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Be Useful by Arnold Schwarzenegger: immensely moreish and compelling

Its anyone-can-do-it zeal has the power to help a lot of people improve their lives and feel better as a result

Be Useful: Seven Tools For life
Author: Arnold Schwarzenegger
ISBN-13: 978-1529146530
Publisher: Ebury Edge
Guideline Price: £20

I’m about to break all the rules of “posh reviewing” (rule-breaking is an approach Arnie advocates in Be Useful, his first self-help book). So often I find myself thinking, after reading a review, “Right. That’s all very literary-witterary, but did the reviewer enjoy it? Did they stay up all night to finish it?”

So let me start with the most important thing: reader pleasure. I found Be Useful immensely moreish and compelling and thought, “Ooh, ace!” whenever I had the chance to read more of it. It’s gripping, funny and full of irresistible zeal. Arnie makes for a loveable narrator on account of his passionate belief both in himself and in his readers.

This is a memoir as much as self-help; the stories of his childhood in Austria and his various careers are all fascinating, as are the clear links between his early experiences and his way of seeing the world. The book is also…well, useful. Full disclosure: a large part of the reason I love it so much is that I agree with almost every word. The only part that provoked a suspicious “Hmm” from me was when I read that “rest is for babies and relaxation is for retired people. Sleep faster.” (Sorry, Arnie, but nothing will persuade me to renounce my mid-afternoon naps, not while I’ve got a sixteen-week-old puppy waking me up at 4.30 every morning.)

Otherwise, the book’s advice is sound: work hard, dream big and aim for the impossible (which you might make possible by believing and striving – and even if you don’t, you’ll achieve more than you otherwise would have). He successfully challenges the conventional idea of risk (”The worst thing that can happen when you do the work to overcome adversity instead of quit in the face of it is that you fail again and learn one more way that doesn’t work. Then that just forces you to switch gears, which gets you one step closer to your goal.”) and he’s brilliant on failure, which he defines as “the beginning of measurable success”, pointing out that the only way to become a success-creator is to constantly test yourself in a manner that risks repeated failure.


The book correctly points out that daydreaming, so the best dreams and ideas can come to you is essential for success, rather than indulgent skiving. Where to do this? In a jacuzzi, Arnie suggests, for that is where he had some of his best ideas. I can imagine this would annoy some readers, but as an ardent jacuzzi-lover, I nodded emphatically at this point and headed for my health club.

There are pronouncements in the book with which some might wish to take issue. Arnie believes that anyone, however tough their circumstances, can dream big and achieve bigger, and – crucially – that there is every benefit to believing this, from an achievement results and an experiential results point of view. If I did not firmly believe the same myself, I would not have loved this book as much as I did; in the current climate, it is customary for self-help gurus to say the opposite: “Don’t listen to those oblivious people who don’t realise how hard it is for you. Of course it’s harder for you to succeed than it was for them.”

Also potentially controversial is Arnie’s pronouncement that ‘loving what is’ (to use a Byron Katie phrase) is better for us than arguing with reality. Again, I agree; when I come across a life circumstance I hate, I try to love the fact that I have the opportunity to hate it and to believe that I’m meant to encounter it and hate it, for some good reason that will eventually become clear. I cannot adequately express how much this approach enhances my life and my ability to take effective action, yet many accuse this approach, in one of the greatest misunderstandings of all time, of being somehow in cahoots with bad acts and those who commit them.

At times, more information or clarification would have helped. Arnie writes, “I’ve tried to imagine what life would have been like if I’d listened to those producers who told me to change my name” shortly after telling us enthusiastically about the accent removal classes he attended. I would have loved to know why he was happy to change his accent but not his surname. And some essential qualification was missing around “Let me tell you something: nothing good has ever come from having a plan B”; statements like that can be true or untrue depending on whether “plan” means end goal or strategy.

Those are minor quibbles, however. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Its anyone-can-do-it zeal has the power to help a lot of people improve their lives and feel better as a result.