“I never believed I was average, and that alone is a big reason I wasn’t.” -Arnold Schwarzenegger
Very few of us are ever able to feel like we accomplish the majority of our goals. And, whether we want to admit it, life is a game of trial and error. So, it’s easy to get caught up in the errors and frustrated by the trials.
But, if you learn from those who have repeated, timeless successes, their mindset usually leaves clues about how they were able to apply different rules to the same game.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the ultimate example of someone who has created opportunities throughout his life. And, while no one needs to replicate his path, the way he approaches situations, obstacles, and challenges is a masterclass in mental mastery.
“No matter what, I had to prove to myself that I’m extraordinary. There is no normal,” Schwarzenegger shared in an exclusive interview for Ladder.
The mind is a powerful thing, and Schwarzenegger has leveraged an unbreakable mindset to seemingly create a competitive advantage over the universe. As someone who started with nothing when he immigrated to the United States, his belief in himself has made the world apparently bend to his will — and not the other way around.
“Always think of yourself as special. And think, ‘I’m going to prove to myself and the rest of the world that I can do it.’”
Even at 72 years old, the bodybuilder-turned actor-turned governor-turned activist continues to believe there’s more that he can accomplish — and it’s likely the main reason he continues to add new achievements to his resume.
Here are 8 lessons that I took away from my interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Don’t Think About Difficulty
“There’s an advantage of doing things automatically,” says Schwarzenegger. “I have a routine where you don’t have to think much — if at all. [Routines] are the foundation of a house.”
Schwarzenegger has built his life on habits and routines that have made him a creature of habit and efficiency.
Whether it’s his workouts — delts and arms one day, chest and back and calves another day, abs every day, and an extra 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise at night — or checking email and catching up on news, Arnold has built-in expectations for his day.
“Add as many of those routine things as possible because you do them without ever thinking about them. This is your daily schedule. Like breathing.”
While this isn’t earth-shattering, his mindset towards creating habits isn’t what you’d expect.
Whereas you might consider certain habits as difficult to build, that’s the first step in guaranteeing that it’ll be harder to adopt change.
“People should realize that I don’t have sympathy for ‘difficult.’ There are a lot of things in life that are difficult,” adds Schwarzenegger.
“If you want to build routines, you need to change your expectations. Are you going to back off every time something is difficult? Or, are you going to be the person who looks at something that is difficult — or the most difficult — and say, ‘I’m going to go and do it and prove it to myself.’ That’s how you build habits. “
“Don’t ask should or shouldn’t I. You just do it.”
Make Things Automatic
Part of Arnold’s legendary focus is a byproduct of his routines. But, just as importantly, it’s knowing what’s fixed in life — and when you need to put additional time, energy, and creativity into the non-routine aspects of your day.
To help you understand the importance of automated experiences, Arnold shared his experiences in politics.
“When I was Governor, I had fixed funds on what you could spend on certain programs like education. It’s a fixed expenditure. Same for healthcare and prisons.”
“I had something like only 8 percent of discretionary funds. There’s very little wiggle room. But, knowing what is automatic and knowing what is not help you focus,” says Arnold.
And that’s the way it should be with your daily routine. He recommends creating as many fixed moments in your day as possible. Then, you have fewer aspects where you need to dig deep, be creative, and come up with custom solutions.
You might see this as a limitation, but Arnold sees it as an advantage. Less variation means more focus. And the more you can focus on fewer things, the more likely you’re able to create a bigger impact.
Effort Influences Value.
I asked Arnold about something most people don’t know about him, and he shared his love of art and painting. But, that’s not what stood out to me (even though I was impressed by his painting). It was how he thinks of his time spent creating art for others.
“Today, it’s easy to go to a store and buy a gift or go to the flower shop and get flowers. You used to go out and pick flowers and put them in a vase. It’s all flowers. But, my mother was in heaven that we made an effort to go out and make the gift.”
Arnold understands that output isn’t the only measure of success. Your effort is also an important part of the equation.
“You must try to make an effort in everything you do, especially things for others. When you find pottery and paint on that, they know you spent hours on that. It makes a difference. It takes effort and people really like that.”
According to Arnold, more than 50 years ago, no one worked out in the morning. Gyms didn’t open until 10 am, so the entire structure of the day was based on rules that, as it turns out, didn’t exist for a good reason.
Arnold broke down how back then, people believed that you were weaker in the morning. It wasn’t until he lived with his idol, Reg Park, that he started squatting 500 pounds at 5:30 am, and his entire workout schedule adjusted.
The shift helped him remove limiting beliefs about his body, which, in turn, helped him understand that most limitations are self-conceived. This even led to some unreal 3 am workouts as an actor.
“If you think you can’t do something, you won’t. But, if you try to do something different, you might be surprised how much what you thought was a limitation wasn’t real.”
Goals Aren’t Enough. Have a Vision…
“Arnold, you’ve been asleep 16 hours. Something went wrong with this non-invasive procedure…you had internal bleeding, and in order to have you not die, we had to open you up.”
In the most powerful moment of our discussion, Arnold shared how his “routine” heart surgery took an unexpected turn and he was faced with a difficult comeback prior to filming the latest Terminator film.
When he was awakened after 16 hours, his immediate response wasn’t what you might think.
“Wait a minute, in three-and-a-half months, I’m supposed to be in Budapest to shoot Terminator 6. But, they are saying it takes 6 months to recover.”
While it might seem like Arnold wasn’t thinking about the big picture and overall health, it was — in fact — the opposite. He was visualizing where he needed to be as a way to return to health.
“I always look for motivation. If you have no motivation, then it’s hard to get going under those circumstances. You’re down and you have a major setback. And the vision is what can bring you back.”
“If you have no goal, you have nothing. You have to know where to go. You need a vision.”
…But, Focus on Small Wins
Once you have your vision, then you need to put in the reps or mileage. This is exactly what Arnold, whom many consider the greatest bodybuilder of all-time, had to do in order to recover from his heart surgery.
“I asked the doctors, ‘When can I get up?’ And the doctor says 3 to 4 days. People don’t die from the procedure; they die from pneumonia and lungs filling with fluid,” recalls Arnold.
“I’m going to be up tomorrow and I’m going to be walking. Get me a walker. And that’s what I did. I went for walks, would lie back down, rest, and then get back up for another walk. I was a fanatic. I built up to 2-hour walks. Then, I traded the walker for a cane.”
Within 6 days he was out of the hospital. Just 3 weeks later he was working out with light weights. And, as he promised, three-and-a-half months later, he was on set for Terminator 6.
“The director said, ‘I can’t believe you had open-heart surgery three-and-a-half months ago,’” says Schwarzenegger.
“We all have setbacks, but, if you have a very clear vision and a clear goal, then you put in the reps, you can come back.”
Find Your “On Switch”
Despite his success, Arnold isn’t immune to having down moments or aging. But, it’s his ability to adapt and be self-aware that allows him to keep on thriving.
“When I hit 50, I realized I was not able to come back as quickly at 2 am for filming after 2 hours of sleep. So I said, ‘I will never sleep again at night when I’m filming.’ But, I needed something to give me a spark.”
That spark was chess.
“The more chess I played, the more alert I was and able to come to the set fully charged because my mind was ready from all the chess. I remembered the lines 100% and the physical work felt 100%.”
“You have to figure out what it takes to be on. When you have a setback or feel sluggish or mentally tired, you must find a way to recharge.”
Busy Is OK. Distracted Is Not.
In the 1970s, Arnold found himself overwhelmed with bodybuilding, acting, buying real estate, and building construction.
“A lot of things were coming together at once. I was overloaded,” recalls Schwarzenegger.
At that point, Arnold turned to meditation, something he has discussed in the past. For a year, he would meditate 20 minutes in the morning and another 20 minutes at night. Whereas many might find meditation beneficial for its ability to calm and destress, Arnold found another invaluable benefit that continues to help him today.
“[After meditating] all of a sudden, I could focus on one thing. I could do real estate and not be thinking about bodybuilding When training, I wasn’t thinking about acting. I got really focused and learned how to focus, and it made me better at everything I did.
“Knowing how to focus on one thing at a time has made me better at everything I did.”
Whatever you take away from Arnold, the foundation of his mindset is rooted in something we can all possess: confidence. And it’s that confidence that has allowed Arnold to take chances and push himself to heights no one could’ve ever imagined — except maybe himself.
“Prove to [the world] that there are extraordinary things that can happen because that’s when they can.”