How a Hero Takes on Adversity

This article is part of our Rising Star Portfolios series. Click here to follow Jason on Twitter.

Perseverance can be the difference between winning and losing. As Foolish investors, we're constantly looking for great companies with great leaders who stand strong in times of adversity. What can I say? We like winning.

Take Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX  ) CEO Howard Schultz, for example. His perseverance and love for the business helped him lead the company back from its lowest point, making Starbucks relevant again. And how about Ford's (NYSE: F  ) Alan Mulally? He guided the company out of arguably the American automobile industry's darkest hour. His perseverance and tenacity has put Ford back on the map as a major global car company.

Our leader here at The Motley Fool, CEO and co-founder Tom Gardner, recently had the opportunity to interview Louis Zamperini. Recognized as an American hero, Zamperini was a World War II prisoner of war and is the subject of Laura Hillenbrand's new book, Unbroken. Tom talked with Zamperini about his views on perseverance and adversity. The following is a lightly edited version of their conversation:

Tom Gardner: In your experience in the Japanese POW camps, you faced something that is a million times worse than the average person will ever face in their life. Yet all of us have our days of reckoning, and all of us suffer. I am wondering what advice you would have for anyone who is going through a period of suffering in their life?

Louis Zamperini: When there is nothing you can do about it, you have to grin and bear it. That is all you can do. The fact that we all have an inborn desire to live is probably the strongest thing that is going to keep you going, but some guys do give up. We saw guys turn coat and try to escape, even though they knew that the enemy soldiers would retaliate by shooting officers, so escape was not a real possibility without harming other members of the group.

The best thing is an example. I got a letter yesterday from a guy on dialysis for three hours at a time. He just wanted to give up; he said, "This is really bugging me and yesterday I wanted to give up on it." But he read my book, Unbroken, and he said to me, "If that guy can spend 47 days on a raft, I can handle my three hours of dialysis." I get five or 10 letters a day like that of people who use the story as an example of perseverance.

Gardner: It's amazing.

Zamperini: You have got to persevere and overcome adversity. Every time you overcome an adversity, you become more hardy, so don't think of adversity as bad. If it is there and you have got to face it, overcome it. I don't like the term "the greatest generation." We were the hardy generation because we had nothing but obstacles and adversities. During the Depression, we had to forage for food when we ran out of money; we had to go out and shoot rabbits to have rabbit cacciatore. We had to go down to the beach and bring home abalone, which was a poor man's food in those days; now it is $100 a pound. So we learned a lot. I think that is what made us so hardy that we were able to survive and live to a ripe old age.

Gardner: Can you remember the moment when you turned from being a teenager getting into trouble with a very mischievous nature and maybe little petty crimes to being a young man who was pursuing mastery as a runner?

Zamperini: Yeah, because the main thing is the recognition. When that guy shot [Rep. Gabrielle] Giffords, I told my friend, "When he goes to jail and they take his picture, you are going to see the biggest smile you ever saw," and sure enough, he had this gigantic smile. Why? Because he wanted recognition. He got not only nationwide but worldwide recognition.

As a kid, I never played tennis or basketball. I had no interests except gang-related interests. I had no interests and I got no recognition. I got my recognition by stealing things. The fact that it said "Minders Pie Shop raided again" was the best recognition for me, even without my name.

So that is what I do in my camp program. I take kids up in the Sierras and use that story. I always keep my eyes open for a kid that is ignored and shunned and I give him all my attention and bring him into the fold, you might say. Otherwise, the kid is going to suffer. He could ruin the camp program, so I always look for that. In fact, when I predicted the guy that killed Giffords, sure enough it happened. My friend said, "Boy, you hit it right on the head." Well, I know from experience.

Now the first recognition I got was my first race. I didn't care if I won or lost, but I am coming down the home stretch and all of a sudden, the kids from my school are all screaming, "Come on, Louie!" I thought, my God, I didn't know anybody knew my name. Boy, I did the best I could. I passed a guy and came in third. But that started me on a whole new role in life, and that was becoming a runner. So my brother said, "You want to keep on being a bum all your life or do you want to accomplish something? You got a lot of recognition in the race today. You have got to make up your mind." Before I fell asleep, I said, "OK, Pete, I am going all out."

So I quit chasing around, smoking, and stealing liquor from the bootleggers. I became a fanatic trainer. I was just the opposite, and so within the year, I had won. I broke the state record in the 1320, and the next year I broke the world interscholastic record in the mile in high school. I was still a junior, and I beat all the college runners as a junior in high school. So that is how my life changed. You have got to get something that you can put your heart into and go for it.

Click here to read Part 1 of the interview.

Stay tuned for the third part of our interview Wednesday.

Motley Fool CEO and co-founder Tom Gardner and Stock Advisor analyst Jason Moser own no shares of any companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Starbucks. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford and Starbucks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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