What’s it now?
If I were to begin a review of a motivational book in keeping with the tone and compositional principle of the work I would begin by quoting a famous personality. Let’s pick Bernard Shaw. He said, “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.” This is eerily descriptive of Schwarzenegger’s new book Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life. At the formal level his prose is peppered with references to everyone from Einstein to Nelson Mandela. At the contentual level he can no longer do what he’s known for. His leading man days in Hollywood and gubernatorial stint in California behind him Arnold pays it forward by teaching others. Teaching them what? You ask. Of course, what he knows best: how to be a musclebound actor who can play action hero and comedic leads, be an immigrant coming from a home with no running water and become the governor of California.
First you have to disregard the limited advice from your small-town alcoholic and abusive father, win the Mr. Universe title five times and the Mr. Olympia title seven times, star in Hollywood movies while taking anything between 20-30 million dollars per film, and then get elected as governor largely by and for being the only person in the room with twenty four inch biceps who has also been a movie star making 20-30 million dollars a pop. Finally, in the December of your life you must sign lucrative deals with publishers allowing you to write about your life in May. If you’ve played your cards well so long you’ll have enough social and cultural capital to whitewash your spotty legacy, and turn your father’s shitty bromides into terse wisdom ripe for sale as a bestseller full of simple imperative sentences and anecdotes that organically facilitate name dropping.
Who’s the Self in Self-Help?
Oh, you come from a loving family, have no bodybuilding or Hollywood aspirations, and don’t intend to get into politics? No problem, you just do what Arnold says he would do if he was forced to live your pathetic existence as a plumber, teacher, or whatever else that you’re going to settle for and call a “happy, successful, useful life.” The advice marketed as Seven Rules for Life here has more than a passing resemblance to the generic avuncular pablum of Twelve Rules for Life and other books of its ilk. Its specific wording can be ampliated and unpacked so as to apply to anyone doing anything anywhere at all; this is also why it is advice so non-specific as to be particularly useful to no one. Who could deny the patent reasonableness of short, clear gem-like slogans on offer here?
Have a clear vision
Never think small
Sell, meaning: convince others
Shut your mouth, open your mind
Destroy your mirrors
The power packed into this protocol is so massive that if liberated willy-nilly it can make your head dangerously swell to match your newly acquired twenty-four-inch biceps. To limit the risk of injury to yourself, your family, professional peers, the community, and the nation state at large you must deploy it to serve others. Enter the cautionary postscript that proleptically justifies the terse title of the domineering book: be useful. As Nick Green at Washington Post notes in his fair review of the book it is never quite made clear who and what Arnold wants the reader to be useful to and for. The question of identifying and evaluating purposes towards which to channel all the relentlessness championed here is never even considered, let alone answered.
There is a large community of people who yearn to become the next Arnold Schwarzenegger for whom seeing how the man walked his talk will be galvanizing. For others merely interested in snapshots from the colourful and varied life of the thick-limbed, thick-accented superstar and former governor of California this book offers slim pickings. There is, for instance, no salacious parallel drawing between his “lunatic” tendency to work twice as hard as other bodybuilders [doing 2 hour sets in the morning and evening] and his fathering one child out of his marriage to show he wasn’t as complacent in wedlock as other lazy married folk who just conceive their kids in-house.
Schwarzenegger is clearly an intelligent man. His decision making savvy is readily seen in his early career moves like buying an apartment complex with a big payout so he would always have a place to stay rent-free if his big visions didn’t pan out. He’s also incredibly industrious. Instead of coasting on his bodybuilding glories he authored workout guides, instead of settling for playing baddies or fighters he demanded and received leading man roles in comedy films. But the very things that make Schwarzenegger’s story remarkable are what make any advice based on it untenable. There is more than a smidgen of luck involved in getting any of the breaks he got after moving to America. This, and not the virtues assimilated to the seven point listicle, is why there is only one Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It is easier for an obese A-list actor to become a bodybuilder for a leading role in a Hollywood film than it is for a bodybuilder to land the role in their show-ready physique. This is because nothing assures producers and directors of success quite like previous successes. It is safe and rational, for instance, to bet that a beefed-up Chris Pratt will make bank for a new film—at least insofar as any single actor can sink or save a film. To make such a gamble on a bodybuilding pro card holder and Instagram fitness influencer with no proven track record as an entertainer is risky to the point of being reckless. So, those doubling the time they spend in the gym hyped-up by the pep talk in the book should not quit their day jobs just yet. Sure, it might be a tad easier to get elected governor if you’re the only one in the room with twenty-four-inch biceps who also seems to have opinions on policy. But make no mistake you’ll still have find your own way into the room. In the meanwhile, let Schwarzenegger scream “Don’t be lazy” at you if that’s your thing.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (2023) Be Useful: Seven Rules for Life. Penguin.