Total Recall Book Review: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Unbelievably True Life Story

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What is Arnold Schwarzenegger about? What does he care about most?

“Create your vision and use your will to accomplish it.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Whatever Arnold Schwarzenegger has set his mind to achieve, he has achieved. Champion bodybuilder with multiple titles. Award-winning movie star. Two-term governor of California.

I’ve known about Arnold since I was a boy, especially with his movies. I greatly admire what he’s accomplished in his life, and his undying determination to make his vision real has been the driving force behind all that.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unbelievably true life story, brilliantly detailed in his book “Total Recall,” gives a fascinating blueprint for how you can transform your life, too. That’s what I’ll be focused on in this book review.

I’m not here to point out the scandals and the mistakes Arnold has made. Other people have pointed that out better than I can.

My heroes are still human. They make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes, too. I can relate. I can admire if someone learns from their mistakes and owns up to them.

Some reviewers of the “Total Recall” book believed that Arnold is full of himself. What they see as arrogance, I see as confidence. So few people see themselves as confidently as Arnold sees himself. Besides that, Arnold does admit to the mistakes he made. He doesn’t try to cover them up or make himself look overly good. I saw his humility shine through as he reflected on his life.

Arnold’s story is the ultimate immigrant success story, even if he doesn’t become President of the United States. And even if you disagree with him, you can still learn a lot from him. Here are some success clues from his book.

Success Clue #1: Have Great Role Models

“I’ve always had great role models.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold talks about some of the great role models he has had. They include Reg Park, Steve Reeves, Muhammad Ali, Sargent Shriver, Milton Berle, Nelson Mandela, and Milton Friedman. He had role models, mentors, and masterminds. One way that Arnold shows his humility is he knows he has much to learn from others and gladly applies their wisdom and experience to his life. That approach has paid off quite well.

Success Clue #2: Have a Vision

Arnold was born in Austria and grew up there. He wanted to move to America and knew he wanted to be a champion bodybuilder and a movie star.

“In weeks that followed, I refined this vision until it was very specific. … The vision became so clear in my mind that I felt like it had to happen. There was no alternative. It was this or nothing.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Long before visualizing and vision boards were well-known, Arnold was already applying both of them. His daydreams resulted in concrete actions that propelled him to achieve his goals. He made sure that each day was used productively. He had a clear direction that guided him with certainty.

Arnold created his vision boards. He hung up pictures of athletes all over his bedroom wall. He used the technology available then, which was all he needed. Arnold didn’t allow any excuses to stop him, and he has made sure to have a vision ever since his childhood. It’s been his guiding light and driving force.

Success Clue #3: Trust Yourself

Arnold took inspiration from his role model, Reg Park. From Reg’s example, Arnold saw he could achieve the same results. He would use bodybuilding to get to America, and he would use bodybuilding to get into movies. Reg had already done both things, so Arnold knew he could do it, too. He trusted himself enough to know that he could achieve his goals. He knew it was possible for him and built his entire life around it.

Success Clue #4: Break Some Rules

“I’m a European who became an American leader; a Republican who loves Democrats; a businessman who makes his living as an action hero; a tremendously disciplined super achiever who hasn’t always been disciplined enough; a fitness expert who loves cigars; an environmentalist who loves Hummers; a fun-loving guy with kid-like enthusiasm who is most famous for terminating people.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Think of rules as being like a mold to follow. Some rules are helpful. Others are harmful. Would you rather be thought of as cookie-cutter, just like almost everyone else? Or would you rather be considered someone different, someone who broke the mold?

If Arnold hadn’t broken some rules, he would still be in Austria. We would never have heard of him. Bodybuilding might still have been an obscure sport. The fitness world would have been markedly different. We wouldn’t have had his leadership to follow in accomplishment, politics, or anything else.

Rules can include expectations that others have of you and expectations that society has of you. These rules and expectations can be well-meaning intentions that are supposedly in place for your protection. Others are afraid for you. You might fail. You might make them feel bad that they’re not doing more with their lives.

I’m grateful that Arnold broke some rules. I consider the world to be a better place because he did.

Success Clue #5: Ignore the Naysayers

“When I talk to graduating classes, I always tell a brief version of (my life story) and try to offer lessons everybody can use.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Whenever you set out to do anything big or at least anything different, you will face some opposition, including from those who think they know what’s best for you. Find support from those with a larger vision for you and your life. You can ignore the naysayers, but you don’t have to do it alone.

Arnold hasn’t relied only upon himself. Ignoring the naysayers is much more possible if you have others who share your vision.

One example of Arnold’s support system is his lifelong best friend, Franco Columbu. Arnold and Franco are workout buddies. They’ve been in bodybuilding competitions together. They shared the struggle of making it in America. They’ve worked in business together.

I learned about Franco by reading “Total Recall.” He’s an example of how having the right friends have helped Arnold do so well in life.

Success Clue #6: Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

Plenty has been said about failure, and the common point I’m referring to is that failure isn’t bad. It’s necessary.

In so-called failure, we receive feedback on what to adjust. It’s in the continual adjustment of ideas and implementation that success is discovered. Success isn’t an accident; it isn’t automatic.

Even Arnold didn’t stumble into success. He had to work hard at it. He didn’t stumble onto the world stage fully formed. It was in the failures that he developed himself. Arnold was willing to risk embarrassment and loss of many kinds. He recognized failure for what it is: a learning tool.

Success Clue #7: Turn Your Liabilities into Assets

“When I wanted to star in movies, the Hollywood agents I talked to told me to forget it. My body and my name, and my accent were all too weird. Instead, I worked hard on my accent and my acting, as hard as I’d worked at bodybuilding, to transform myself into a leading man. … The things that the agents said would be a detriment and make it impossible for me to get a job, all of a sudden made me an action hero.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

I’ve seen some of Arnold’s earliest acting roles, including “Hercules in New York,” “Happy Anniversary and Goodbye,” the “Dead Lift” episode of “Streets of San Francisco,” and “The Jayne Mansfield Story.” His voice was dubbed in “Hercules in New York” because it wasn’t considered understandable enough. But after that, audiences heard his voice in subsequent roles.

As time passed, Arnold grew more comfortable with his screen persona and improved his acting. He was a learning machine, applying whatever he learned wherever he could.

What looked like weaknesses turned out to be strengths. Things that are different about Arnold have made him so recognizable and in demand.

Success Clue #8: Make the Impossible Possible

“The only way to make the possible possible is to try the impossible. If you fail, so what? That’s what everybody expects. But if you succeed, you make the world a much better place.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

The perspective that Arnold demonstrates in that quote can help take the pressure off. You can do something that nobody else has. Failure is the expected outcome, and that’s okay. Why not put your vision to the test? You might succeed and provide another role model for others to follow.

When Roger Bannister ran a mile in less than 4 minutes, he showed that what was considered impossible was possible. No one else had achieved that before. He broke the barrier, and other runners ran a mile in less than 4 minutes shortly after that. Some of them were even faster than Bannister.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first confirmed climbers to make it to the top of Mount Everest and get back alive. Over 4,000 climbers have reached Mount Everest’s top since then. Some climbers have even reached the top more than once!

Arnold won the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding title 7 times. His record has since been surpassed. Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman have each won the Mr. Olympia title 8 times.

Records are made to be broken. Those who follow your example can stand on your shoulders.

Success Clue #9: Never Follow the Crowd. Go Where It’s Empty

“When every immigrant I knew was saving … to buy a house, I bought an apartment building instead. When every aspiring actor was trying to land bit parts in movies, I held out to be a leading man. When every politician tries to work (their) way up from local office, I went straight for the governorship. It’s easier to stand out when you aim straight for the top.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

It’s crowded at the bottom, but that doesn’t mean it’s lonely at the top. When you aim higher than nearly everyone else, you find plenty of company waiting for you and cheering for you. The super achievers. The high performers. The world-class. They want you to join them. Your victory is their victory, too.

One of my college professors pointed out examples where the majority was wrong. I expand on his point by stating that leaders aren’t found in the crowd. They’re found somewhere else. They go on ahead and forge a new path for others to follow. Comfort can be found in exploring new territory and going where no one else has gone before.

A comedian pointed out that the Starfleet crews throughout the Star Trek franchise went where no one else had gone before and always found someone waiting for them.

I’m not stating anything new. Neither is Arnold. Our uniqueness is in our personalities and how we express ourselves. If we inspire you to take transformative action from our examples and our leadership, then we’ve done our jobs.

Arnold isn’t a perfect leader. I don’t know anyone who could be, but I consider him a great role model in many areas. I see a lot I can learn from him.

Success Clue #10: No Matter What You Do in Life, Selling Is Part of It

“People can be great poets, great writers, geniuses in the lab. But you can do the finest work, and if people don’t know, you have nothing! … The most important thing is to make people aware.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

I was amazed at how much selling has been a part of Arnold’s life, but it makes sense. You don’t accomplish what he has without selling. He goes into quite a bit of detail about the selling he did throughout the three unique phases of his life: bodybuilding, acting, and politics.

Arnold picked projects he was passionate about. He thought of outrageous statements to get people interested, and it worked. He knew what would get people talking. He invested just as much energy, perhaps even more, in raising awareness as he did in creating what he was raising awareness for.

Arnold’s enthusiasm was and is contagious. I got excited, too, by what he was talking about. Isn’t that what sales is: a transfer of enthusiasm from the seller to the buyer?

Everyone can benefit from being better at sales. I find that “Total Recall” is an excellent sales manual. Even if that’s the only reason you read the book, that’ll be enough.

Success Clue #11: Never Let Pride Get in Your Way

This one is about humility and not being afraid of looking bad.

In the book, Arnold gives the example of one of his role models, Muhammad Ali. Ali wasn’t afraid of looking bad. Even with how much he had achieved, he still had room for humility.

“Muhammad Ali and I did (many) talk shows together. I always admired him because he was a champion, had a great personality, … was generous and always thoughtful toward others. If all athletes could be like him, the world would be better off.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

When Arnold describes Ali, it sounds like he describes the ideal person. That’s a case where meeting one of his heroes was a positive experience.

I’ve met some of my heroes, too. For example, I enjoyed meeting Adam West and Burt Ward. They were at a local pop culture convention I attended. I had my picture taken with them, got their autographs, and talked to them briefly. I noticed how funny they were, even during the Question and Answer session. I remember especially how they told adult jokes in a family-friendly way.

It was a pleasure meeting Adam and Burt. Meeting two of my heroes was also intimidating, but it was well worth it. They are both great examples of not letting pride get in their way.

Were their TV series (“Batman” (1966 – 1968)) and its movie (“Batman: The Movie” (1966)) silly at times? Yes, they were, and that’s part of their charm. Not everything has to be grim and serious all the time. Long live the Bright Knight interpretation of Batman!

I’m reminded of times when I tried to avoid looking bad and ended up looking bad anyway. Conversely, there are times when I’ve risked embarrassment and ended up being relatable and admired.

What was I so afraid of those other times?

Success Clue #12: Don’t Overthink

“Turning off your mind is an art. It’s a form of meditation. Knowledge is (essential) for making decisions, for a reason that’s not necessarily obvious. The more knowledge you have, the more (you can) rely on your instincts. You don’t have to take the time to learn about a subject. Yet, in most cases, people who have the knowledge get bogged down and frozen. The more you know, the more you hesitate… When you are not confident (in) your decision-making process, it will slow you down. Overthinking is why people can’t sleep at night. Their mind is racing, and they can’t turn it off. Overanalyzing cripples you.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

This is one section where I felt like Arnold spoke directly to me. I can relate.

I’ve learned too much about a subject and haven’t done anything with all that knowledge. Better to know a little and take action than to know a lot and do nothing.

I’ve had trouble sleeping for much of my life. I’ve had to occupy my mind in various ways so that I can get to sleep.

I’ve overanalyzed and been trapped in analysis paralysis and information overload.

The flip side of it also applies. Sometimes I’ve learned something so well that I got to rely on my instinct, which can be a beautiful thing. Examples include writing, speaking, singing, dancing, and acting. Those have been some of my happiest moments.

Where instinct can thrive, there is freedom. I’ve sometimes had to forget much of what I’ve learned and simply create. It might be poor quality, but that’s still better than nothing. And I can always improve. The experience of doing something is the best teacher of all.

After the quote above, Arnold shares two examples, one from a real estate investment he made, which paid off in a big way, and one from a movie deal, which also has an upcoming sequel.

Success Clue #13: Forget Plan B

“If there is no plan B, then plan A has to work. … If you’re anxious, instead of making fallback plans, think about the worst that can happen if you fail. How bad would it be? You quickly find out it’s really nothing. … You may be humiliated, but that is the worst that can happen.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

When the worst that can happen does happen, that’s where resiliency comes in — the ability to bounce back.

The truly confident have lost fortunes and gained them back again, faster than the first time. They had much more in place than when they started. The connections, the knowledge, the experience.

So even if the worst does happen, what would you do next?

Now that you’ve thought about that, what can you do to help ensure that your Plan A does work?

You’re likely to succeed when you have nothing left except to put in your best effort.

Having a Plan B, and even Plans C – Z, can distract and make it more likely that Plan A will fail. It’s all about focus. Do you have what it takes to focus only on Plan A?

Success Clue #14: The Day Has 24 Hours

Arnold had a full schedule as he was building his career in Hollywood. He slept for 6 hours from 12:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. He had workouts, acting classes, auditions, and college classes. He juggled everything with his businesses, including construction contracting, real estate investments, and mail-order sales.

“As a student, I’d trained five hours a day, gone to acting classes four hours a day, worked in construction several hours a day, and gone to college and done my homework.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

All of that was part of Plan A. Even with only one plan involved, it can still have multiple parts.

The mega-successful people have the same 24-hour day that you and I do. How resourceful can we be? A lot more than we think.

These success clues tie together. What vision would drive you to accomplish more in a day, in each day, than you have before?

Success Clue #15: There Are No Shortcuts

I don’t know of any cut-and-paste solutions in life. There is always work involved. Some necessary, genuine effort. 1% inspiration and then 99% perspiration.

Arnold worked out in the gym, day in and day out, for 5 – 6 hours. He didn’t achieve his physique by accident. He didn’t stumble into it. He worked hard at it and welcomed the pain. Arnold smiled as he exercised because he saw that all his efforts would pay off. He kept his vision always in front of him.

That’s the real secret of success. Reps (repetitions). Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

What works tends to be very simple. All that’s left is to put in the effort to apply it again and again.

Success Clue #16: Don’t Blame Your Parents

“I recognized that I could channel my upbringing in a positive way rather than complain. I could use it to have a vision, set goals, (and) find joy. … It’s not always obvious what you should celebrate. Sometimes you have to appreciate the very people and circumstances that traumatized you. Today I hail the strictness of my father, … my whole upbringing, and the fact that I didn’t have anything that I wanted in Austria because those were the very factors that made me hungry. … It drove me and motivated me.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Accepting 100% responsibility for your life empowers you like nothing else. Everything rests on your shoulders, and you can handle that, even if you think you can’t. You become a bigger person when you take charge of yourself.

It wasn’t easy for Arnold to be so far away from his parents, but it was necessary. He knew that his destiny didn’t lie in Austria. It was to be found elsewhere, especially in America.

Parents, especially the well-intentioned ones, do the best they can. I acknowledge that my mom did the best she could. She lives in our hometown, and I live far away from her. I do miss my mom. We talk weekly on the phone and get to see each other once or twice a year. My upbringing made me who I am today, and I accept all of it. I celebrate what I’ve had, and I’m grateful.

Success Clue #17: Change Requires Courage

As human beings, it can be natural to resist change, even if that change isn’t as massive as dismantling the Soviet Union or ending apartheid in South Africa. For this success clue, Arnold gives the examples of Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela.

“To me, Gorbachev is a hero, at the same level as Nelson Mandela, who overcame the anger and despair of twenty-seven years in prison. When given the power to shake the world, both of them chose to build rather than destroy.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Change can often require forgiveness. Forgiveness shows great strength. It’s so easy to hurt someone in return. It could even be considered natural. But to love them instead? That takes courage. The kind of courage that transforms the world.

Success Clue #18: Take Care of Your Body and Your Mind

“I realized that the mind is a muscle, and we should train it, too. So, I was determined to train my brain and get smart. I became like a sponge, absorbing everything around me. The world became my university. I (needed) to learn and read and take it all in. For people who are successful with their intelligence, … they need to exercise the body every day. … If world leaders have time to work out, so do you.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Reviewing the book “Total Recall” has forced me to face the fact that I’m not taking as much care of my body as I used to. I used to be more intentional with my exercising. I used to have green smoothies. I haven’t been meditating lately.

I’m not saying these things to beat myself up. I’m saying them to admit that I know I could do better.

I used to read more books. I’m still working my mind. I’m still learning. I’ve always been the type to work my mind more than my body.

When Arnold met with Pope John Paul II (J.P. II) in 1983, he talked to J.P. II about J.P. II’s workouts, which included 200 push-ups and 300 sit-ups each morning. J.P. II was in his sixties at the time. He got up at 5:00 a.m. every day and was a skier, too. Arnold said to himself, “If that guy can do it, I’ve got to get up even earlier!”

Success Clue #19: Stay Hungry

“Be hungry for success, hungry to make your mark, hungry to be seen and … heard and to have an effect. And as you move up and become successful, make sure also to be hungry for helping others. … There is much more to life than being the greatest at one thing. We learn so much when we’re successful, so why not use what you’ve learned, use your connections, and do more with them? My father always told me, “Be useful. Do something.” He was right. If you have a talent or skill that makes you happy, use it to improve your neighborhood. And if you have a desire to do more, then go all out. … We should all stay hungry!” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

With those words, Arnold ends his very long, thorough, detailed, and enjoyable book. I got a massive amount of value from it, and I believe you can, too.

I find it appropriate that the final success clue from “Total Recall” is Stay Hungry. It describes Arnold’s attitude throughout life and refers to one of his earliest acting roles, the movie “Stay Hungry.” Arnold won a Golden Globe for his acting in that movie!


Arnold has a new movie coming to theaters this week. The timing of this post with the movie release was unintentional on my part. It’s an interesting coincidence.

It’s still too soon to tell if that will be the last time Arnold plays a T-800 Terminator. I’m sure that he can keep on being an action hero. He takes care of himself well enough. It’s easy to forget that he’s 72 years old. He definitely keeps active. Arnold has multiple other movies on the way, in various stages of production.

Read “Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story” by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, it’s a big book, but it’s one that I enjoyed reading all the way through. I learned so much and found plenty of inspiration and practical guidelines to apply.

If you’re into studying the lives of super achievers and seeing what you can learn and apply from their examples, then this book is for you. If you’re interested in bodybuilding, filmmaking, politics, or a combination of them, this book is for you. If you’re a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger, then this book is obviously for you.

Here’s to you, lovers of life, explorers of brand new territory, and excellent role models.

I’m looking forward to hearing your success stories and to rereading the book.

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Until next time,

James Barnett

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2 thoughts on “Total Recall Book Review: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Unbelievably True Life Story”

    1. You’re welcome, Maisie. I’m glad you enjoyed the book review. It was enjoyable to write it. Arnold Schwarzenegger has certainly led an interesting life, and he is a excellent example for setting and achieving goals. I hope you read his book. It’s a long read, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

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