During a speaking tour shortly after leaving office, the 63-year-old told audiences in Toronto, Calgary and Winnipeg that his most significant accomplishment in his career has nothing to do with his blockbuster movie career. Instead, he says he is most proud of his seven years of public service.
“I was a servant to the people. For many years, you worry about yourself. Then you’re governor to 39 million people and it becomes not what can you do for yourself but what can you do for the people of California?” he says.
(Schwarzenegger knows both his history and his family tree as this line is clearly a tribute to John F. Kennedy’s, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Kennedy’s niece, Maria Shriver, is Schwarzenegger’s wife.)
Schwarzenegger says he feels a debt of gratitude to America for giving him the chance to live out his dreams and maximize his potential. He grew up in Austria in the most humble of beginnings – there were no presents on birthdays or on Christmas, his family had no television or telephone and buying a refrigerator was a highlight of his childhood. He moved to the U.S. when he was 15 years old, intent on becoming the best bodybuilder in the world and using that as a springboard to get to Hollywood.
In fact, he says many of his key life lessons he learned from sports and bodybuilding -- trust yourself, trust your vision, don't be afraid to fail and work like hell.
“When I wanted to bench press 500 pounds, I failed the first nine times. Then, on the 10th try, I did it. I see people walking around with a noose around their necks. ‘What if I get I get turned down when I ask a girl out or in a job interview?” he says.
"Politicians are afraid to fail, that's why they vote 'no' all the time. It's easier. That's why they're girly-men. If you cry, you're not a girly-man. If you fail, you are not a girly-man. But if you are afraid to fail, you're a girly-man," he said.
The “Governator” plans to return to Hollywood but he could easily settle into a career as a motivational speaker. His message is straightforward – reach for the stars and don’t be discouraged by those who predict you’ll fail or think you should settle for something else.
In fact, he notes that his thick accent, imperfect English, difficult-to-pronounce last name and physique - all of which were perceived as obstacles when he was trying to break in to the movie business, ultimately became positive attributes. (He jokes that in addition to English classes, he also took “accent removal” classes.) He landed his first starring role in 1982 in Conan the Barbarian.
To back up his point, he says James Cameron, who directed him in Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, said he was “lucky” that Schwarzenegger “talks like a machine.”
Schwarzenegger also recommends breaking the rules if you want to succeed, as you can’t be a true original if you don’t. He was told he could make it in the movie business, but never as a leading man. If he played his cards right, he was advised he could play football players, wrestlers, bouncers or Nazi officers. But because of his sheer size, he couldn’t possibly be a star. That was the territory of much smaller men such as Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen and Al Pacino.
His is the ultimate rags to riches story – Schwarzenegger became the highest-paid actor in Hollywood history in 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. He has an estimated net worth of between $100 million and $200 million and he estimates he missed out on $140 million in earnings by putting his movie career on hold when he went into politics.
From his earliest days in the gym, Schwarzenegger says he was all about giving his all and never taking short cuts. (He had previously admitted to taking steroids when they were legal for maintaining muscle size, not for muscle growth.) He was rewarded with winning the prestigious Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competition seven times and the Mr. Universe title five times.
“People go for liposuction to trim their waist. Stop eating the crap and ice cream and you’ll get lean. Do you sit-ups and your leg raises, you’ll get abs,” he says.
To those who say they don’t have time to do things properly, Schwarzenegger says you have 18 hours in every day for improving yourself.
“You need six hours to sleep. If you need eight hours, just sleep faster,” he says with a laugh.
Schwarzenegger is also a big supporter of the Special Olympics, an organization founded by his late mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. He says Special Olympics has long demonstrated the “power of the heart.”
“It pumps more than blood, it pumps caring, love and compassion,” he says.
In fact, Schwarzenegger, an international coach for Special Olympics, says he would rather play chess with a Special Olympian than walk down the red carpet at a movie premiere.
“We all have the responsibility of giving back,” he says.
Nothing girly about that.