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 in life?

“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 of that.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unbelievably true life story, which is 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 that Arnold has made in his life. Other people have pointed that out better than I can.

My heroes are still human. They do make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes, too. I can relate. As long as someone learns from their mistakes and owns up to them, then I can admire that.

Other reviewers of the “Total Recall” book had the viewpoint that Arnold is full of himself. What they see as arrogance, I see as confidence. There are so few people in the world that see themselves as confidently as Arnold sees himself. Besides that, Arnold does admit to mistakes that he made. He doesn’t try to cover them up or make himself look overly good. I saw his humility and his humanity shine through as he reflected back on his very full life.

Arnold’s story is the ultimate immigrant success story, even if he doesn’t become President of the United States at some point. And even if you don’t agree with him, there’s still a lot you can learn from him. Here are some success clues that I noticed while reading 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 that he has had in his life. 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 that he knows he has so much to learn from others, and he gladly applies their wisdom and their experience to his own life.

That approach has paid off very well.

Success Clue #2: Have a Vision

Arnold was born in Austria, and he grew up there. He wanted to get to America, and he also knew that 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 action that propelled him forward to achieving his goals. He made sure that each day of his life was used productively. He had clear direction, and that guided him with certainty.

Arnold created his own vision boards. He hung up pictures of athletes all over his bedroom wall. He used the technology that was available to him at the time, and that 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 his driving force.

Success Clue #3: Trust Yourself

One thing that can be noted about Arnold with absolute certainty is that he trusts himself. He took inspiration from his role model, Reg Park. From Reg’s example, Arnold saw that 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 of those things, so Arnold knew that he could do it, too.

Arnold trusted himself enough to know that he could achieve his goals. He knew it was possible for him, and he built his entire life around that.

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 superachiever 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 mould to follow. Some rules are helpful. Other rules are harmful. Would you rather be thought of as cookie-cutter, as just like everyone else? Or would you rather be thought of as someone different, as someone who broke the mould?

If Arnold hadn’t broken some rules, for example, 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, in politics, or in anything else.

Rules can include expectations that others have of you and expectations that society has of you. These rules, these expectations can be well-meaning intentions that are in place supposedly 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 glad 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 the story of my life and try to offer lessons everybody can use.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

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

Arnold hasn’t relied only upon himself. It’s a lot more possible to ignore the naysayers 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

There is plenty that’s been said about failure, and the common point in what I’m referring to is that failure isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually necessary.

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

Even Arnold didn’t stumble into success. He had to work hard at it. He didn’t stumble on to 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 to be understandable enough. But after that, audiences got to hear his real voice in subsequent roles.

Arnold grew more comfortable with his screen persona as time went on, and he did improve his acting. He was a learning machine, and he applied whatever he learned wherever he could.

What looked like weaknesses turned out to be strengths. The things that are different about Arnold are what have made him so recognizable and so 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 to be impossible was actually possible. No one else had achieved that before. He broke the barrier of impossible, 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 made it to the top of Mount Everest since then. Some of those climbers have even made it to 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 up 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 his or her 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 that there is plenty of company waiting for you and cheering for you. The superachievers. 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 various Starfleet crews throughout the Star Trek franchise went where no one else had gone before and that they always found someone waiting for them.

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

Arnold isn’t a perfect leader. I don’t know of anyone that could be, but I do consider him a great role model in many areas of life. I see a lot that 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 a lot of selling. He goes into quite a bit of detail about the selling that he did throughout the 3 unique phases of his life: bodybuilding, acting, and politics.

Arnold picked projects that he was passionate about. He thought of outrageous statements to make 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 couldn’t help but get 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’s more than 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 a lot of talk shows together. I always admired him because he was a champion, had a great personality, and 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 is describing the ideal person. That’s a case where meeting one of his heroes proved to be a positive experience.

I’ve met some of my heroes, too. For example, I really enjoyed meeting Adam West and Burt Ward. They were at a local pop culture convention that I attended. I got to get my picture taken with them, get their autographs, and talk to them briefly. I couldn’t help but notice how funny they are. Even during the Question and Answer session. I remember especially how they would do adult jokes but in a family-friendly way.

It was a pleasure meeting Adam and Burt. I can’t help but admit that it was intimidating to meet two of my heroes, but it was well worth it. They are both great examples of not letting pride get in their way.

Was their TV series (“Batman”) and its movie (“Batman: The Movie”) silly at times? Yes, of course 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!

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

What was I so afraid of those other times?

Apparently nothing.

Success Clue #12: Don’t Overthink

“Turning off your mind is an art. It’s a form of meditation. Knowledge is extremely important for making decisions, for a reason that’s not necessarily obvious. The more knowledge you have, the more you’re free to 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 of 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 especially where I felt like Arnold was speaking directly to me. I can definitely relate.

I’ve learned too much about a subject and then I 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 just so I can get to sleep.

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

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

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

After the quote above, Arnold goes on to share two examples from his own life, one from a real estate investment that he made which paid off in a big way and one from a movie deal, which also has an upcoming sequel, interestingly enough.

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 out. The connections, the knowledge, the experience.

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

Now that you’ve given thought to that, what can you do to help make sure that your Plan A does work?

When you have nothing left except to put in your best effort, you might find that you’re much more likely to succeed.

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 keep focused on Plan A and Plan A only?

Of course you do.

Success Clue #14: The Day Has 24 Hours

Arnold had a very 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. Arnold had workouts, acting classes, auditions, and college classes. He juggled all of that 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. there can still be multiple parts to it.

The mega successful people in the world have the same 24 hour day that you and I do. How resourceful can we be?

A lot more than we think. That’s for sure.

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. He welcomed the pain. Arnold smiled as he exercised because he saw that all of his effort 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, 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, and 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 own life empowers you like nothing else can. 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 for 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 that they can. I acknowledge that my mom did the best that she could. She lives in our hometown, and I live far away from her. I do miss my mom. We talk every week on the phone, and we 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 developed such a need 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 though. 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 to be 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, very thorough, very detailed, and very enjoyable book. I got a massive amount of value out of it, and I believe that 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 it also 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 though.

It’s still too soon to tell if that will be the last time that Arnold plays a T-800 Terminator. I’m sure that Arnold 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.

In case I haven’t been clear enough throughout this book review, then here it is. Make sure to read “Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story” by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, it’s a big book, but it’s one that I definitely enjoyed reading all the way through. I learned so much, and I found plenty of inspiration and practical guidelines to apply to my own life.

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

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

I’m looking forward to hearing your success stories, and I’m looking forward to reading the book again.

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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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