages are worth checking out, but after reading it ourselves, we’ve distilled our takeaways to the seven key lessons that we’ll be holding onto for some time.

Spend Time in the Mirror

When’s the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror? Schwarzenegger advocates doing so once a day. Literally? Or just metaphorically? Well, his explanation is somewhat vague on that point, but that’s why we like it.

“Most people hate looking in the mirror. And when they do, they almost never look themselves in the eyes. It’s too uncomfortable. Too scary. Because the person in the mirror is often a stranger who looks nothing like the person they see when they close their eyes and picture the person they want to be.”

As a bodybuilder, Schwarzenegger was extremely familiar with the mirror. He couldn’t escape it. He also encountered it in Hollywood (watching his scenes) and politics (checking the polls). Schwarzenegger is adamant that your relationship with the mirror needs to be dynamic, ongoing and honest.

This might sound a little new-agey, but in many ways, it’s an ancient construct. Self-reflection has always been a critical component of the hero’s journey. The best people he’s ever met, Schwarzenegger says, “aren’t afraid of the mirror.” They reckon with it regularly.

Wenn Schon, Denn Schon

This is a delightful German phrase that translates to “If you’re going to do something, do it.”

Schwarzenegger uses a couple real-life examples to illustrate the point. First, the time he realized he’d been neglecting his calves and abs upon arriving in Venice in 1968, so he started training his entire body. And second, how inspired he is by the work ethic of James Cameron (who he simply calls “Jim,” a flex), who refuses to cut a single corner when making a movie. Cameron evidently gave an individual backstory to every single extra on the set of Titanic, to say nothing of the 775-foot ship he had built for the film.

In essence: go big or go home, and don’t be upset if sometimes both things happen. You might flop, tremendously so, but “not going all in will absolutely guarantee that you fall short.”

Imagine that you’re running a marathon. You’re positive you can run at a 9:00 pace for 26.2 miles. Your training indicates you’re solidly in that kind of shape. Could you run the race closer to 8:30 pace, though? (A private, quiet goal of yours.) Did the taper weeks grant you some extra speed? Or will you bonk and embarrass yourself for trying? In the end, there’s only one way of knowing. You have to put yourself in the game early. Isn’t that what all the training was for, anyway?

The 76-year-old still makes the time — and space — for bike rides with friends and family near his home.
Photo by thecelebrityfinder/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Make Some Space

Schwarzenegger is a lifter. But he is also a walker. And a biker. (He’s got a nasty custom Matchless Urban E-Bike with the fat tires. Perfect for riding to the beach.) He doesn’t just get outside to stay physically fit — he does it to “create space.” It’s critical to “put the machines away and create space and time in your life, however small or short in the beginning,” he says, “for inspiration to find its way in and for the discovery process to happen.”

He credits his proclivity for unplugging and getting outside with helping him ideate “A Servant’s Heart,” his video response to the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol Building. It has 28 million views, and was an important and shockingly personal call for unity during one the country’s darkest hours. As Schwarzenegger says, “[That] maybe would never have happened had I not made a habit of creating space every day to think and to let inspiration and new ideas flow in.”

No matter how much lower the stakes in your life may feel — maybe you’re just really chewing on an email — give yourself the space you deserve. Walk around your neighborhood, reach out to friends you haven’t spoken to in a while, actually observe your vacation (68% of Americans don’t completely log off during PTO). Give yourself a chance.

Write. Things. Down.

The spiritual opposite to someone rolling up to the gym, with no clue what they’re trying to accomplish that day, would be a teenage Arnold. When he was still finding his way out of Graz in Austria, he would write every single intended rep on his gym’s chalkboard. “I wouldn’t let myself leave until I’d marked them all off,” he writes. How many reps? A lot. When Schwarzenegger got to America, he invented the double split. “I trained two and a half hours in the morning and two and a half hours in the evening, just so I could get two full workouts in each day.”

On his heaviest days, Schwarzenegger was moving 40,000 pounds of weight a workout. Writing stuff down, simply put, is one of the best habit-builders around. It’s a way to foster accountability and track progress, whether you’re in a public or private arena. (When he became an actor, Schwarzenegger would keep track of how many times he’d read a film script with tally marks on the cover page.)

Studies have linked writing things out on paper with stronger brain activity. The action helps solidify memories and has a meditative component. Whether it’s a to-do list, a journal entry at the end of a long week, or grandiose goal-setting at the start of the year, take some time to jot your thoughts down.

The man keeps evolving. At this point, who has less to prove to the planet than the Terminator?
Getty Images for Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

Embrace the Boring Stuff

Schwarzenegger invokes some maestros in hammering down this one, both from the past (John Coltrane) and present day (Steph Curry). He explains that the ease with which these people do spectacular things — so regularly, and seemingly without even having time to think about it — is mastered behind closed doors. (Schwarzenegger specifically likes the anecdote that Coltrane’s wife used to find him asleep, with his saxophone reed in his mouth, as if he could’ve kept practicing.)

“This is where we need to get to,” he writes. “This is what we have to do…. It’s the easy part.” How’s that for a reframing? The shit work is the easy part. What does he mean by that? Well, it’s the part we get to control. It’s the part where real change happens. It’s the part where things matter more to us than anyone else. Anyone can like your Instagram of you holding a medal. Only you know what it felt like to get up that early, or how many Latin words you needed to memorize to get your degree, or how long it took to hone your combos before you were ready for a sparring session.

The brunt of the journey is far more fulfilling than we give it credit for. And we clearly all have the capacity to appreciate it. A couple years ago, when Peter Jackson’s Beatles doc Get Back debuted, there was one scene that went totally viral: Paul McCartney slowly chipping away at the titular song. The Beatles walked in hungover, grumpy, having to live a Monday just like the rest of the world, and, over hours and hours of sitting in an aluminum chair, made magic happen. We rarely get to watch this process live (and even then, it was extremely edited down). The work is as glorious as any world tour.

Days Are Long

This one also boils down to: “busyness is bullshit.” The man has spoken. We all have a mountain of obligations. We also all have 24 hours to use up tomorrow, so what are you doing with yours? Schwarzenegger recalls his schedule in the mid-1970s, when he was making bodybuilding booklets, taking business classes at UCLA, leading weight-lifting seminars, and laying brick around Los Angeles. He also bought an apartment, became a landlord and started dance classes.

He acknowledges that he has more energy than most human beings who have tread this planet, but says there’s one question he’s never understood: “When did you ever have fun?” How could that sort of lifestyle possibly be worth it? Isn’t it just too much? “I was never not having fun,” Schwarzenegger writes. “When you’re chasing a vision and working towards a big goal, there is nothing more energizing than making progress.”

You don’t have to juggle seven things like Arnold — and you don’t have to join the cult of the early riser, either — in order to make some use of this perspective. Consider, for starters, how much time you waste each day on account of unchecked screen-time, which leads to attention residue, which makes your work seem more onerous and time-consuming than it actually is. Can you find an hour? Maybe two? Probably, right? Populate it with a side-hustle, or a side-passion, anything. Whatever fills you with purpose.

Vision > Victimhood

This is where Schwarzenegger’s tough love really sings. Speaking to the angriest online presences — the men who think they’re tough, but really just use Twitter fingers to blame everything on just about anyone else — he writes, “Living without a vision…is completely unacceptable. [Stop playing] the victim. Only you can create the life you want for yourself — no one is going to do it for you.”

He acknowledges that in some ways, the game isn’t set up particularly well. “There are entire institutions and industries that are taking advantage of people’s misery and selling them nonsense, making them angrier, feeding them lies, and inflaming their grievances.” But that just means that you need to turn on your misery receptors: learn bullshit when you see it, and refuse to accept “whatever you can get or whatever you thought you deserved” as your ultimate endgame.

How many people are writing like this these days? Not enough. Positivity has so many forms — this is another one. (In another section of the book, Arnold simply writes, “Don’t be a lazy fuck.” We eagerly underlined it.) Whether Schwarzenegger’s pleas work or not is entirely up to you. But he makes some compelling points here, which tie into every one of the other life lessons outlined throughout the book. That’s to say: get in the game, make a plan, don’t take shortcuts. Don’t forget to create space and check in with yourself. Slowly but surely, your life will begin to shift in the right direction. And if you don’t even try, don’t you dare go yell at people on the internet.

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