“I never believed I was average, and that alone is a big reason I wasn’t.” -Arnold Schwarzenegger
Perspective influences outcomes. The idea that your mindset plays an important role in your future reality is maybe one of the most underrated elements of human change.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the ultimate example of someone who built a vision for what he wanted to achieve, created opportunities, and surpassed expectations throughout his life.
While it’s easier said than done, success leaves clues. Specifically, the way Arnold approaches situations, obstacles, and challenges is a masterclass in mental preparation, visualization, maximum effort, and mastery.
“No matter what, I had to prove to myself that I’m extraordinary. There is no normal,” Schwarzenegger told me during an exclusive interview.
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 from Austria to the United States, his belief in himself and his hard work has made the world apparently bend to his will — and not the other way around.
What allowed a former Mr. Universe and Olympia to then become a Hollywood movie star and, ultimately, also become the Governor of California?
It wasn’t a motivational talk or a secret shortcut. It was a mindset that has powered everything Arnold has done.
“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 Austrian bodybuilder-turned actor-turned governor-turned activist continues to believe there’s more to accomplish — and it’s likely the main reason he continues to break the rules of aging and add more achievements to his resume.
If you’re looking to change your mindset, and learn how to make a vision a reality, here are 8 motivational lessons from Arnold Schwarzenegger on building mental toughness, eliminating the fear of failure, and developing unbreakable habits.
Lesson 1: Remove Your Excuses
“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 he used to win Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe — 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 it difficult to build certain habits, that’s where Arnold believes most people go wrong. You can’t label something as “difficult.”
If you think about change as challenging, it’s the first step towards making it 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.”
Lesson 2: Create Energy By Saving Energy
It’s easy to think of a routine as a way to be more efficient with your days. But, for Arnold, it’s so much more than that.
Routines are designed to require less mental energy and focus so you can have more energy to give to the non-routine aspects of your day. This is why making certain daily experiences is so important. If you’re going to have the energy to tackle the new challenges, you can’t be drained by everyday expectations.
To help you understand the importance of automated experiences, Arnold shared his experiences in politics as Governor of California.
“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.
Arnold recommends creating as many fixed moments in your day as possible. Then, you have fewer times where you’ll need to dig deep, be creative, and come up with custom solutions. This is good because then you’ll have more energy to dedicate, which means you’ll be more likely to succeed.
Less variation means more focus. The more you can focus on fewer things, the more likely you’re able to create a bigger impact.
Lesson 3: Add Value With Effort
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 one of the most important parts 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.”
If you’re working on something, it’s easy to think about finishing the job. It’s something else to think about how you can take a task and put in more effort in a way that makes the final outcome something better or more meaningful, and in turn, that task has a positive impact on your own life.
Lesson 4: Success Follows the Unconventional
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 explained that people used to believe you were weaker in the morning. It wasn’t until he lived with his idol, Reg Park, when he finally decided to break the rules.
Reg forced him to train early in the morning. Arnold recalls squatting 500 pounds at 5:30 am, and how it changed everything for him.
The shift helped him remove limiting beliefs about his body. This, in turn, helped him understand that most limitations are self-conceived.
“If you think you can’t do something, you won’t,” says Arnold. “It’s a mindset that starts with ‘don’t be afraid.'”
“If you try to do something different, you might be surprised how much what you thought was a limitation wasn’t real.”
Lesson 5: Turn Visualization into Realization
Arnold opened up about one of the scariest moments of his life:
“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 playing The Terminator (once again) in Terminator: Dark Fate.
You might wonder how Arnold responded to such overwhelming news, and his immediate wasn’t what you might think.
“I wake up, I see what’s happening, I’m hearing the doctors, and I’ll I can think is, ‘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.”
Lesson 6: Focus on Small Wins (They Add Up)
Once you have your vision, then you need to put in the reps. 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.”
Instead of focusing on the end goal, Arnold focused on mini-milestones. Get out of bed. Use the walker. Go down the hall. Go for an hour. Ditch the walker for a cane. Believe in yourself.
The micro-goals were all steps on the way to recovery. And, it worked…just like it has throughout his life.
Within 6 days Arnold 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. Ready to work like hell.
“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.”
Lesson 7: 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.”
Lesson 8: Eliminate Distractions
In the 1970s, Arnold found himself overwhelmed with his bodybuilding career, acting, buying real estate, and building construction.
“A lot of things came 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.”
Build Arnold-Like Confidence
Arnold’s mindset is built on something we can all possess: confidence.
That starts by removing your fear of failure. And visualizing what you can become and not what might go wrong.
Arnold’s confidence allowed him to take chances and push himself to heights no one could’ve ever imagined — except maybe himself.
And, that’s the secret. If you believe something will happen, block out the distraction, prove the naysayers wrong, and focus on habits that will allow you to tackle your big goals – then anything is possible. But, it all starts with your belief.
“Prove to [the world] that there are extraordinary things that can happen because that’s when they can.”
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.