Be Useful is the latest book from bodybuilding icon Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold’s first book was The Education of a Bodybuilder. Published in 1977, it was part autobiography, part instruction manual. This was the first bodybuilding book I ever read. It was also responsible for inspiring me to become a bodybuilder and take up fitness as a career.
In 2012, Arnold wrote another book called Total Recall: My unbelievably True Life Story. At this point, Arnold was long retired from the Mr. Olympia competitions, and his accomplishments had gone far beyond bodybuilding. A decade into the new millennium, Arnold’s life story spanned three phases: bodybuilder, movie star, politician. This 656-page autobiography told his whole story to that point in detail.
Then in 2023, Arnold wrote Be Useful, a 263-pager that’s a breezy read due to the small book size, wide margins, and spaced sentences. The title is based on what Arnold says was the best advice his father ever gave him. This is an updated autobiography taking you through all the phases of Arnold’s life, which at this point, numbered four: 1. Bodybuilder 2. Movie star. 3. Politician 4. Public servant.
This new fourth phase in Arnold’s life is about giving back, helping as many people as possible, spreading positivity, and supporting charitable causes. At the same time, Arnold had a new side hustle – doing TV (Netflix) for the first time (FUBAR).
Like Education of a Bodybuilder, there’s a dual purpose to Be Useful. It’s a combination of autobiography and motivation / self-help. In the self-help parts of the book, Arnold shares what it took for him to succeed at a massive level, while also making meaningful contributions to others.
Arnold said he never expected to become a self-help guy. It was a byproduct of not only his successes, but also his failures, redemptions from those failures, and reinvention. He found himself getting paid as much as former presidents to give motivational speeches to all kinds of audiences. Then his social media channels grew, and he leaned into that platform to spread positive messages. Another book was the next logical step.
As I read through the chapters, I was reminded a little bit of reading books about Michael Jordan and the books David Goggins wrote. They both talk about an extreme approach to achieving extreme success. Arnold’s book is similar. (Arnold also drops a few F-bombs in his book, but nowhere near the gratuitous frequency of Goggins).
The subtitle is Seven Tools For Life, and one tool is covered in each chapter. Arnold admits these tools are not new or revolutionary. He says they are timeless tools that have always worked. What’s new is how he shares these seven keys in the context of his life’s achievements, explaining exactly how they helped him succeed. He says you should think of them as a roadmap to a happy, successful, useful life.
The tools are:
1. Have a clear vision
2. Never think small
3. Work your ass off
4. Sell, sell, sell
5. Shift gears
6. Shut your mouth, open your mind
7. Break your mirrors
Some of these chapter titles are self-explanatory, like work your ass off. But others require a little explanation. Below, I’ll briefly explain what Arnold meant by the name of each tool. I’ll also share a memorable quote I pulled from each chapter.
Tool #1: Have a clear vision
Arnold believes that all great change starts with a vision. The people who feel most lost don’t have a clear picture of what they want their life to look like, he says, nor do they have a plan to get there. Arnold also tells us that it’s important to clarify your vision. If you start with a vision, but it’s broad or fuzzy, that’s ok. The important thing is to get more and more clear about your vision and your goals as you move forward one day at a time.
“If you want to increase the chances of success looking exactly like you hoped it would when you first figured out what you wanted your life to look like, then you need to get crystal clear on that vision and tattoo it to the inside of your eyelids. You need to SEE IT.”
Tool #2: Never think small
Arnold didn’t want to be a bodybuilder. He wanted to be the greatest bodybuilder of all time. He didn’t want to be an action star. He wanted to be the leading man, and the highest paid in the business. Arnold’s advice: always think big, so big that other people may think it’s crazy. When you think big and succeed, amazing things happen. Big thinking becomes addictive, and you learn that the only limits that exist are in your own mind. When others see your big success, they realize their potential is limitless too. Therefore, by thinking big, you have a huge impact on others.
“There will always be people in your life who doubt you and doubt your dream. They will tell you it’s impossible. The bigger your dream, the more often this will happen, and the more of these people you will meet. Ignore the naysayers. Naysayers are a fact of life. That doesn’t mean they get to have a say in your life. “
Tool #3: Work Your Ass Off
People may not be the strongest, fastest, smartest, richest, most connected, best-looking, or most talented. But if they have one thing that others don’t have, they will succeed, says Arnold. That thing is the will to work. When Arnold arrived in America, he trained five hours a day. It seemed like too much in one session, so he invented the double split routine and trained two and a half hours in the morning and two and a half hours in the evening. He went on to become the greatest bodybuilder in the world. There are other prerequisites to success, but nothing in the world will take the place of hard work. You have to put in the reps.
“If there is one unavoidable truth in this world, it’s that there is no substitute for putting in the work. There is no shortcut or growth hack or magic pill that can get you around the hard work of doing your job well. People have tried to cut corners and skip steps in this process for as long as hard work has been hard. Eventually those people either fall behind or get left in the dust, because working your ass off is the only thing that works 100 percent of the time for 100 percent of the things worth achieving.”
Tool #4: Sell, sell, sell
People come to Arnold all the time for advice. They might be bodybuilders or athletes, or they might be artists, or entrepreneurs. Arnold tells them all that there’s one thing they must be doing more. That is promoting and selling. You can have a fantastic plan or a great idea, but if nobody knows it exists, then it might as well not exist. No matter what your vision is, you must know how to sell it and who to sell it to.
“If you need people to know about whatever your thing is, you’ve got to tell them. And if you really want to supercharge your dream’s exposure to the world, don’t just tell them about it, act like it’s already come true. Making your dream sound like it has already reached the highest heights is the greatest marketing.”
Tool #5: Shift gears.
Here in chapter 5, when Arnold talks about “shifting gears,” he is talking about reframing failure and confronting problems instead of complaining about them. Whatever your vision is, there are going to be tough times. There’s going to be struggle. There will be things and people that bug you. You have to learn how to manage those moments. Arnold tells us that focusing on negativity is a waste of time. What you must do is shift gears and find the positive in every situation. That includes finding the positive in failure. You must reframe failure. That could be as simple as making the commitment to learn from your mistakes and say, “I’ll be back.”
“Anytime I find myself in a situation where I feel the urge to bitch and moan rising up within me, I stop, take a breath, and tell myself that it’s time to switch gears. I will actually talk to myself out loud and remind myself to look for the positive in my situation.”
Tool #6: Shut your mouth, open your mind
Arnold learned early from a childhood mentor that you can’t just be hungry for fame and money and muscles. You must be hungry for knowledge as well. Having muscles will get you a lot of things, but if you want to be successful in everything you do, and if you want to maximize your potential and your opportunities, then you need to have a good head on your shoulders. The world, and life, are the ultimate classroom and you need to be like a sponge, soaking up as much of it as you can. One of the best ways to become a “sponge for knowledge” is to always be curious. That means listen and look more than you talk. Once you’ve learned something, put your knowledge to good use.
“Training our minds is just as important as training our bodies.”
Tool #7: Break your mirrors
In the final chapter, Arnold explains that he does not want to be called a self-made man, even when it may be said as a compliment. Why? Because he says we are all here due to the contributions of others. When you realize that you have been helped by many others, explains Arnold, then you realize that it’s your responsibility to give back. When you give back, everyone benefits because when you’re a giver, you get an endorphin-like, addictive high.
Arnold’s late father-in-law, Sargent Shriver, first director of the Peace corps and numerous charitable organizations, gave a piece of advice in one of his speeches. He said, “Break your mirrors.” What he meant was that our society is so self-absorbed, it’s important to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor than about your own.
“Give back. Pay it forward. Be useful as often as you can. I am asking you to do that for the same reason that any of us have chosen to give back. Because we owe a debt of gratitude to the people who got us where we are today. Because we can do for the next generation exactly what the previous generation did for us. Because it will make the world a better place. Because it will make you happier in ways you never could have anticipated.”
A lot of the self-help and motivation advice you hear in Be Useful is similar to what you’d find in other self-help books. Motivating? Yes. But nothing earth-shattering. Set goals. Think big. Visualize. What’s different is that Arnold’s book is peppered with fascinating and inspiring stories from all four phases of his life.
You hear about his immigrant background, growing up in Austria, coming to America, then becoming the best bodybuilder in the world. You hear entertaining stories about Arnold’s movies, his relationship with the directors, and the record-setting ticket sales. You hear about his experiences as governor of California and the challenges he faced in that job. You hear about the health challenges he’s faced. And you hear about what Arnold is up to now in the latest phase of his life as he’s getting older.
This is what sets Be Useful apart from other books. There is only one Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his life story really is unbelievable. But when you read this book, since we all know what he’s accomplished, it’s easy to believe he’s giving darn good advice that he followed himself to get where he is today.
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