It was a situation most of us can't imagine. In the midst of the Vietnam War, a teenager named Lien had her already tumultuous world turned upside-down. [Note: Lien has chosen not to use her real name.] When the Viet Cong took over her town, they began a search for any local opposition. A young man whom Lien's family thought of as a friend -- and had tried to help -- turned out to be a communist, and he betrayed the family to the newcomers. Lien's father and uncle disappeared, and the rest of the family was left homeless.

For a long while, life for Lien became brutal. She and her remaining family lived by going door to door and asking for shelter for a night or two before having to move on. Alone, Lien eventually piled on a crowded truck and was taken to a filthy hospital. Here she would live for months without bathing and with only scraps to eat.

It sounds like a story destined for tragedy, but remarkably this tale ends on a happier note. Lien now resides with her new family in California, where she lives comfortably after being able to retire -- financially independent -- before turning 50.

What path led her from homelessness to financial independence? It certainly wasn't a typical course of events.

Moving on
For Lien, it took courage, confidence, and a willingness to look beyond the ordinary to improve her situation. Those are all traits that helped her get out of a difficult predicament. And they're traits that help her thrive today. Lien took advantage of a chance to apply for a scholarship to an American university, despite the fact that she had very little experience speaking English. She was accepted. Once stateside, she worked two jobs to help support herself through school, all while working to improve her English.

"I had an old dictionary -- you should have seen it," she recalls. "It was absolutely torn apart. I studied day and night." But despite the hard work, she constantly wondered how far she would get in a U.S. career.

She made it pretty far, eventually becoming the director of a major corporation (she prefers not to reveal the name). Yet that first foray into management came as something of a surprise to her. "At the time, I said, 'Me? In management? I don't even speak English well,' " she remembers. "But my boss said it didn't matter -- I could get help on that. I knew the ideas. And I knew what was important."

Moving up
A few obstacles didn't stand in the way of successful investing, either. As a busy executive, Lien knew she wanted to put her money to work, but didn't have the time or experience to put a lot into researching stocks. In 1998, she got hold of a newsletter that recommended 10 Internet stocks. The next day, she bought all 10 -- to the tune of about $30,000. "Long story short, I lost most of that money," she recalls. "But, through that, I realized that I had to learn. I wanted to invest; I either had to hire a fund manager or I had to learn myself."

Shortly thereafter, she found The Motley Fool Investment Guide at a bookstore. And she stumbled upon during the time of the original Rule Breakers portfolio that sought companies that were run by innovative entrepreneurs and erasing the old way of doing business. That portfolio included now-dominant companies such as (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO). After retiring a few years later, Lien had more time to manage her portfolio and learn the investing ropes. She even considered launching her own investment newsletter aimed at Asian investors.

Moving forward
Last year, she became a subscriber to Motley Fool Rule Breakers, an investment service that seems to attract mavericks and others with high aspirations. She's gotten some nice returns with favorite picks such as Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:VRTX), which is up 261% since it was first recommended, and Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG), which is up 142%. Lien says she's confident about the prospects of some other picks currently in the red -- an example being iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT), which is down 15%.

Lien still holds the reins when it comes to investing. When we spoke, she gave me an earful about our buy-and-hold philosophy -- something that we strongly believe maximizes aggregate returns over time, even if it means riding out some occasionally nasty volatility. But Lien argues that her more frequent trading allowed her to minimize losses on one former Rule Breakers pick, (NASDAQ:OSTK). "I read and analyze and use my judgment," she says. "I don't go into these blindly."

That allows her not just to profit from the ideas she finds, but to enrich the rest of our community with her own input -- something she's not shy about offering. "I'm surprised you haven't recommended Hansen Natural (NASDAQ:HANS) yet," she says during our conversation. "I started paying attention to it when it was at $17. To me that's a real Rule Breaker."

So is Lien. "I love challenges," she says. "It's not just the money, because I'm not the type to go out and spend lavishly. I just want to do something that turns out good. I want to do something where the sky is the limit."

You can join Lien and the rest of the Rule Breakers community by taking a 30-day free trial to the Fool's ultimate growth stock service. Click here to learn more. Fool contributorKarl Thiel does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.