Lately, I’m reading more and more biographies and this one was certainly great not just because I love bodybuilding and have seen Arnold as an idol since I was a little kid, but also because this book gave me a deep insight into all his incredible achievements and the things he learned along the way.
Arnold grew up in a little town called Thal. Austria was occupied by the allied forces and life was harsh, as his mother told him when she wanted to show him what sacrifice she had to make to bring the family up. His father, a police officer, was very disciplining. But Arnold later saw his fathers as the reason he became what he was. It was the reason why he later went to America to fulfill his dreams.
Arnold becomes interested in weightlifting
During school, Arnold had to do an essay writing assignment and he was given a sports page featuring a photo of mister Austria setting a record in bench-press, 190 kg. He felt inspired not just because of his strength achievement but because Kurt also looked smart at the same time, like a professor, he was wearing glasses. This was like a revelation about his future to Arnold. It started his fascination with weightlifting.
Arnold goes to America
Arnold’s biggest dream comes true when Joe Weider invites him to America. Joe becomes his sponsor and father figure. Arnold admires him and loves the fact that he is a hustler. He has magazines, runs a federation, and had a lot of knowledge. He wanted to make bodybuilding really big.
Arnold learned a lot from the other bodybuilders too, one example he shared was Sergio Oliva’s way of bench pressing without ever fully locking out. These half reps enabled him to have constant tension on his pectoral muscle, and they were beautifully developed. Sergio at the time was the word bodybuilding champ.
“But above all it was the fire in Sergio that inspired me. I said to myself that I would have to step it up.” – Arnold
The big initial language barrier didn’t stop Arnold from adopting America’s culture. He was surprised by all the hospitality. But it bothered him that he didn’t know how to respond, for instance, he’d never hear of sending a thank-you note to someone. That was weird for him, why weren’t they just doing it in person or on the phone? But unlike in Europe, here in America when he went out to a dinner with his girlfriend, she afterward sent a thank-you note to the people who’d invited them.
Arnold’s way to embrace failure
One lesson from Arnold I liked very much was when he talked about how to embrace failure with a big smile instead of feeling bad.
“That afternoon at the gym, I thought more about my loss to Frank Zane. Now that I’d stopped feeling sorry for myself, I came to harsher conclusions than those I’d reached the night before. I still felt the judging had been unfair, but I discovered this wasn’t the real cause of my pain. It was the fact that I had failed—not my body, but my vision and my drive. Losing to Chet Yorton in London in 1966 hadn’t felt bad because I’d done everything I could to prepare; it was just not my year. But something different had happened here. I was not as ripped as I could have been. I could have dieted the week before and not eaten so much fish and chips. I could have found a way to train more even without access to equipment: for instance, I could have done one thousand reps of abs or something that would have made me feel ready. I could have worked on my posing—nothing had stopped me from doing that. Never mind the judging; I hadn’t done everything in my power to prepare. Instead, I’d thought my momentum from winning in London would carry me. I’d told myself I’d just won Mr. Universe and I could let go. That was nonsense.
Thinking this made me furious. “Even though you won the professional Mr. Universe contest in London, you are still a fucking amateur,” I told myself. “What happened here never should have happened. It only happens to an amateur. You’re an amateur, Arnold.”
Staying in America, I decided, had to mean that I wouldn’t be an amateur ever again. Now the real game would begin. There was a lot of work ahead. And I had to start as a professional. I didn’t ever want to go away from a bodybuilding competition like I had in Miami. If I was going to beat guys like Sergio Oliva, that could never happen again. From now on if I lost, I would be able to walk away with a big smile because I had done everything I could to prepare.”
Arnold’s Entrepreneurial development
Arnold’s had an entrepreneurial mindset from a young age. As a little boy, he started selling ice-cream at the Thalersee, a beautiful lake in a public park. The park was a five minutes walk from his home. With the money he made he paid for his amusements. He figured that depending on where people had their blankets, a walk to the patio would melt their ice-cream from the hot summer temperature. So he bought ice-cream cones for one schilling and then walked around the lake to sell them for 3. A 300% profit, not bad for little Arnold.
Later in America, Arnold took advantage of the perfect business opportunities there. The money Joe paid him never went very far, so he started looking for ways to earn more. He would give seminars at Gym’s, those netted $500. He also launched a mail-order business from his apartment. It grew out of the fan mail’s he got. People were curious how he trained, but he couldn’t respond all the letters. To solve that problem Arnold got standard letters from magazine writers which he could send out without much work, for good profit. The mail-order business gave him the idea to start selling booklets.
“In America, unlike Europe, there weren’t a million obstacles to starting a business. All I had to do was go down to city hall and pay $3.75 for a permit, and then rent a post office box to receive the orders. Next came the California Board of Equalization and the IRS. They’d ask, “How much do you think you’ll make?”
“I hope a thousand dollars a month.” So you’d pay $320 for the first estimated payment. There was no interrogation. They were kind, sweet, accommodating. When Franco and I started a bricklaying business, it was the same thing. We walked out shaking our heads, and Franco said, “This is why they call this the land of opportunity.” We were so happy.”
Arnold invest’s in his mind, not just his body
What I loved reading is that Arnold also put emphasis on his mind not just his body. He attended Santa Monica College to learn English, and later business, and other business-related courses. Arnold felt great about the education because he felt no pressure, instead, his teacher encouraged him to slowly step up his education.
Arnold’s goal setting
Arnold accomplished his big goals, becoming the best bodybuilder, becoming one of the best actors and later politician. Let’s peek at how he did it.
“I always wrote down my goals, like I’d learned to do in the weight-lifting club back in Graz. It wasn’t sufficient just to tell myself something like “My New Year’s resolution is to lose twenty pounds and learn better English and read a little bit more.” No. That was only a start. Now I had to make it very specific so that all those fine intentions were not just floating around. I would take out index cards and write that I was going to:
• get twelve more units in college;
• earn enough money to save $5,000;
• work out five hours a day;
• gain seven pounds of solid muscle weight; and
• find an apartment building to buy and move into.
It might seem like I was handcuffing myself by setting such specific goals, but it was actually just the opposite: I found it liberating. Knowing exactly where I wanted to end up freed me totally to improvise how to get there.”
Execution is key, not knowledge
Arnold tells how he made a deal to buy an apartment building. It took him every dollar he had saved, $27.000 plus another $10.000 he had to borrow from Weider to make the down payment. But it was the right move, he was now living in a building which paid for itself with the renting he did to actors. Here is how he responded to a friend who couldn’t believe how he took the risk of using up all his savings.
“Seeing me pull off a $215,000 deal left my old friend Artie Zeller in shock. For days afterward, he kept asking how I had the balls to do it. He could not understand because he never wanted any risk in his life.
“How can you stand the pressure? You have the responsibility of renting out the other five units. You have to collect the rent. What if something goes wrong?” Problems were all he could see. It could be terrible. Tenants would make noise. What if somebody came home drunk? What if somebody slipped, and I got sued? “You know what America is like with the lawsuits!” and blah, blah, blah.
I caught myself listening. “Artie, you almost scared me just now.” I laughed. “Don’t tell me any more of this information. I like to always wander in like a puppy. I walk into a problem and then figure out what the problem really is. Don’t tell me ahead of time.” Often it’s easier to make a decision when you don’t know as much, because then you can’t overthink. If you know too much, it can freeze you. The whole deal looks like a minefield.
“I’d noticed the same thing at school. Our economics professor was a two-times PhD, but he pulled up in a Volkswagen Beetle. I’d had better cars for years by that time. I said to myself, “Knowing it all is not really the answer, because this guy is not making the money to have a bigger car. He should be driving a Mercedes.”
Principles for success
Arnold didn’t want to be a role model because, as he put it, he has many contradictions. He does lay out some principles for success, however:
- Turn liabilities into assets. When he started in the movie business Hollywood agents told him he wouldn’t be able to succeed because of his accent. Instead of giving up, Arnold turned his accent into one of his biggest accents. Today Arnold’s accent is famous.
- When someone tells you no, you should hear yes. Many times people told him that it wasn’t possible to achieve what he wanted. But instead of listening to people you should try, what can go wrong? If you fail, that’s what everyone expects, if you succeed, you can make the world a much better place.
- Never follow the crowd, go where it’s empty. “Avoid the freeway at rush hour.” People apply this type of common sense all the time, but when it comes to their careers they often forget it.
“When every immigrant I knew was saving up to buy a house, I bought an apartment building instead. When every aspiring actor was trying to land bit parts in movies, I held out to be a leading man. When every politician tries to work his or her way up from local office, I went straight for the governorship. It’s easier to stand out when you aim straight for the top.”
- No matter what you do in life, selling is part of it. You can have the best thing in the world but if people don’t know about it, they won’t buy it. Having the biggest muscles in the world wasn’t enough, Arnold had to make people aware that there was no such thing as a comptetition for the most muscular men in the world. The same principle applies to politics and other areas of life.
- Never let pride get in your way. Once Muhammad Ali challenged Arnold to a pushing challenge. Arnold pushed him against the wall easily. Instead of being embarrassed, Ali appeared again afterward to show his friends how weight lifting really worked and made you stronger. He asked Arnold to shove him again, and so he did.
- Don’t overthink. Knowledge is fine but you shouldn’t let it get in your way. People are often frozen when they don’t know how to use their knowledge. By not analyzing everything you free yourself from the load and you are better able to act.
- Forget plan B. To test yourself you sometimes have to operate without a safety net. In his political career, Arnold had to make decisions with no plan b. He did and succeeded, even though experts advised him not to act.
I hope you enjoyed learning from Arnold as much as I did. You can get the book by clicking this link.
Also published on Medium.