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Embrace what makes you different
Lessons learned from Arnold Schwarzenegger's career pivot from bodybuilding to acting
I’m obsessed with the new Netflix documentary about Arnold Schwarzenegger. The 3 part series is a deep dive on how he went from being a bodybuilder, to movie star, to the governor of California. Part of the reason I’m so into the documentary is because Schwarzenegger’s story gives us lots of great lessons for successfully making a career pivot. In short, you’ve got to embrace what makes you different and patiently wait for the world to change in your favor. Let me explain what I mean.
From bodybuilding to acting
When Arnold Schwarzenegger first pivoted from bodybuilding to acting in the 1970s, there was no precedent for big, muscular men playing leading roles in movies. According to the documentary, during that time, Hollywood favored small and skinny actors like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, making it difficult for Schwarzenegger to break into the movie business.
However, instead of trying to change himself, Schwarzenegger embraced his physique and took on small roles while exploring different opportunities. There were lots of ups and downs during this time. Work came sporadically.He wasn’t a very good actor, and his English wasn’t great. But Schwarzenegger never strayed away from what made him different. Instead, he leaned into it.
Like taking on unexpected opportunities, such as being part of a Whitney Museum exhibit on bodybuilding. The success of that exhibit led to the creation of a documentary called Pumping Iron where Schwarzenegger “played” the main character. A bodybuilding documentary was the perfect medium for him, because it showcased his charisma and sense of humor:
Pumping Iron therefore gave Schwarzenegger a chance to flex his acting skills as well as his muscles. With the cameras rolling, he built up the persona of a calculating, ruthless competitor determined to win at any cost
Pumping Iron ended up making a big splash, winning critical acclaim, and attracting a cult following. All of which gave Schwarzenegger the credibility and visibility he desperately needed in Hollywood circles.
Then the world changed
In the 1980s, the movie industry underwent an unexpected shift. Action films became incredibly popular in this era. Small, skinny leading men were out—physically imposing, masculine action characters were in. This change played to Schwarzenegger’s advantage, as old weakness—his physique—suddenly became a huge asset. There were no bodybuilder-actors available with an acting resume.
Except for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In 1982—a full twelve years after his first acting role—Schwarzenegger finally landed his dream role as the leading man for a new “sword and sorcery” movie called Conan the Barbarian. As this article explains:
Back in the late ‘70s, producers were strongly considering Charles Bronson to play Conan the Barbarian, and this would have resulted in a dramatically different film. But after the producers watched Schwarzenegger in the iconic documentary drama Pumping Iron, they decided to go with him due to his impressive and imposing physique.
Conan the Barbarian ended up being a big commercial hit, which caught the attention of an up and coming director named James Cameron—who invited Schwarzenegger to play the lead villain in his upcoming sci fi movie The Terminator.
The rest is history.
You can’t predict the future
Let me be clear: The takeaway here is *not* that Schwarzenegger correctly predicted that “strong men” would be in demand. He wasn’t immersed in the latest Hollywood trends. He was just a bodybuilder trying to break into movies. Schwarzenegger’s genius was his decision to embrace what made him so different than everyone else.
You could imagine an alternative world where he tried to blend in. Maybe he would’ve stopped working out so he could slim down and look like one of those “small and skinny” leading men in Hollywood during the 1970s. Maybe he would’ve declined any opportunities related to bodybuilding to avoid being typecast into narrow roles. In that world, he never would’ve agreed to the Whitney museum exhibit or the leading role in Pumping Iron.
Once Schwarzenegger made a name for himself, and became a proven A list star, everything changed. Directors would mold characters to fit his personality. For example, they would add humor—one of Schwarzenegger’s strengths—into the script. Opportunities to take on unexpected roles came up too, like when Ivan Reitman invited him to play the leading role in Twins, a buddy comedy film that crushed it at the box office and proved that Schwarzenegger could be more than just an action star.
“Embracing what makes you different” was the complete opposite of what I did early on in my legal career. Instead, I tried to be someone else. In my mind, all of the successful attorneys I met in law school were polished, measured, and careful. They were generally private and understated types who quietly worked behind the scenes. That’s not who I was, but I aspired to become exactly that.
I didn’t come out of my shell until many years later. Part of it was because I’d left the practice of law, so I had nothing left to lose. I began to accept and embrace who I was—someone who enjoys public attention, who could make people laugh, and who wouldn’t be afraid call out BS when I saw it. These traits were not helpful to me as a junior associate. But they were huge assets when I entered the startup world as a sales professional.
My message to you is this: If you’re reading this newsletter because you’re trying to figure out where you fit in—look inwards, not outwards. Yes, you should always be informed about market trends and how the world is headed. But at the end of the day, you have to love what you do and find work that’s aligned with your authentic personality. Don’t try to be someone else. Embrace what makes you different.
At the end of the day you’ve got to figure out what makes you unique. Because that’s likely the source of your superpower. And when you find it, I hope you lean into it. Hard. Because while *that* road won’t be easy, the rewards will more than make up for it.
Best of luck, my friends.
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Schwarzenegger’s early acting work was not well received. In his first role, the directors ended up dubbing over all of his spoken lines because Schwarzenegger’s English was so bad. In other roles, he was criticized for his poor acting ability. One time, a reviewer said that the movie’s “horse had better facial expressions than Schwarzenegger.” So to say that there were ups and downs is an understatement—it was mostly downs.
Schwarzenegger was able to wait it out for twelve years in part because he was financially independent. He’d made so much money from bodybuilding and side hustles, that he was able to put his profits into real estate. This financial safety blanket let Schwarzenegger be picky about what roles he accepted, since he never needed the money. Which ended up being a very smart move. Over the years, I’ve found that often, early financial independence enables people to take career risks that end up paying off big time. A lot of it is luck, but it’s also financial discipline and preparation to have the ability to take advantage of opportunities when they show up.
Although this role is widely acknowledged as the one that launched Schwarzenegger into the stratosphere, it wasn’t obvious at the outset. For example, the role involved playing a villain, which is something many actors stay away from because it ends up typecasting you for future roles playing unsympathetic characters. But once again, Schwarzenegger found a way to make it work for him. He convinced Cameron to make him an anti-hero for Terminator 2—paving the way for future roles as a lead action hero.