Be Useful - by Arnold Schwarzenegger
I appreciate his critique of ‘The Secret’ and his emphasis on supporting visualization with hard work.
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
you get credit when the economy’s on the way up even though you have very little to do with it, so it’s only fair that you get the blame on the way down. It just doesn’t feel good.
My father passed away at the same age I was when I brought my world crashing down on me. I never had the chance to ask him what I should do, but I have a good idea what he would tell me: “Be useful, Arnold.” I wrote this book to honor those words and pay forward his advice. I wrote it in appreciation for the years I’ve had that he didn’t, which I’ve used to make amends, to climb back from the bottom, and to build the fourth act of my life. I wrote this book because I believe that anyone can benefit from the tools I’ve used through every phase of my life, and that all of us need a reliable road map for the kind of life we’ve always wanted to live.
I know this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Life gets crowded and complicated as you get older. It can be hard to find space and time and not feel like you’re trading off some bigger set of responsibilities, especially now that you’ve got these little daily, weekly, and monthly goals that you’re crushing. And guess what, it is hard at first. But do you know what’s harder? Living a life you hate. That’s hard. This, by comparison, is a walk in the park.
Before I go any further, I recognize that this sounds like a lot of woo-woo manifestation mumbo jumbo, like The Secret and all those law of attraction books being peddled by bullshit artists. This isn’t that. I’m not saying if you just visualize what you want, then it will come true. Hell no. You have to plan and work and learn and fail and then learn and work and fail some more. That’s just life. Those are the rules.
They offered to pay me 200,000 a year. That was a lot of money in 1974. It’s still a lot of money. Back then, the best bodybuilders in the world made 50,000 a year at most. It was a fantastic offer. And I turned it down without a second thought. Being a national spokesman for a health club franchise was not part of my vision. I didn’t think it was embarrassing or beneath me, or anything like that. Jack LaLanne was a hero to anyone who cared about physical fitness. The problem was that accepting his offer would prevent me from doing movies, which is where my vision was taking me by this point in my bodybuilding career. Knowing that made saying no very easy. I was comfortable with the idea of turning down all that money and the different type of fame the job would bring. I was calm, knowing that I’d just sidestepped something that was an amazing opportunity but also a big distraction.
Our solution was to reduce the studio’s risk as much as possible by taking no up-front money. If a studio agreed to make our movie, all three of us would agree to make zero salary. Instead, we would take a piece of the net profits, called “backend” in Hollywood language. We would only make money if the studio made money.
There is no plan B. Plan B is to succeed at plan A.
Let me tell you something: Nothing good has ever come from having a plan B. Nothing important or life-changing, anyway. Plan B is dangerous to every big dream. It is a plan for failure. If plan A is the road less traveled, if it’s you carving your own path toward the vision you’ve created for your life, then plan B is the path of least resistance. And once you know that path is there, once you’ve accepted that it’s an option, it becomes so, so easy to take it whenever things get difficult. Fuck plan B! The second you create a backup plan, not only are you giving a voice to all the naysayers, but you are shrinking your own dream by acknowledging the validity of their doubts. Worse, you become your own naysayer. There are enough of them out there already; you don’t need to add to their ranks.
There’s a story about Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to summit Mount Everest. When he came back down to base camp, he was met by reporters who asked him what the view was like at the top of the world. He said it was incredible, because while he was up there he saw another mountain in the Himalayan range that he hadn’t climbed yet, and he was already thinking about the route he would take to summit that peak next. When you reach the mountaintop, it gives you a brand new perspective on the rest of the world, on the rest of your life. You see new challenges that were out of sight before, and you see old challenges in new ways.
Thinking big and succeeding does something to us. It certainly did something to me. It became addictive, because I learned that the only limits that truly exist are in our minds. I realized that our potential is limitless—mine and yours!
There had been nine failed expeditions to Everest over thirty-two years before Sir Edmund Hillary and his sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, reached the top on May 29, 1953. Within three years, four Swiss climbers would do it too. Within thirty-two years, the same amount of time it took to achieve the first successful ascent, more than two hundred climbers would reach the summit of Everest. The day before Hillary reached the summit, a Canadian weight lifter named Doug Hepburn became the first person to bench-press 500 pounds. For decades, 500 was a mythical number for the bench press.
Watching someone with a crazy goal give it everything they’ve got and then succeed is so powerful. It’s like magic, because it unlocks potential we didn’t even know we had. It shows us what is possible if we put our mind to something and then back that up with effort.
And if I can do what I did, why can’t you? Granted, I am a lunatic. I don’t do anything like a normal person. I don’t have normal dreams. My risk tolerance for big goals and new challenges is sky high. Everything I do, I do big. As a bodybuilder, I worked out twice a day for four to five hours. As an actor, I did major movies that were huge gambles. In my first and only job as a politician, I ran the sixth-largest economy in the world. As a philanthropist, my focus has been on pollution in the environment. My goal is to help fix the earth. It’s just how I think. Big.
What if I’d stayed in Austria and become a police officer like my father? What if I hadn’t found bodybuilding, or if I’d kept it as a hobby instead of letting it become a calling? I’ve tried to imagine what life would have been like if I’d listened to those producers who told me to change my name; or if I’d let the opinions of reporters affect me when I told them I was going into acting. What would it look like, I wonder, if “good enough” had been good enough? I don’t know. And I don’t want to know. A life of smaller dreams that I half-assed, doing some version of what everyone else does? That sounds like a slow death to me. I want no part of it, and neither should you.
It’s no harder to think big than it is to think small. The only hard part is giving yourself permission to think that way. Well, I don’t just give you permission, I demand it of you, because when you’re thinking about your goals and crafting that vision for your life, you have to remember that it’s not just about you. You could have a huge impact on the people around you. While you are breaking new ground in your own life, you could be blazing trails for people you didn’t even know were watching.
I bet you and I have a lot in common. We’re not the strongest, smartest, or richest people we know. We’re not the fastest or the most connected. We’re not the best looking or the most talented. We don’t have the best genetics. But what we do have is something a lot of those other people will never have: the will to work.
Audiences all over the world loved John Coltrane’s playing for its intensity. You would hear people say, “Trane’s on fire!” What few of those people knew was that his fire onstage was fueled by countless reps of the most lifeless, boring stuff possible, which he practiced when no one was listening.
On one of the first days of filming, I tore a gash on my back that required forty stitches. Milius’s response: “Pain is temporary, this film will be permanent.”
That’s why in pictures and video footage from the gym back in the 1970s, I was smiling all the time. I wasn’t a masochist. It wasn’t fun to squat six hundred pounds until I couldn’t breathe and I wanted to puke. I was smiling because I was feeling the pain of the work, which told me that growth was on the horizon. With each painful rep, I was taking another step closer to making my bodybuilding dreams a reality. That made me happy, because that was the point of all this hard work, to win titles and stand on the top step of the podium holding the championship trophy.
Do you know how many times people tell me they don’t have time to work out, and then I ask them to take out their phones and show me their screen time stats and it says they spent three and a half hours on social media? It’s not hours in the day you lack, it’s a vision for your life that makes time irrelevant.
Jim’s point to me was that no one who puts a microphone in front of your face and asks you a bunch of question is doing it as a favor to you. They have their own agenda, whether that’s finding a way to fill up column inches, coaxing out a controversial statement that gets more attention, or in some cases just trying to make you look like an asshole. You don’t owe them anything. You definitely don’t owe them the answer they think they deserve. This is your time as much as it is theirs. This is your opportunity to tell your story and sell your vision as much as it is their opportunity to craft whatever narrative interests them. So take that time and opportunity to bridge the conversation from what they want to hear to what you need to say in order to achieve your goals. The way you do this, Jim taught me, is to listen to the question being asked and then to start your response by accepting the premise of the question in order to establish common ground with your questioner. Once you’ve made them feel a little more comfortable by doing that, then you immediately pivot to reframe the question and say whatever you want. Here, I’ll show you. “Arnold, you’ve never run for office before at any level. What makes you think you’re equipped to run the biggest state in the country?” “That’s a great question, but you know a better question is how can the greatest state in the country afford to continue down this road with the same kind of politicians who got us into this mess in the first place?” It’s like judo. You don’t want to resist the momentum of the people who are underestimating you. Instead, you want to use their momentum against them by grabbing ahold of it then pivoting and tossing their asses out of the ring. You want to bridge their bullshit right into the garbage where it belongs.
The drudgery of all that discomfort and thankless labor could have broken my spirit or made the images of America that I saw in magazines and newsreels seem impossibly far away. It could have drubbed the instinct to look over the horizon out of me. I certainly wasn’t getting any encouragement at home to think about life beyond the hills of southeastern Austria. There was a good job with the police waiting for me when I got out of the army. Others should be so lucky, my father thought. He also didn’t understand or approve of my interest in bodybuilding. He thought it was egotistical and selfish. “Why don’t you chop some wood instead,” he would say, “you can get big and strong that way and at least then you will have done something for somebody else.” Then there were the times he would come home drunk after work and hit us. Those nights were very hard. I could very easily have allowed myself to get wrapped up in all that, but I chose to look at the positive. I have always made that choice—to recognize that on the vast majority of days my father was a good dad and my mother was the best mom. That life wasn’t exciting or particularly comfortable, not by modern standards anyway, but it was a good life. A life where I learned a lot and I found my passion, my purpose, and my first mentors.
The Stoics have a term for this: amor fati. Love of fate. “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to,” the great Stoic philosopher and former slave Epictetus said. “Rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens. Then you will be happy.” Nietzsche talks about this too. He says, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary . . . but love it.”
I asked her to add a tally mark to the board. I was going to treat this just like my old workouts back in Graz, and my preparation process for movies and speeches. This was a system that worked. I knew how to do this. Plus, it allowed me to track my progress visually, which gave me confidence and built momentum. It also meant I didn’t have to think about it,
I don’t tell this story very often, but when I do, a lot of people ask me if I sued the doctors for nearly killing me on the table. This always surprises me, because never once did I think about it. Mistakes happen. In fact, I knew beforehand that mistakes can happen with this kind of procedure. The actor Bill Paxton died from complications during a similar valve-replacement procedure at the same hospital the year prior. It’s why I told the hospital administrators that I wouldn’t do the operation there unless the open-heart surgery team was in the room during my procedure. Beyond that, and beyond the fact that I’d prepared for this possibility, these doctors are only human. They did the best they could. And don’t forget, they saved my life! What would be the point of suing them? It doesn’t change what happened. Who would benefit besides the lawyers? What positive thing could any of us take from that experience if it ended in a lawsuit?
Appointing judges is one of those areas in politics where most politicians, whether they’re a governor or the president, pick judges from their own party almost without exception. I told my people we weren’t going to do that. I told them to send me the best possible candidates and remove their party affiliation from the briefing documents. Why? Because I promised voters that I would be a different kind of public servant, not the same old kind of party servant, and that meant picking the best people for the job. The result was half Democrats, half Republicans. Seems pretty fair and representative to me.
Does it really make sense to saddle yourself or your family with $250,000 in student loan debt? For what? A piece of paper? That is what the college experience for many young people has become. Ask them why they’re going to college and they’ll tell you it’s to get a degree. That’s like saying the reason you go to work is to get to the weekend. What about all the stuff in between? What about the purpose?!
My friends like to call me Forrest Gump because I’ve met every American president since Lyndon Johnson. Unlike Forrest, I didn’t find myself in the same room as these great historical figures by accident; I met them because I was famous. But I got to know them and develop relationships with them because I was curious. I asked them questions about themselves and their experiences. I asked for advice. And then I listened. Important, interesting, powerful people are drawn to those who ask good questions and listen well. When you’re curious and you’re humble enough to admit that you don’t know everything, people like that want to talk to you. They want to help you. Your curiosity and humility show them you don’t have too much of an ego to listen to them. When you’re closed-minded, they know there’s no reason to waste their breath. What’s the point of trying to teach you something if you’re already so sure you’ve got it all figured out?
Having the patience and humility to listen well is an essential ingredient of curiosity, and it’s the secret to learning. Some of history’s wisest thinkers and philosophers have been preaching to us about this for thousands of years, with lines like “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” You see that idea pop up time and again throughout history. In the Bible: “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak.” In the words of the Dalai Lama: “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” Ernest Hemingway said, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” The late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “I’m a very strong believer in listening and learning from others.”
the goal of the author is to motivate you, the reader, to create a vision for your life, to think big, and to do whatever it takes to achieve that vision. These books can become permission slips for selfishness. They can be used to justify a “me against the world” kind of attitude that turns self-improvement into a zero-sum game. For you to get richer, someone has to get poorer. For you to get stronger, someone must become weaker. For you to win, everyone else has to lose. Let me tell you, outside of direct athletic competition, it’s almost all bullshit. Life isn’t zero-sum. We can all grow together, get richer together, get stronger together. Everyone can win, in their own time, in their own way.
On the flip side, this is also why we have such complicated feelings about selfish superstar athletes, egotistical CEOs, and narcissistic politicians. They almost never make other people better. Even when they’re “on our team,” we only put up with them as long as they’re winning. The minute they start losing or things start going bad, we want to trade them, fire them, vote them out of office. Because at that point, what’s the benefit of putting up with a selfish bastard who only thinks about themself?
This is often how it happens for kids working toward becoming Eagle Scouts, the highest rank in the Boy Scouts program. The last step on the road to becoming an Eagle Scout is completing a service project that has a significant impact on the local community. Essentially, they have to design their own way of giving back.
psychologists and neuroscientists have learned that giving back, whether through charitable donations or volunteering, releases oxytocin and endorphins. These are the same hormones your brain produces during sex and working out. Giving back is also known to produce a neurochemical called vasopressin, which is associated with love. In fact, just thinking about or remembering moments of being charitable triggers the release of these same hormones. Social scientists have a name for this phenomenon: they call it “helper’s high.” That’s how powerful giving back is. It’s a natural feel-good drug with highly addictive properties. I know all this now, but in the months and years that followed my weekend up in Wisconsin, I was just hunting the oxytocin and the endorphin high like an addict chasing the dragon.
One thing you learn when you’ve lived long enough and worked hard enough to see your wildest dreams come true, is that we’re all connected. We’re all in this thing called life together. It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s one that can have multiple winners. An unending amount of winners, really . . . as long as you make giving back part of the rules of the game. When we make giving back a part of life, when we break our mirrors so we can see all the people behind the glass who could use our help, that’s when we all benefit.