A Hero's Perspective on Accomplishment

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

We investors tend to be goal-oriented, constantly searching for the best investments, with our eye on a future filled with financial freedom. As such, we like to find companies with goal-oriented leaders who know where they want to go, and how they plan to get there.

Panera Bread's (Nasdaq: PNRA  ) co-founder and Chairman Ron Shaich remains an integral part of the company, even after recently stepping down as CEO in 2010. The company's stated mission is "A loaf of bread in every arm," and concepts like the company's Panera Cares donations to food banks are a great example of how leaders should know what they wants to accomplish. Boston Beer's (NYSE: SAM  ) founder and Chairman Jim Koch worked for a Boston consulting firm before starting his company. Once the lure of craft brewing called, he knew where he needed to go.

Recently, our very own Tom Gardner had the pleasure of interviewing Louis Zamperini. Recognized as an American hero, Zamperini was a World War II prisoner of war, and he's the subject of Laura Hillenbrand's new book, Unbroken. Tom took this time to learn more about Zamperini's views on accomplishments in life. The following is a lightly edited version of their conversation:

Tom Gardner: The change from not being a runner at all to beating college runners and setting a national standard for the mile in such a short period of time is just such an incredible example of the power of recognition.

Louis Zamperini: Yeah, and once you go for it, you have got to throw your heart into it. About 40 years ago, I quit going to movies, because once I got that taste of accomplishment I wanted to be everything I could be. In school, I took typing and I hated stuff like that, but I took it. It was an accomplishment. It helped me through college. Then I took up other sports.

I decided to become as many things as I could, so I've become 84 different things as a profession or licensed or an expert in. So I have been everything. I have been a deputy sheriff, I have been a lifeguard under Red Cross, a ski instructor, you name it. I have been 84 different things. That all happened because as a kid, I had no accomplishments. Now I have got 84 things to my credit, and I tell you, I can look back and start reminiscing on those things. It just thrills my heart to think that I had done that, but I had to quit going to movies to do it.

Gardner: What is one of the 84 things that is most surprising, even to you, which you have mastered?

Zamperini: One thing I like a lot: I wanted to become a real cowboy, so I worked on the Vanderhoof Ranch every summer, and the Willis Ranch in White Salmon, Oregon. I just spent some time with Robert Duvall last week, and we talked for hours and hours. We are like a couple of old cowboys. I often like to be alone, because when you are an athlete, as John Neighbor will testify, people are always around you. I loved the old West. In fact, I still have my saddle downstairs.

I tell you, getting out there alone and riding the fence on a good horse searching for a lost cow and then patching the fence up takes all day long. You leave early in the morning and come home at night. I am around people all the time, so much that [that] was a real treat for me to get off alone and just meditate and think of the past and make plans for the future.

Gardner: Tell me about how you met Laura Hillenbrand and got involved with the book.

Zamperini: Laura got the idea from [the previous] book she was doing research on, Seabiscuit. I remember lying on the grass at the coliseum whenever Seabiscuit had a race; they would basically stop football and track when he ran. I would lie there and listen to his race and run mine the same way. Then [Laura] saw an article where the Los Angeles Times called our coach, Dean Cromwell, and said "Louie hasn't lost a mile race for five years. If he loses this year, who do you think will beat him?" The coach said, "Seabiscuit." So she saw that and said, "I have got to call this guy." So that is how it started. Then we became real close friends.

Gardner: I wanted to talk a little bit about your faith. Laura writes in the book that on the sixth day of no water, you bowed your head and offered to dedicate your life to God. Do you feel this was one of the most important moments in your life?

Zamperini: It was. The prayer was, if God spared our lives through all this, I'd seek him and serve him. But then I came home and Warner Brothers threw me an all-studio party and one party after the other, and I got so involved in the celebration, I forgot about the promises. Then I just started drinking too much and became an alcoholic. I didn't care to reform myself. I had a wife and a little girl, and my wife decided it was too much for her and she was going to divorce me.

Then somebody talked her into going down to hear a new speaker that nobody had ever heard about. He started preaching to us and I got mad and walked out of the room, but she went down and made a confession of her faith in Christ, and when she came home, she was all over me about it and I wanted no part of it. But then she said something that really opened my eyes and thrilled my heart. She said, "Because of my conversion now, I am not going to get a divorce." That wowed me, because I loved my wife and getting a divorce was something I just couldn't handle.

She got me back again, but this time Billy Graham said something in the sermon, that when people come to the end of their rope and there is nowhere else to turn, they turn to God. Well, that was us on the raft. We all prayed the same prayer, and in prison camp everybody was praying the same prayer, "Get me home alive and I will seek you and serve you," because we lost 80 guys in one winter, in one camp.

So anyway, I felt so ashamed of myself that I had made all those promises and I didn't even try to keep one. So then instead of going home that night like I intended to do, I went back to the prayer room and made a confession of my faith in Christ and wow, I was still on my knees and I knew positively I was through drinking. I knew positively I'd forgiven all my guards, including Mutsuhiro Watanabe. That was a matter of moments.

A number of people were interviewed about Laura's book and they all gave it a 5-star rating, except one guy he gave it a four. He said, "The reason I gave it a four is because I cannot understand how a person under severe traumatic stress could get over it in a matter of moments." I had a whole new attitude and turned my life over to God.  

Ever since then, I have been in Christian work, and I still get letters from kids I had in 1954, '55, '56. Now they have got gray hair. I was on a cruise about two years ago on the Mexican Riviera, and I was speaking to about 600 people. When I finished, one gray-haired guy gets up and says, "I was in your camp when I was 14 years old. After I accepted Christ, my life changed and now I am an executive." Within 30 seconds, another guy got up with gray hair. He said the same thing, and they didn't even know each other. But it was a thrill to me, and my son was just bowled over with joy.

Stay tuned for the fourth part of our interview on Thursday.

Motley Fool CEO and co-founder Tom Gardner owns no shares of any companies mentioned. Stock Advisor analyst Jason Moser owns shares of Panera. The Motley Fool owns shares of Boston Beer. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Boston Beer and Panera Bread. 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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  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2011, at 8:40 AM, drillerjim101 wrote:

    Of all the wise words of investment counsel I've read in the Motley Fool annuls, none exceed the wisdom of this part of your interview with Louie Zamporini.

    Thank you Tom and Jason for taking the time to write of God's amazing power to forgive and empower each of us to become all we should be.

    Jim

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