One of the most ironic things about most “self-help” books is how often the people writing them aren’t very good at anything except writing self-help books. The genre has long been a safe haven for frauds and charlatans dispatching cliche after tired cliche. Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, isn’t one of those people. Regardless of how you feel about his multifaceted career, his personal life, or even his politics, there’s no doubt Arnold has been successful. To say the least.
And not just regular success, but change-the-culture level successes, across entirely different sectors, which he accomplished again and again. He calls his current phase his “fourth act”, an amalgamation of everything that came before: bodybuilder, actor, and Governor. By all accounts 2023 has been a stellar year for him, especially with an expansive documentary and his first-ever series, FUBAR, already huge hits on Netflix.
And then comes Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life, a guide for life billed as a self-help book but is really more a companion to the Netflix doc (he mentions his father’s sage advice to “be useful” in the opening minutes). Part self-help book, part biography, and part reflection on his own mortality, a surprisingly slim volume that distills the essence that shaped of one of the most improbable, success stories in American history: the son of a Nazi who immigrated from Austria to the United States where he would triumph as a sportsman, actor, mogul, mentor, and politician.
Let’s not kid ourselves; had things gone just a bit differently following his exit from the California Governorship in 2011, it’s likely he might have become the first foreign-born President in US history. He just needed to change the law. Do you honestly think he couldn’t have made that happen?
Using self-effacing humor and unabashed bravado, Be Useful has the former Mr. Olympia offering his personal seven basic rules for usefulness: “Have A Clear Vision”, “Never Think Small”, “Work Your Ass Off”, “Sell, Sell, Sell”, “Shift Gears”, “Shut Your Mouth, Open Your Mind”, and “Break Your Mirrors”. Culling from his considerably versatile career, Arnold shares anecdotes from his earliest bodybuilding days in Austria to his famous roles as the Terminator to the highs and lows of leading the sixth largest economy in the world.
Have you been useful? Then pay it forward and help give the next-generation a chance for the same. Of course, none of that can happen until you’ve first been useful to yourself.
It also helps that Arnold, at 76 years-old, is still unbelievably charismatic, funny, and, yes, qualified to offer sound advice to help fight against the endless fraudsters offering easy paths to what they think is “victory”. And there’s certainly a lack of positive role models out there, especially for young people (young men in particular) whose disconnection from the world can lead them into the arms of toxic elements like Andrew Tate and countless imitators who reinforce a “Us vs. Them” mentality that keeps them feeling miserable and helpless.
Too many obstacles can make it harder “to engage with the tools of usefulness and self-sufficiency that are the primary weapons in the fight against unhappiness and apathy.” This creates and perpetuates the fallacy of zero-sum achievements where they see the success of others limiting their own potential. It’s mostly bullshit, Arnold explains. “Everyone can win, in their own time, in their own way.”
So many people are desperately searching for “someone who tries to be ruthlessly positive when everyone else is being relentlessly negative.” This doesn’t have to be celebrities or world leaders, but anyone willing to take risks and have a clear vision about what they want and making sure they have the tools necessary to accomplish their goals. “Vision is the most important thing”, your purpose and meaning.
Everything else becomes an extension of achieving this. The pessimist tells us this is easier said than done, and they’d be right. But few things worth having come easy, “because working your ass off is the only thing that works 100 percent of the time for 100 percent of the things worth achieving.” Start broad and zoom in, Arnold suggests. Not sure where to go next? Try going for a walk.
Arnold also shares inspirational advice from the likes of Bob Dylan, Elon Musk, Haruki Murakami,David Sedaris, Jimmy Dean and others to demonstrate how different people from different backgrounds can operate under the same guiding principles. He even introduces a catchphrase, here being the German concept of wenn schon, denn schon (“If you’re going to do something, DO IT. Go all out.”). Doesn’t that sound more motivating than wabi sabi?
Some might be surprised to learn this isn’t the first book that Arnold has authored (or more likely co-authored). 1999’s The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding was essential not just for a generation of bodybuilding hopefuls but anyone who might have been seeking real advice from someone with actual skin in the game. Several of Arnold’s more practical tips from that book return here, such as documenting your progress writ large, literally taking full responsibility for your own successes – and failures.
Or personal accountability. When people tell Arnold they don’t have time to work out, he challenges them by asking to see their phone’s screen time stats, chastising them for spending hours on social media instead of putting that time to better use. “It’s not hours in the day you lack, it’s a vision for your life that makes time irrelevant.”
But mostly it’s about applying real world metrics to your aspirations. Using bodybuilding as a central theme to help explain or demonstrate these virtues may seem like an odd choice, but makes perfect sense when you really think about it. As a purely athletic endeavor, bodybuilding is one of the rare activities where success is literally physical, the body itself a manifestation of the effort, sacrifice, and diligence needed to expand its muscles to such Herculean levels.
There are cheats, of course, and even the most accomplished of bodybuilders weren’t immune to the temptations of chemical shortcuts. There were repercussions, of course, but mistakes don’t have to mean the end. “Failure is not fatal”, Arnold argues. Failure isn’t something to be feared but anticipated and reframed into a chance for new beginnings. Those looking for shortcuts rarely find long term success, or happiness, precisely because the path of least-resistance didn’t prepare them for the failures that will inevitably come. “They never got to learn the important lessons that struggle and failure produce.”
And speaking of failures, to those who would jettison not just the book’s advice but Arnold himself as an ideal to strive for (both aspirationally and as a human being) because of his moral failings, specifically his infidelity to his ex-wife Maria Shriver and fathering a child out of wedlock, you’re probably not the book’s demographic. He addresses this up front and rarely again, except to frame his own personal failures as teachable moments. Some of us may have more of these moments than others, but true failure only happens when we stop trying.
More than any of the rules outlined, more than any of the advice given, is Arnold himself. His physical transformation literally embodied his determination to succeed, his successes outside of athletic competition became manifestations of the will that drove it. Ironically, this only complicates the problem with trying to capture Arnold’s very specific je ne sais quoi, his path to success, in a book, film, or in any medium.
With most self-help books it’s less about the person writing them and more about whatever advice they’re dispensing, the hope that some universal truths of accomplishable goals will take effect before the flow dims and the cliches fade. But with Arnold Schwarzenegger it’s impossible to not look at the totality of his accomplishments and come away with the impression he might be onto something. “But don’t ever call me a self-made man,” he says, a reminder that even the most successful people didn’t achieve their dreams by themselves.
If the wisdom of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life comes off lighter than you’d expect, remember the best (and most useful) advice is rarely complicated. It’s rare to have a self-help book come from someone who’s actually qualified to talk on the subject, and it’s fairly amazing how easily he’s moved from a cybernetic killing machine into the role of cuddly elder statesman. Also, while the text version is imminently readable, opt for the audiobook version if you can. Hearing these words spoken in that famously oaky voice somehow makes them even more convincing and, dare I say it, motivational.