3 Lessons from Arnold Schwarzenegger

As a kid, I remember The Terminator movies had blown me away. (For the record, I’m referring only to the first two films in the series.) I used to be a huge Arnold fan. Like many others, I had a poster of The Terminator stuck up on the wall in front of my study table. I idolised him.

Back then I didn’t know that Arnold was also a successful businessman apart from being a body building champion and a world class action star. After I had read his autobiography, and listened him on The Tim Ferris Show, I started respecting him more as a businessman and a strategist. Here are three important lessons from the man himself.

1. Visualise Yourself Winning

Arnold once said: “I wasn’t there to compete. I was there to win,” while talking about his first major competition, Junior Mr. Europe.

At first, it felt like another cliched dialogue, because everybody is there to win. Even the ones who lose. So what difference does it make! It made a difference only when he added, “I am a big believer that if you have a very clear vision of where you want to go, then the rest of it is much easier.” If you cannot visualise yourself winning, then you cannot go on practising in the gym 5-6 hrs everyday. You have to give yourself this vision. It keeps you going.

Now this started to make more sense. There are two things here:

First, Arnold won Mr. Olympia 7 times in total. But it doesn’t mean he won these championships only because he visualised himself winning.

Second, he was able to push himself because he visualised himself winning. This is a pretty good strategy. We all need some form of emotional motivation.

Arnold came from poverty, and had a lot of fire in his belly to make it big. So he already had a lot of motivation to become successful in life. But on a micro-level, visualisation helped him get the push required on a day-to-day basis.

Scott Adams talks about the concept of Affirmations in his book, How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. Affirmations helped Adams become a top-rated cartoonist and a bestselling author. He even used it to crack the GMAT entrance exam, and did better than his smarter co-worker.

What’s an Affirmation? Adams describes it as a form of visualisation. Very similar to what Arnold did. Write down on paper, 15 times a day, what you want to do/achieve in life. It’s something like, “I, <your name>, will become a <your goal>.” For Scott, it was, “I, Scott Adams, will become a bestselling author.”

While there’s not much scientific basis for Affirmations, it seems to work according to Adams. It seemed to work for Arnold as well. So you might also find it helpful. Adams used it to cure his speech disorder. He repeated, “I, Scott Adams, will speak perfectly.” He did it for about three years while suffering from spasmodic dysphonia.

The method isn’t strict. You don’t have to write it down everyday. You can also choose to say it in your head, Scott says. What you need is focus, and a lot of commitment to that focus. You should do the same as well. Pick a goal, a lofty one that seems unachievable, create an affirmation, and repeat it everyday.

I do it during my daily exercise in the morning. I chant it. Though I’ve been doing it only for a couple of days, I’m enjoying it. I count my reps this way. It’s definitely much more interesting than 1,2,3.

2. Apply The Barbell Strategy

Arnold was already a millionaire before his acting career took off. Even before he had swung his sword as Conan. To give you some context, Sylvester Stallone was broke before Rocky.

Schwarzenegger invested the little he made during his bodybuilding career into real estate. This was before he ventured into acting.

He noticed a lot of fellow struggling actors and people he met at the gym were financially vulnerable. They didn’t have a lot of money. They were forced to take whatever role they were offered. They didn’t have the luxury to choose.

Unlike them, Arnold didn’t rely upon his movie career to make a living. He wasn’t in any hurry, and could let go of roles that weren’t going to help him much in his career. He was making good deal of money from his real estate investments, and didn’t have financial needs.

Acting is very much like entrepreneurship. It’s very risky. There are no guarantees. It can take off or go down at any moment. If you don’t have a good strategy in place, you might end up with a side role. Like one of those big henchmen who get their asses kicked by the hero.

Arnold was delaying gratification—by playing it safe in his real estate and taking huge risk in his acting career. He didn’t have any cash flow problem like people he knew from his acting classes. So he could lose out on roles, and still not lose out on a life time opportunity.

This is called the Barbell Strategy. You take huge risks in smaller portions, and remain extremely conservative with the rest. The strategy is to be as hyper-conservative and hyper-aggressive as you can. Instead of being mildly-conservative, or mildly-aggressive.

For example, you invest 90% of your wealth in treasury bills, or other non-volatile funds. Whereas you invest the other 10% in extremely volatile and speculative bets. In this case, you limit your largest loss to mere 10%. But if it pays off, it would pay you 100x than what you would make from the non-volatile funds. The huge profit offsets the daily loss.

This is the Power Law, or the Power of Asymmetry. VCs know this very well. 9 out of 10 of the companies they invest in go bust, or don’t become unicorns. But the one that achieves success offsets all the losses, and incurs tremendous gains.

Tim Ferris follows this as well. He invests in early stage startups on one end, and balances it out by investing in real-estate. He fluctuates between the extremes.

Barbell Strategy is not limited to money. You can follow it when you invest your time and attention to projects as well. Nassim Nicholas Taleb recommends it. Seneca practised it as well. Arnold became a millionaire, then a movie star, and then a governor practising it. There’s no reason you shouldn’t.

Next time you think of starting a new venture, don’t quit your job and jump into the fire. Like I did the first time, and the second time. Foolish! Keep your day job while working on your idea in your free time. Or, have enough savings that’ll help you go on for another year if you plan to go full-time without raising any money.

That’s why founders raise VC money. They give up some control and equity, but they also get a safe heaven that helps them keep the lights on. They become free to go wild and try out various ways to makes tremendous amounts of money. Barbell Strategy in action!

3. Become Rare and Valuable

When Arnold forayed into movies, it was very unlikely that he would ever become a star—be it in action or in comedy. Somebody who looked so big, with a very strong Austrian accent.

People advised Arnold to lose his muscles. There’s no way he could ever get a role with that physique. The heroes were thin guys with tough attitudes. More like Woody Allen or Al Pacino. Little guys, not monstrous looking ex-bodybuilders.

We also face similar issues in life. You are either too inexperienced for the role, or too old. You either haven’t worked with small teams, or you have only worked with small teams. You are good at your job, but not good enough.

There’s always somebody who cannot see you or your capabilities through. The world is full of naysayers. These are the so called experts who know things. They think they know more than you. They don’t.

But Arnold is the Terminator because he looks like a machine. He walks and even talks like a machine. Sly is Rambo for similar reasons. Whenever you’re too tall or too short, too shy or too talkative, it means that you are a bit different from others. There are two ways you can look at it: you are an outcast, and you should try to blend in to get accepted. Or, you are a niche, which means that you are your own category. The question you gotta ask is, “How can I carve myself out a niche that only I have?”

If you are neither too tall, nor too short, neither too right, nor too left, you aren’t making your mark. You are an average. Average people have average jobs, average salaries, and average lives. They don’t become rockstars, or in this case, famous movie stars. If they say that you are an outlier, it’s a good thing.

But you gotta learn to see it that way. You gotta frame your problem the right way, so that others can see it as well. If you are too young, well, youth = energy and speed. It’s a benefit! If you are old, then old = knowledge + experience + less mistakes. It’s a benefit!

Scott Adams gives another excellent advice on building your unique niche. If you are a designer, it would be very hard for you to be among the top 1% of designers in the world. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard.

What you can aim for is becoming very good (top 25%) at two or more complimentary things. Suppose you are a designer. But you can also double up as a marketing manager, or a developer, or a teacher. This combination would make you very unique. Now you are both rare, and valuable.

Arnold was huge, had a heavy build, and a thick Austrian accent. This made him unique. If there was no Arnold, James Cameron would have had to build one for the role of The Terminator. Arnold also had a good sense of humour. This made him one of the very few action stars who did very well in non-action comedy as well.

Having said that, don’t be naive. Being unique doesn’t guarantee results. There were other bodybuilders as well, who had the same traits as Arnold’s. How many of them are superstars?

Arnold had a charming personality. The camera loved him. He also had excellent people skills. These were his strengths. Combined with these qualities, the chances of making it big increased by a magnitude. But nothing is guaranteed, and I cannot stress this enough. You can only increase your odds. The rest is chance. All the best!

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