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Arnold Schwarzenegger has one main guiding principle: 'Be Useful'

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Michael Schwartz
/
Penguin Random House
Arnold Schwarzenegger

Champion bodybuilder. Hollywood superstar. Governor of California.

Not a bad resume.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has achieved more than most of us could ever hope to. And he's sharing some of his secrets to success in his new book Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life.

Morning Edition host A Martinez spoke with Schwarzenegger about his latest project.


A MARTINEZ

When did becoming useful become something that you thought was important?

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

Well, I think that ever since my father stressed when I was a kid to be useful. I think it had an impact on me, and it stayed with me as a method, so much so that I always wanted to perform and do more. It became such a big part of my life that even when I sleep in - sometimes past 6:00 in the morning - I feel guilty because I hear my father's voice saying, "Arnold, that's not how this country was built, by sleeping in. Be useful, do something. What are you doing today?" And so, you know, I think that it just stayed with me.

A MARTINEZ

But even at that young of an age, you understood what that meant. You understood a deeper meaning of what being useful meant.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

Well, let's assume for a second I didn't know what it meant. My father would make sure that I knew. Just to give you an example, I was studying bodybuilding at the age of 15, and my father would say, "Why are you lifting these dumbbells and barbells? Don't you think it would be better to just go out and chop some wood and shovel some coals for some poor people that don't have anyone?" It was common in those days: neighbor kids would go and do that kind of chore for older people so that when the fall comes, they have it for the winter.

I looked up to this famous boxer by the name of Laszlo Papp. He's a Hungarian boxer, European champion, and he trains by chopping wood. And so, "Why couldn't YOU chop wood? And then therefore, you would get muscles, you get strong, get great energy, you will look great. But at the same time, you're doing something useful. You're doing something for somebody rather than just for yourself and looking in the mirror." So he would make sure that you knew what being useful meant.

A MARTINEZ

Is being useful the same as not being useless?

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

Well, it's more proactive. I mean, being useful is not just hanging back and making mistakes. It's going out and using your energy and your time for something good, which means for yourself but also and always to think about other people. I think that we have to be aware of the fact that we are creations by a lot of people. We are not self-made. I hate when someone says, "Oh, Schwarzenegger is the perfect example of a self-made man" because I'm not. I'm a creation of my parents. I'm a creation of my coaches, my teachers. I have been helped by my training partners, by my friends. Especially when I think about coming to America, it was Joe Wheeler that helped me to come over here, got me the airline ticket, helped me get the apartment and the car. The people of California voted for me to be governor of California. So I didn't become governor because I'm self-made; I became governor because people voted for me.

A MARTINEZ

But it was a compliment. I mean, I think people meant it as a compliment that you were able to motivate yourself to accomplish these things.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it is a compliment, but it is very important to let people know: I really appreciate you saying that, but I'm a creation of all of this help.

I would not have done Twins if it wouldn't have been for Ivan Reitman. I would not have been able to do Conan the Barbarian if it wouldn't have been for John Milius. So there's so many people that helped me. And the reason why that is important, that we recognize that we are creations of people's help, is because that makes us then understand that we are responsible for going out and helping other people, that it is not a one-way street. You know, people help us to get to be where we are today, and therefore I now have the responsibility to go out and help other people to become successful.

A MARTINEZ

Well, just how wide of a scope, then, does being useful need to be? Because I can imagine for you, I think you probably have to feel useful to a lot [more] people than I would. I mean, if I feel useful to my grandkids or to my wife, I feel pretty good about the day.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

I think that it really depends on you how far you want to go with that. One thing we know for sure: the majority of people really don't feel like they're useful enough or they are successful enough. And this is what this book is all about: Be Useful is to give people the tools. How can they go and become more useful? How can they become more successful? How can they become happier with their lives, their jobs and everything that they are doing?

You have to understand that no matter what we do, there's someone there that can help you with that. If I want to go and learn how to ski, I take ski lessons. If I want to learn about bodybuilding, I'll go and get a fitness instructor. But there's really no one that provides usually the tools to success. I think what this book does is basically just say, look, here are some tools that I've used in my life. And the reason why I've become so successful in so many different areas is because I follow those rules and I applied those rules.

A MARTINEZ

So, for example, last year when you put out that video calling out Russia's misinformation campaign — and also telling Russia to stop the war in Ukraine — were you just expressing an opinion or were you trying to be useful?

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

Both. Both to let the Russian soldiers and the Russian people know that this is an unjust war that is not provoked. There was no one there challenging Russia. This was a peaceful country, Ukraine, and they were minding their own business. All of a sudden, they're getting attacked. So that is not right. I think that we have to speak out because something's wrong, to help them to understand it — and at the same time to let people know around the world how I feel about it. It was just my opinion and also trying to be useful at the same time.

But, you know, this is not what this book is about. It's just really helping people to go to the next level when it comes to success. What I wanted to do is just let people know you don't have to have a job that you hate. If you take some time and create a vision for yourself and create a goal for yourself — and then chase that goal no matter how difficult it may be — life becomes kind of fun. Because to me, my life was always a lot of fun, even though I struggled a lot and I was battling it out, losing a lot of the battles and then winning some. It was always interesting and spicy and exciting because I knew what I was chasing all the time — to become Mr. Universe, or becoming the greatest bodybuilder in the world, or coming to America, or getting into movies and becoming a leading man, or running for governor. It doesn't matter what it is. It was always a fun chase.

A MARTINEZ

You mentioned losing some battles. Which battles did you lose? I think when people think of your life, they think that almost anything you've tried, you've been a success.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

Well, maybe it was successful in the end, but to get there... One of the things I talk about is to not be afraid of failure. Because you're going to fail. When I was 19 years old, I was competing in the Mr. Universe contest and I lost. I came second. It was no big drama because I was hoping to be in the top six, but I came second so it was terrific. When I came to America, I lost the Mr. Olympia competition against Sergio Oliva. I lost one of the Mr. Universe contests in America against Frank Zane. I remember I lost power-lifting championships, weightlifting championships. I had movies that went in the toilet. I had policy issues and referendums that went in front of the people that I lost. There was a lot of things.

And of course, in my personal life, you know, my marriage is a big loss and this is a big failure. So there's a lot of losses and failures that I've had in the past in my life. And I think that it is important that we recognize that. But no matter what it is, I always had an exciting life and always chased something, and that made the whole thing worth it.

So many people — young people especially — when you ask them what do you want to do in life, they look at you kind of like the deer in the headlights and just don't know what to say. To me, that is a big problem, because I always felt that I was enriched by the fact that I always knew where I was going.

And then there were some things that were unexpected, like running for governor. That was something that kind of unfolded only because there was a recall election in California.

A MARTINEZ

You had the opportunity.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

All of a sudden, I had this vision: me being governor. And so I chased that vision. Going from promoting Terminator 3 and being this huge hit to all of a sudden going the other direction and saying, "I want to be a public servant." It was fun to chase that. I had this exact vision. I knew exactly what to say to the people and how to sell that idea, how to market myself, how to promote myself. I think this is the important thing: there's so many people that think small. They set a goal for themselves — a small goal because they're afraid to fail. And I tell people, don't be afraid to fail.

A MARTINEZ

Wait a second, YOU can have big goals. I think most people have to be happy with small goals in their lives. I don't think they can aspire to the things you can aspire to.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

No, because remember: when I was 15 years old, I was this ordinary Austrian boy, just like everyone else. I always had this dream that I want to be another Reg Park – a Mr. Universe who then did Hercules movies. So he became my idol. I wanted to win, like him, Mr. Universe several times and then be discovered in Hollywood. He was a fellow from England, from Leeds, from a factory town. I come from a factory down. Why could I not do that?

So I right away had a big vision to be like Reg Park (or to be Steve Reeves, an American version of Hercules). So, friends of mine wanted to be Mr. Austria; I right away thought of Mr. Universe, winning the world championship.

I remember when I was getting into movies, they said to me, maybe we can get you a job to play, maybe with your German accent, the Nazi officer. Or a bouncer or something like that. I mean, that's not what I wanted to do. I said I want to be a leading man. I right away shot for the big goal. And yes, it was riskier. It's very hard to climb the ladder. I said, forget about climbing the ladder — I'm going to create my own ladder and I'm going to climb that.

Now I'm going to show people how to do it.

A MARTINEZ

When it comes to having a clear vision, that's the first rule in your in your book, Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life. How do you get rid of the clutter to be able to have that clear vision? Because so much clutters up our lives.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

That's the key thing. You cannot go create a vision if your face is in the iPhone or iPad or the computer. That is not what creates a vision. That maybe makes you copy someone else, but it doesn't create a vision of something that you're really in touch with, that you feel like, I need to do this. I'm born to be this artist. I'm born to be a mechanic. I'm born to create my own garage and build muscle cars or whatever it may be. Everyone has something in them that makes them really want to go all out on something. You just need to apply those rules. Don't shoot for something small, shoot for something big. Don't be afraid of failure.

The key thing is: you work your ass off. One of the things that I know now being 76 years old: everything is directly related to work. The more you work your ass off, the further you're going to go. If you look for shortcuts, it's not going to happen. I've seen people in bodybuilding try to look for shortcuts. They never made it. I've seen it in acting. They have not made it. Everyone that was willing to work hard was able to make it and to become successful.

Selling yourself, selling your ideas, selling your vision is another very important part of this whole success formula. You have to convince people. You have to kind of communicate well. I mean, imagine when I was Governor of California and I said we have to reduce our greenhouse gases by 25% by the year 2020. Well, it was a great idea, but I now have to go and convince 40 million people in California that this is very important, that pollution kills people. We've got to have more renewable energy in California. We got to get rid of fossil fuels. We got to keep our nuclear reactors and nuclear power and blah, blah, blah, noise. And the people went along. The people went along because I sold the thing while I promoted it well, I marketed it well, I was communicating well. All of this is important in order to be successful.

The other one that I always tell people: let's do less talking and more listening. I have a chapter that says, shut your mouth and open your mind. It's very important because I think that if you always just talk, talk, talk, talk, you're not going to learn anything. The way you learn is if you just shut your mouth and listen to other people talk. Yes, you have to talk and yes, you have to communicate. But be aware that listening is really what makes you smart.

When I went into the capitol in Sacramento, I did a lot of listening because I had to learn very quickly about the various different policies, the various different issues. I mean, you go from one minute about prison guards' overtime, then you talk about the firefighters and talk about law enforcement. They talk about the nurses, the teachers. They talk about the crime. You're dealing with so many different subjects that from morning to night, it's better if you listen. Then if you sit down by yourself, without having the computers and the iPhone/iPads, that's how you get to be successful.

A MARTINEZ

The last tool in your book is called Break Your Mirrors. What does that mean, break your mirrors?

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

This is a saying that comes from my father-in-law [Sargent Shriver]. My father-in-law gave a speech at Yale University, a commencement speech, and there he said to the students: Break that mirror that makes you always look at yourself. And you will be able to look beyond that mirror and you will see the millions and millions of people that need your help.

My father-in-law was one of my idols. He created the Job Corps and the Peace Corps, legal aid to the poor and all of these various different organizations. And he was always out there trying to find something to help the less fortunate. He was also the chairman of the Special Olympics, and his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver created the Special Olympics. They always worked on helping the people that needed help. So to me, that saying said it all: we should not be consumed about ourselves. Yes, you have to deal with yourself. You have to build itself. But don't ever think that this is the only responsibility you have. You have the responsibility to break the mirror and to look beyond yourself and see the millions of people that need your help. And to go out and help, giving back to the community, giving back the city, to your state, your country is the ultimate that you have to do. And everyone has the ability to give back something. If you have no money, you can give your time to the kids — in reading or in English or to collect clothes so that homeless people can go to job interviews. There's so many simple things that we can do to help the community.

I got addicted to it because I started working with Special Olympics and helping Special Olympians, you know, train with weights and then go into powerlifting. It felt so good to be able to help kids that normally are not included, not getting equal rights. Then I started getting caught up with the President's Council of Physical Fitness for President Bush. [I] travelled through all 50 states to promote health and fitness and exercising in the schools. And it just one thing led to the next, and eventually I ran for governor.

It just feels so good to give something back. I think that this is without any doubt the greatest country in the world. And I always want to tell people that, you know, to me, giving something back was absolutely a necessity because of everything that I have ever achieved was because of America. And so to me, to give back to America is the greatest kind of honor and pleasure.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Reena Advani
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.