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Is Arnold Schwarzenegger a good role model?

Arnold Schwarzenegger has lived an impressive life, but his true story differs from what advertisers promote to sell their products – which changes how we should see Arnold as a role model.

Those who want to sell products with Arnold try to make us believe that he set out to become the best bodybuilder in the world, made his way to the top entirely through hard work, and then created his own opportunities in acting and politics out of thin air.

In this version of the story, the Austrian boy that overcame a terrible accent to achieve Hollywood greatness is an almost god-like figure, proofing that determination and hard work can overcome all odds and allow everybody to achieve anything.

This story is far from true. While Arnold did put in insane efforts, putting in similar efforts would not help us copy his success – a realization that limits Arnold’s usefulness as a role model.

Why was Arnold Schwarzenegger successful?

The truth is that many equally talented people who put in just as much effort as Arnold failed, and if Arnold had not been incredibly lucky, he would have failed, too. Arnold’s success can be attributed to three factors, in this order:

1. Timing

Arnold entered bodybuilding while the sport was going through a critical transformation. In the 1960s, steroids enabled bodybuilders to create bodies nobody had ever seen before. Bodybuilders had nicknames like “The Myth” and “The Legend”, and nobody could believe their eyes when they saw them.

This transformation created an opportunity. Whenever something is revolutionary new, people want to see it. By the end of the 1960s, some minds in Hollywood understood that people would pay money to watch movies with bodybuilders simply to see what someone with such a body could do.

Right at this time, Arnold was the undisputed best bodybuilder in the world, spotting a body that made even those days’ Superman look like a school boy. This key opened Arnold the door to a Hollywood career. Without steroids, Arnold would have been an average-bodied bad actor with a terrible accent – he would have never become Conan or The Terminator.

Arnold got lucky that the he was in the perfect place at the perfect time. If Arnold had been born a few years earlier, he would have entered bodybuilding without steroids and been unable to create such a revolutionary new body. If Arnold had been born a few years later, Hollywood would already have found a bodybuilder to take Arnold’s place.

2. Genetics

Even though Arnold didn’t create his own opportunity, he still was the bodybuilder that used the opportunity in a way nobody else did.

The main reason that Arnold became a Hollywood star and not a footnote in history is genetics. Nobody can tell you or me exactly what will happen when we take a lot of steroids and work out like crazy. In two years, some of us would be sick, some of us would look like bodybuilders, and most would be somewhere in between.

When Arnold entered bodybuilding and started taking steroids, he faced the same uncertainty. While he knew that he was tall, strong, and fat-free, he was unable to predict that he had the genetics to become great.

The reason Arnold turned out to be the best bodybuilder in the world was luck. Arnold was fortunate enough to have the perfect genetics for what he did.

3. Effort

The final factor to Arnold’s success is effort. He faced a lot of uncertainty when he moved to America, but he overcame the odds by putting in the workload that even perfect genetics and steroids require to create a body like his.

Nonetheless, Arnold’s efforts would have been in vain if he would have been less fortunate. Many bodybuilders took equal risks as Arnold and put in equal efforts, but ended up empty-handed, sick, and broke.

By focusing on the one success story and ignoring the many failures, we create a distorted view of the world. For most of us who are not in the perfect situation and do not have perfect genes, trying to force great success by great effort will likely make us one of the failures, too – in any field.

Why is Arnold Schwarzenegger a good role model nonetheless?

What we can learn from Arnold is a general approach to life. When Arnold found bodybuilding, he found something that had intrinsic value to him. Arnold might have dreamed of becoming the best bodybuilder in the world, but all teenagers have similar dreams. These dreams were neither the reason nor the prime motivation why Arnold became successful.

The reason Arnold chose bodybuilding over any other sport was his passion. After Arnold had realized that he had the natural ability to become a great bodybuilder, he made the best of his strengths.

Arnold did not overcome incredible odds to force his dream on the world. Arnold cleverly combined his strengths and passions, which helped him to achieve happiness and success.

This combination was more important to Arnold’s success than ambition and hard work. When Arnold wanted to become an actor, he used his muscles to apply for action roles, not his acting talents to try to play Shakespeare – he played to his strengths to live his passion.

While most of us will never achieve Arnold’s level of success, following a similar approach to life can help us make the most of our opportunities and be happy. We often get so caught up in our pursuit of greatness that we chase dreams that neither make us happy nor that we have a chance to accomplish. The result is failure, disappointment, and, eventually, deep crisis.

We can lead better lives by realistically combining our strengths and passions than by trying to achieve visions of greatness, only to fail and be disappointed. If that leads us to similar success as Arnold – great. If not, at least we have spent our time doing what we love.

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Published in Psychology