The Case for Self-Help Books: Be Useful by Arnold Schwarzenegger

The Case for Self-Help Books: Be Useful by Arnold Schwarzenegger

Author's Note: For this one, you can watch the YouTube version or read the transcript below. With you the YouTube video, you'll get the added benefit of witnessing the artwork of a budding virtuoso.

A young boy from a small village in Austria dreams of America. Avenues of his mind are congested with Cadillacs and soaring buildings.

The young boy goes to the theater to watch Reg Park in the movie “Hercules and the Captive Women.” In the opening scene of the movie, a brawl erupts among young warriors in an ancient tavern. As the men battle, destroying the establishment and one another, Hercules sits at a table, eating unphased while the chaos swirls around him. Done with his meal, Hercules stands and steps into the path of four men charging forward with a log held between them as if they were advancing on a fortress gate with a battering ram. With one hand casually held aloft, Hercules catches the log and pushes the men back, sending the four of them sprawling to the floor.

“That’s enough, boys. Come on, we’re leaving now.” Hercules utters the command calmly and the battling warriors immediately cease their fighting, subdued by the edict.

In those opening moments, Hercules’s strength, presence, and bulging, muscular arms barely veiled by a red tunic are impressed upon the audience. For one young boy in the theater watching Reg Park, a vision for the future begins to form.

Have you ever read a self-help book or article and thought to yourself: I never would have thought of that or wow, everything in life makes a lot more sense to me now, or the ideas presented by the author are so outlandish and revolutionary. I’m willing to wager that, for most of us, the answer is a resounding “no.” At some point in our lives, we’ve been exposed self-help rhetoric or advice from our family, friends, teachers, mentors, motivational social media posts, podcast guests, etc.

The rules and tips written within the pages of a self-help book can usually be distilled into a few words or a poignant phrase to help guide one’s actions over the course of the day, week, month, year, lifetime. Write down your goals, stop making excuses, don’t chase perfection, make the main thing the main thing. The list of useful commandments trails off into the horizon. We accept this advice to be valuable and true. It’s difficult to refute a self-help author’s claims. If we consistently work at something, we get better at it. Checks out. Writing down one’s goals and articulating it to other people for accountability can help us stick with the plan to achieve that goal. Yeah, that’s right. Stressing out about things not within our control isn’t productive. Pretty straightforward stuff.

My previous reading experience in the self-help category occurred when inflammatory titles with the f-bomb littered the shelves a few years ago. As a young man in the Marines, I was real sucker for the artistic flexibility of the f-word. Un-f yourself. F feelings. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F. (That last one is good by the way.) The list goes on. Playful titles to draw us into the self-help space and then, without ceremony, f us up with reminders that we’re not living up to our potential. Besides The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, which I consider to be more religious text than self-help book, I haven’t engaged with the self-help space until now.

Enter “Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life” by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Everyone loves numbered lists, right?

So, why did I pick this book from amidst the stuffed bookshelves? It’s simple—I’m an Arnold fanboy. Always have been, always will be. He’s had a few controversies during his life, but who hasn’t? Maybe the controversies lend credibility to his words. You’re not reading the work of a self-proclaimed perfect model, but experiences of a man who went through an incredible narrative arc—Austria village to Mr. Olympia, to movie star, to governor of California, to, as he puts it, the fourth stage of his life—drawing on his positive and negative experiences to be a “self-help guy.”  

Does the book deliver? Has my self been helped?

Yes and yes. The book is succinct, blunt, and inspirational. It treads a fine line of motivating rather than degrading like some self-help spaces gravitate towards, but it’s not afraid to give the occasional rough pat on the shoulder and it doesn’t mince words around the crucial element of achieving your goals—hard work. 

In the chapter “Work Your Ass Off,” Arnold walks through a typical day, allotting time for standard activities—working, commuting, eating, sleeping, quality time with family.

“After all this stuff in a typical daily life is accounted for, there are still two hours left in the day to make progress towards your vision. I can already hear the question coming from a bunch of you: What about time for rest and relaxation? First of all, rest is for babies and relaxation is for retired people. Which one are you? If you want to do something special, if you have a big dream that you want to achieve, I believe you’re going to have to put relaxation aside for a while.”

At other moments in the novel, it treads close to Arnold lubing himself up with self-congratulatory prose and ejaculating onto the pages. The reader will be regaled with commentary about how Arnold worked harder and smarter than everyone in bodybuilding, acting, and governorship to achieve greatness. Some sections feel unnecessarily indulgent to the point of souring the flow of the message.

In one instance, Arnold discusses risk taking.

“What did I have to lose going into politics? If I lost the recall election . . . I would still have been a movie star with lots of hobbies. I would still have been rich and famous, with the ability to use my money and influence to contribute to causes I cared deeply about.”

Here, there’s a period in the novel and the proceeding word is uncapitalized.

“like the Special Olympics and the After-School All-Stars program.”

A simple error? A hasty addition to virtue signal that wasn’t properly incorporated? Maybe, but if I step down from my pedestal of cynicism, I’m confronted with the fact that he’s not lying about his accomplishments. He did achieve the things he outlines, and to do so, it’s undeniable that he had to work incessantly and strive forward despite failures. He’s pulling these examples from the deep well of his life and he uses them to contextualize the advice he’s giving, so I’m able to forgive the occasional detour from the central messages.

So, did I walk away with a wildly altered perspective on life? Am I now on a blazing trajectory to riches and fame? No and no.

Well then, if self-help is self-evident, what’s the point?

It can’t be overstated how important it is, for me at least, to engage with long-form content. If I had simply read the list of Arnold’s 7 tools with a brief summarization, the lessons would have failed to permeate my thick skull. By sitting down and digesting material, page after page, it’s more likely that something will resonate and stick. It’s the difference between scrolling YouTube shorts and sitting down for a documentary. I can go an hour scrolling YouTube and not be able to meaningfully recall what I watched from even a few minutes ago. Alternatively, weeks after I finished “Be Useful,” the tools are still circulating in my brain, available for recall—total recall if you will.

And if you’re someone who doesn’t have a positive role model in their immediate circle, the book provides a connection with someone you can look up to. Or if you don’t agree with his philosophies, Arnold can be a figure you strive to not emulate.

For me, this book reminded me of important lessons I’ve let slip in this recent arc of my life. I’ve found myself repeating small catchphrases from the novel as I approach obstacles in my day to day. Even if the lessons slip away in the weeks to come and I let myself slide back into a state of being I’m unsatisfied with, for a few days at least, this book helped me live a fuller life. For that alone, it’s more than worth the cost of admission.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the book:

“Failure is inevitable in a lot of ways. But when it comes to achieving your vision, it isn’t failure you have to worry about, it’s giving up. Failure has never killed a dream; quitting kills every dream it touches.” 

Thank you for stopping by.