6 Amazing Lessons Arnold Schwarzenegger Can Teach You About Success

arnold schwarzenegger
Arnold Schwarzenegger polarises opinion.

He’s a cigar smoking fitness fanatic with the most revered physique in bodybuilding history. He’s a fiercely loyal Republican who can count the Kennedy’s as in laws. He’s the farmer’s son from Austria who became an American – and to be honest you’re not sure what to make of him either…

Generally, most people fall into one of two camps; there are those who view him with a mixture of envy and awe, and there are those who just see Schwarzenegger as a wooden actor who cheated on his wife and injected enough testosterone to grow a thousand man-beards.

Yet behind this is a man so utterly driven to succeed that he dominated three of the most challenging careers in existence.

Wherever you look there are rags to riches stories and inspirational individuals. High school dropouts who became millionaires or failed entrepreneurs who stubbornly refused to quit and went on to design overpriced technology – yes I’m looking at you, Steve.

But we know all about these people. Of course they are inspirational, but once you’ve heard one Stanford speech – you’ve heard them all.

Personally, I find inspiration in people I can relate to. Those flawed geniuses who aren’t afraid of saying the wrong thing or stepping on anyone’s toes. People who have demonstrated time and again how they can jump head first into something they believe in without fear of failure – and most importantly, people who can honestly say that they gave it their best shot.

And truth be told, those who live like that – usually have the best stories to tell.

1. Without defeat you cannot be a winner


[on Mr Universe] I wanted to win it so decisively that people would forget I’d ever lost.

Up to, and including the 1968 Mr Universe contest in London, Schwarzenegger knew only one thing, and that was victory. He had blitzed through the European bodybuilding scene at an alarming rate and his success in London was enough for an invitation to the American version of the event – the daddy of all Mr Universe competitions.

There was only one problem – arrogance.

Schwarzenegger believed that his sheer size was enough to wow the American judges, and it wasn’t until the night of the show itself that he realised how out of his depth he was. Yes, he was the biggest guy there, but he was pale and soft. The winner, Frank Zane, was five inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter, yet incredibly cut with a sublime posing routine to match.

Following this defeat, and without a friend in sight or the ability to even speak the language, Arnold sat alone in his hotel room with his legendary self-confidence in tatters. Amidst one of the lowest points of his life, he vowed to adapt and train harder than ever before, which he did. The 1969 Mr Universe in Miami was a walkover. No one else could match his size or his definition – but this was only the start.

As an official Mr Universe winner, Schwarzenegger was invited to the Mr Olympia competition which allows the best to compete against each other to determine the undisputed number one bodybuilder in the world. His nemesis this time was the awesome Sergio Oliva – owner of the biggest lat (back) spread in the business and the all-round physique to relegate Schwarzenegger to second place that evening. Arnold later admitted that it wasn’t just Sergio’s physique, but his psych out methods backstage that gave him an inferiority complex. This was the second time in two years that he had allowed a lack of experience to derail his chance of victory.

Revenge came the following year. A few weeks prior to the Olympia, Arnold and Sergio faced each other in a warm up event with Schwarzenegger narrowly emerging victorious. However, knowing how strict the Olympia judges were – he set out to mess with Sergio’s mind – claiming that he only won because of the extra muscle he had gained this year (as a ploy to make Sergio try to add a bit of extra weight, and thus possibly come into the contest looking a little soft). It worked.

At the Olympia it was neck and neck. The judges weren’t letting either guy off stage – instructing them to hit pose after pose after pose. Exhausted, and with the crowd in a frenzy, Schwarzenegger hatched a plan. He suggested to Sergio that they both walk off stage and let the chips fall where they may. Sergio agreed and they both started walking – only for Schwarzenegger to rush back on and hit the crowd with one more pose. Sergio, a bit slow off the mark, ran back into position, but it was too late. The crowd were screaming ‘Arnold, Arnold, Arnold’, and the result was inevitable.

Those two defeats turned him into a champion.

You can’t have a life full of successes. In bodybuilding, I tried bench-pressing 500lb many times and failed. That’s how you get there. You have to be daring.

2. Diversify your identity


I never like to cut things from my life; I only add.

Depending in which decade you were born, you’re likely to have initially known Arnold as a successful bodybuilder, a Hollywood action star or the Governor of California – but certainly not all three.

When people branch out in different directions it is usually something closely related to their current field. For example, it’s easy to forget that Jennifer Lopez is primarily an actress as many people will only recognise her as a recording artist, but it’s actually due to her successful portrayal of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in the biopic film Selena, that she even followed her second career as a musician.

Impressive for sure, but you can see the link. There is no such link between bodybuilding, acting and then politics. People have moved between one and the other on occasion, but not all three, and with that level of success.

But that’s not all. Did you know that Arnold was also a successful property developer and had his own mail order company? As a means to earn money whilst training for the Olympia, Schwarzenegger and his best friend and fellow competitor Franco Columbu, began offering themselves as construction workers and soon gained a reputation as a reliable and hardworking duo. With more clients than they could handle, they recruited a dozen other local bodybuilders to help with the increase in demand. Eventually sensing that their earning potential was somewhat limited, they branched out into development and together they bought 15 acres of land as an investment. It is through property development that Schwarzenegger became a millionaire in his early twenties and impressively, still had the motivation to earn a degree at the University of Wisconsin in business and economics.

Arnold was always willing to try something new, succeed and then move on to the next project – something he did again and again throughout his life.

I pride myself on being able to juggle many tasks. I got a college education while bodybuilding, married Maria (Shriver) in the middle of filming Predator, and made Kindergarten Cop and Terminator 2 while launching Planet Hollywood.

3. Don’t allow your limitations to hold you back


What are the odds for an Austrian farm boy to come to America and become the greatest bodybuilding champion of all time, to get in the movie business, marry a Kennedy, and then get elected governor of the biggest state in the United States?

We all have our weaknesses. You may think you’re too short or not attractive enough to be noticed by the opposite sex. You may even think that you don’t have enough free time or the finances to truly pursue your passions. Are these limitations real or are they imaginary? Technically, they exist – but what is really holding you back is the belief that they control your destiny.

To put your excuses into context, consider the following;

How does an Austrian farmer’s boy end up being the Governor of California? How does a champion bodybuilder end up as the biggest movie star in the world? The supposed limitations that are holding you back are probably just imaginary, at least compared to the obstacles Schwarzenegger had to face.

Being a foreigner was tough. Shortly upon arriving in America he accidentally insulted a restaurant owner by cheerfully demanding ‘give me some of your garbage’. Of course, he actually meant to say ‘cabbage’ but learning English was a particularly troublesome endeavour for the young Austrian. Finding the grammar and the pronunciation extremely difficult, Schwarzenegger enrolled in several English classes and studied diligently until he was comfortable enough to enrol in various business and math classes to further enhance his learning.

His quest to become a movie star was also fraught with difficulty. Many casting agents initially scoffed at the idea that Schwarzenegger would ever land a starring role. For starters, his name was too long, his body was too big and that his accent was too strong.

Stay Hungry director Bob Rafelson shared many of these views by insisting that Schwarzenegger lose 30lbs and actually learn to act before the first day of shooting or he wouldn’t be in the picture. Taking this advice on board Arnold set about achieving the impossible.

  • He hired the world renowned dialect coach Robert Easton to help smooth his accent and improve his enunciation
  • Took four hour acting classes, three days a week alongside daily private tuition and learnt how to improvise and channel emotion into performance.
  • Changed the vision he had for himself as the world’s most muscular man to that of a movie star and dropped from 240lbs to 210lbs as per Rafelson’s request.

He kept the name.

Schwarzenegger knew that to achieve success, one must eliminate their weaknesses and emphasise their strengths. This was evident in all areas of his life, from bodybuilding to acting and then into politics.

We all have our weaknesses – it’s how we move past them that determines our potential.

It was very difficult for me in the beginning – I was told by agents and casting people that my body was ‘too weird’, that I had a funny accent, and that my name was too long. You name it, and they told me I had to change it. Basically, everywhere I turned, I was told that I had no chance.

4. The difference between success and failure is how hard you work

arnold-schwarzenegger terminator 2 shooting a gun

I’m proud to say I found a way to cram 36 hours of work into a single day.

To be honest, many of us quit when the going gets tough. You only have to look at how many people play the lottery each week as proof of the desire to gain the monetary rewards without having to put in the hard graft. But life doesn’t work like that.

The truth is that it’s impossible to achieve greatness without having an insane work ethic and determination to succeed, whatever the cost. There are no shortcuts. Confidence is the knowledge that you have the skill, which in turn is the result of repetition.

It is this ‘reps, reps, reps’ mentality that Arnold would use throughout his life as a means to succeed and overcome any challenges that came his way. Everything he ever did was the result of hundreds, even thousands of repetitions. From delivering the perfect three quarter back pose on the Mr Olympia stage to the three months spent mastering the art of broadsword fighting in preparation for his role in Conan the barbarian – nothing was left to chance – few could ever accuse Schwarzenegger of failing to prepare.

As Kyle Reese famously stated – ‘That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.’

The Terminator presented Schwarzenegger with a unique challenge. To successfully portray this character as a machine, he had to learn to act like one. Tapping into his military training and previous experience with guns, Schwarzenegger spent several weeks learning how to strip and reassemble different firearms whilst blindfolded. Once these actions were automatic, he would then spend countless hours on the firing range, learning how each gun behaved, getting used to the different sounds and the recoil so that he wouldn’t blink when pulling the trigger.

Terminators don’t blink. Therefore Arnold couldn’t blink.

It wasn’t just in bodybuilding and movies where Arnold applied this mentality – he also brought this work ethic into his political career.

During his first official television appearance after announcing his intent to run for the Governor of California, Arnold was faced with a barrage of questions from the Today show’s Matt Lauer that he had no answer to. Feeling completely out of his depth he faked a bad connection and got the hell out of there. Realising that he knew nothing about politics compared to those he was due to run against, and with damaged pride – he created ‘Schwarzenegger University’ – his name for the process in which he hired some of the greatest political minds to brief and coach him through the most important current affairs including energy, workers compensation and college tuition fees. He knew that as long as he had greater knowledge than everyone else – he could use his charm and confidence to dominate the opposition and woo the voters.

This was Sergio part two.

I explained how as a student I’d trained five hours a day, gone to acting classes four hours a day, worked on construction several hours a day and gone to college and done my homework.

5. Always aim for the top

Arnold Schwarzenegger with Barack obama

At the top of the ladder, there was always room for one more. The more people who stay on the bottom, the more crowded it becomes.

Once Schwarzenegger had his foot firmly wedged in the Hollywood door, he decided to go all out in his quest for big leagues. It was no longer satisfactory to merely play the supporting role or in lower budget indie films. He wanted to be one of the top five leading men in the industry.

His philosophy was to always aim for the top of the ladder because there is little competition. Few others have the balls to aim that high because they are either intimidated by the pressure or simply lack the work ethic needed for success. There is no point in going to where the crowds are when there are empty spaces further up. It’s common sense.

While every other low level actor was happy to accept anything that came their way, Arnold held out for the leading roles. When most aspiring politicians aim to start with a position in their local office, Arnie went straight for the most powerful position he was legally allowed to run for – the Governor of California – a state with the 7th largest economy in the world. This is what happens when you believe in yourself 100%.

When you operate without a plan B you have no option but to succeed with plan A.

Once a decision had been made – that’s it. As far as he was concerned it was a done deal. All that mattered was putting the plan into action and enjoying the ride. Absolute, unequivocal belief that he would achieve any goal he set his mind to. Some might call this delusion, but it was simply his way of coping with the pressures and expectations of success.

The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.

6. Believe in yourself 100%

Arnold Schwarzenegger Is Sworn In As The 38th Governor Of California with maria shriver

I had a very clear vision of where I wanted to go. You realize you have to pay no attention to the naysayers. When you learn those lessons in sports, you can apply those lessons for the rest of your life.

Maria Shriver certainly had her reservations regarding Schwarzenegger’s intention to run for the Governor of California. Being a member of the Kennedy family, the American political family – possibly the closest thing to American royalty – and being the niece of John F. Kennedy, she knew first-hand how stressful and invasive life would become if her husband were to actually succeed with his crazy plan.

She let him know this. At every opportunity Maria reminded him how much of an effect this would have on their family. He wouldn’t just be a movie star – he would be one of the most powerful politicians in the country – a Republican Governor with a Kennedy as a wife. This was a big deal.

Schwarzenegger had originally planned to announce his candidacy on The Tonight Show with Jay leno – but as the days counted down to his appearance, the doubts set it. Could he risk alienating his wife? Was he cut out for such a dramatic shift in his life? Would anyone even take him seriously?

On the day of the recording, Maria gave Arnold two pieces of paper before leaving for work that morning. On one was a script pledging his support for another candidate, Dick Riordan, the other was a script announcing that he would run himself. This was Maria’s way of trusting him to follow his judgement. Still confused, Schwarzenegger decided to forget about it and just turn up on The Tonight Show and allow his instincts to take over. ‘Whatever comes out of my mouth, that’s how it will be’.

When focusing on a goal it is easy to allow negativity and self-doubt to creep in. Not everyone will agree with your plans, some of these will be the people closest to you, but the only person who has the final say is you.

Deep down, Schwarzenegger knew this. He loved his wife and understood her concerns, but once he realised that she also understood his position – it allowed him to relax and trust his own judgement. Schwarzenegger knew that whatever came out of his mouth on that evening would be the right choice, and this was only possible because of the rock solid self-belief he had forged throughout his life thus far.

Success or failure – you have to be willing to go for it.

Impossible was a word I loved to ignore when I was governor. The only way to make the possible possible is to try the impossible. If you fail, so what? That’s what everybody expects. But if you succeed, you make the world a much better place.

Don’t overthink. If you think all the time, the mind cannot relax. Part of us needs to go through life instinctively. Turning off your mind is an art. Knowledge is extremely important for making decisions. The more knowledge you have, the more you’re free to rely on your instincts. The more you know, the more you hesitate. When you are not confident of your decision-making process, it will slow you down. Overthinking is why people can’t sleep at night: it cripples you.

What are your opinions on Schwarzenegger? What is your favourite Arnie movie? Let me know in the comments.

Also, if you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing using the social media buttons below, thank you!

About Jamie

Jamie is a guitar teacher and writer who hates the typical 9-5 existence. After quitting his job to enter the world of guitar tuition, he created this blog to document his thoughts and struggles as he takes on societies norms armed with nothing more than his cheeky wit and undeniable charm - Give his Facebook page a like, add him on Twitter or follow his Google+ page and he will repay you with even more awesome words!


  1. beautifully written .. very inspirational
    people look up to AS n this is a post that describes him at his best .. thanks for sharing
    mukul recently posted..DREAMS : In persuade of HAPPINESSMy Profile

    • Thanks, although it baffles me why so few openly admit to admiring him. Maybe they just see the movies and dismiss him for that?

  2. Amazing..awesome,strongly inspiring!!

  3. nate river says:

    Remember that life is not meant to be wasted, always be chasing the sun.
    Aim for the top, work hard for it, words will be just words till you bring them to life. Diversify yourself, be Divergent.
    Remember the reason why you still wake up?, it’s because you haven’t met the finish line.
    There’s still a long way to run, don’t go with the flow, instead let the flow go in your favor.
    Hey Arnold ! You’re amazing dude, guess I need to include you in my “Man to look up list” ! I wonder who are the persons Jaime’s looking up to huh ??

  4. I’m no great Arnold fan but this is one of the best motivational post I have read!
    So much of this is so very true.
    Nick othen recently posted..Stop Smoking With HypnotherapyMy Profile

  5. I know how it feels to be a foreigner in a country and try to make something work. To think about where he came from … and what he’s achieved. He’s no joke.

    Awesome writing, Jamie.

    • Hey, thanks. I envy anyone who has made a go of it in a foreign country. It’s probably number 1 on my life bucket list.

  6. Arnold has accomplished more in his lifetime than most would in three lifetimes or more.
    Dan Erickson recently posted..how I’ve used writing to healMy Profile

  7. I think you have to admre him. He’s certaintly created some memorable cinematic moments and who doesn’t say “I’ll be back”?.
    Personally, the Arnie lesson is if you want something bad enough then the you’ll work for it. I think the greatest barrier we often face is our own lack of commitment to our goals. Let’s go for it like Arnie!

    • Hi peter, that too is my biggest takeaway from Arnie’s life. It’s all about work ethic and determination. Thanks for dropping by.

  8. Dude this is an awesome post. Loved it from start to finish. For me Arnie will always be a legend, love the guy, and have always admired his achievements (and his one-liners, and his inspirational quotes) but there was so much in here that I just had no clue about. It’s whetted my appetite to go and learn more about him.
    Micah recently posted..The Question of Horror: Why Do We Just Love it?My Profile

    • Thanks Micah. Many of these stories are from his recent Autobiography – it’s worth the read!

  9. I see you finished reading the book! 🙂

    Awesome article.

    “It is this ‘reps, reps, reps’ mentality that Arnold would use throughout his life as a means to succeed and overcome any challenges that came his way.”

    — That was my biggest takeaway from reading it!
    Ludvig Sunström recently posted..How Studying History Boosts Your Personal DevelopmentMy Profile

  10. Solid article!

    If you look at Arnold’s body language and facial expressions when he stepped on stage (more prominent in his earlier competitions) you could see that there was not a single doubt in his mind that he was going to be victorious before the judging even began.

    PS: If your readers enjoyed this article the interview Tim Ferriss did with Arnold recently is worth checking out – tons of great insight into his mindset.


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