Netflix sent me a copy of Pumping Iron this past week. Pumping Iron, if you’re unfamiliar, is a 1977 independent documentary following a group of the world’s elite bodybuilders as they train for and compete in the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions. The movie was made with practically no budget, but it was an enormous critical and financial success. The undisputed star of the film is 28-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, as the film begins, has won Mr. Olympia for five consecutive years and is preparing for what he says will be his final competition. It’s probably most notable for two things: changing public opinion of bodybuilding from kind of a joke, a la pro wrestling, to a respected pursuit practiced by dedicated athletes; and making Hollywood studios turn their heads and say, “Whoa, who’s this Schwarzenegger guy?”
I learned a lot about Schwarzenegger from this movie. He’s brash, commanding, magnetic, a total jerk. His fellow bodybuilders love him and hate him and fear him. He places great importance on both forming genuine friendships with his colleagues — the guy he faces in the Mr. Olympia finals was his best man almost 10 years later when he married Maria Shriver — and intimidating them. He’s never explicitly mean, not even once — his jerkiness comes more from passive aggression and calculated little put-downs. When he tells future Incredibe Hulk Lou Ferrigno, his primary nemesis, that he looks terrible, he says it with faux sympathy and sorrow: not “Oh, man, Lou, you look awful — how are you ever going to place looking like that?” but “Oh, I’m sorry, Lou, it’s really too bad. You worked really hard; you just didn’t get the timing right. One more month and you’d be perfect.”
There’s a great scene not involving Arnold in which the movie’s biggest asshole steals the shirt of his principal opponent, a lovable junior-high-school teacher who started working out because he was picked on as a kid, just before the big lug goes on stage for his posedown. It works — the teacher is completely off his game — but Schwarzenegger would never do anything like that. He’d do something way more cunning and effective.
In another terrific scene, Arnold tells the director a story from his early days in Austria. Already a local legend, a neophyte asks him for help in training for an upcoming competition in which Schwarzenegger will also be competing. Arnold agrees and spends hours training him one day, telling the poor sap that the hot new bodybuilding trend in America is to scream while you pose. The higher you raise your arms, he says, the higher-pitched your screams have to be. Needless to say, the kid ends up utterly humiliated and Schwarzenegger wins the contest. That’s just a little better than stealing a shirt.
But what impressed me most about Arnold in Pumping Iron is his sheer confidence. I’ve noticed for a while now that if you want to have success in life, confidence is the most important thing in the world. Look at the people who go far at your major corporations, or in individual pursuits. What do they have in common? At first glance, it’s not clear. Some are brilliant, some are dumb as stumps. Some work like dogs, some do everything they can to avoid work. But all of them exude confidence. Really, confidence is almost all that’s important.
You can get away with faking it, and most people do. In fact, most people’s displays of confidence are borne from deep-seated insecurity. After a while, the self-doubt may become completely unconscious, but chances are still very good that your average CEO both seriously needs a shrink and isn’t seeing one. In Pumping Iron, Arnold is one of the few people I’ve ever seen who doesn’t seem to be faking it. You can see it in his eyes and in his smile, hear it in his speech. This guy just knows he’s the greatest person in the world, and absolutely nothing in him doubts it even for a second.
What’s so great about Schwarzenegger? He’s succeeded in everything he’s ever done. Maybe he was the greatest bodybuilder in the world, but other greatest bodybuilders in the world haven’t done anything with their lives since they got old and flabby. Every critic thinks he’s a terrible actor, but he made millions. He’s a successful entrepreneur and restaurateur. He married into the Kennedy family, for God’s sake. And somehow, somehow, he got elected governor of California on a platform that amounted to: “I’ve got some really great ideas. I’m not going to tell you what they are, but trust me on this one.” I’m now convinced he did all these things because he never had any doubt that he could, so he did them. If anyone ever told him no, he sure didn’t hear it. But my guess is nobody ever told him. Two minutes of talking to him would have convinced them it was pointless.
The DVD of Pumping Iron I watched was a rerelease from 2003, when Arnold was planning his political career. Despite his grand plans, Schwarzenegger did promotion for the movie, in which he does not exactly come off like the governor of the nation’s biggest state. It’s possible that Arnold didn’t realize how bad he looks, but evidence suggests that he did. He has said, unconvincingly, that he was just playing a role in the movie, that he was trying to be the bad guy. He says he talked with the director and planned out the things he was going to say to make him look like a master manipulator. He claims his story about not going back to Austria for his father’s funeral because he was in training was a showboating lie. No, Arnold knows exactly how he looks. But he doesn’t care. Now that’s confidence.