Unbroken: Lessons Learned from Louis Zamperini

“Life’s many bumpy roads are preferable to its one flat line.”


PersistenceHave you ever been in the presence of a hero? A real, genuine, through-and-through hero?

I have … when I met Louis Zamperini a couple of years ago, an incredible survivor of the Japanese concentration camps of World War II. Indeed, you may have met him also if you read Laura Hillenbrand’s book or Angelina Jolie’s movie about his life they called Unbroken.

From his running in the 1936 Olympics, to his plane crash in the Pacific, to his 47 days adrift on the ocean, to his two years of unthinkable torture as a POW, to his years of PTSD struggles with alcohol and nightmares, to his 70 years of service helping others find peace in their lives, to his eventual passing away a few months ago at age 97, Louis kept on fighting the good fight and helped millions of others in the process. How did he do it? That’s what I wanted to know when I met him.

Louis shared three life-changing insights.


1. Control your anger.


As a youngster, Louis struggled with anger, which got him into trouble over and over again. And it took an horrific series of incidents to help him realize that the handling of his anger would, to a large extent, determine the outcome of his life. His anger could stir up trouble, make enemies, make him sick, and ruin his chances of success. Or his anger, handled properly, could keep situations under control, cement friendships, win respect, and keep him healthy.

Of course, one could argue that Louis had every right to be angry, considering the treatment he received. And he did have that “right.”

But that’s not the question. The real question was whether or not his anger hurt him or helped him … which is the same question you have to ask yourself. Does your unbridled anger improve your decision making, improve your relationships, improve your health, improve your sleep, and increase the amount of success you’re achieving? Or is it your controlled anger that brings about all those benefits? Without a doubt, the favor falls to those who control their anger.

It’s one of the reasons Abraham Lincoln is universally recognized as the United States’ greatest President. Lincoln knew how to handle anger.

One time during the Civil War, Lincoln went to see General McClellan, who was in command of the Union Army. The General was not there, so the President sat down to wait for him in the foyer of his house. When the General came in, the guard told him “The President is waiting for you.” But the General went upstairs.

After an hour, Lincoln was told the General was tired and had gone to bed. What did Lincoln do? What would you have done? Gotten fiery mad? Gotten indignant? After all, who was the General to treat the President with such disregard?

“Just tell General McClellan,” Lincoln said, calmly and rationally, “that next time I come I will even hold his horse for him if he will just win victories for me.”
Again, Lincoln had every right to be angry. But what good would it have done? Probably none. That’s why survivors, heroes, and even successful people in business have learned what Louis Zamperini learned … to control their anger and use it more productively than simply let it out.


2. Refuse to let others steal your joy.


The guards at the Japanese concentration camps tried to break Louis. After all, as an internationally known and respected Olympic athlete, they figured if they could break him that would demoralize thousands of other soldiers. No matter what the guards did, however, they could not and did not break Louis. He had tapped into the power of persistence.

And you can too. You can have a persistence that never ever gives up. You can keep on keeping on, achieving every one of your goals. That’s one reason I wrote my new book, The Payoff Principle. There are specific steps you can take to fire up your persistence that will absolutely transform your life and success on and off the job.

Louis refused to let others steal his joy. Just like Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

In June 1966, the celebrated boxer, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, was convicted of murder in a highly publicized and racially charged trial. The boxer maintained his innocence and became his own jailhouse lawyer. After serving 19 years, Carter was released when the verdict was overturned.

As a free man, people noticed his lack of bitterness, and someone asked him, “Wouldn’t anyone under those circumstances have a right to be bitter?” Carter responded, “I’ve learned that bitterness only consumes the vessel that contains it. And for me to permit bitterness to control or infect my life in any way whatsoever would be to allow those who imprisoned me to take even more than … they’ve already taken.”


3. Develop a fluid spirit.


When tough times come, you can get angry. You can wail on and on about how unfairly life is treating you. But that doesn’t work. Louis proved that.
You can also get bitter. But that doesn’t work either.

By contrast, you can develop a fluid spirit that changes the world around you. That’s what Louis did. After his horrific World War II experiences, he spent the next 70 years working with young people, helping them get their lives together. He became, as some would say, like the Oolong tea. Perhaps you know the story of the tea.

A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed as one problem was solved, a new one arose.

Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to a boil. In the first she placed carrots; in the second she placed eggs, and in the last she placed Oolong tea. She let them sit and boil, without saying a word.

In about twenty minutes she turned off the burners. She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. The she ladled the Oolong out and placed it in a bowl. Turning to her daughter, she said, “Tell me what you see.”

“Carrots, eggs, and Oolong tea,” she replied.

Her mother brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She noted they were soft. The mother then asked the daughter to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg.

Finally, the mother asked the daughter to sip the Oolong. The daughter smiled as she smelled its rich aroma. The daughter then asked, “What does it mean, mother?”

Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity: boiling water. Each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard, and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its insides became hardened. The Oolong tea was unique, however. After it was in the boiling water, it had changed the water color and taste.

“Which are you?” she asked her daughter. “When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg, or Oolong tea?”

Think about it. Which one are you? Are you the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity do you wilt and become soft and lose your strength?

Are you the egg that starts with a malleable hea
rt, but change with the heat? Do you have a spirit that becomes hard and stiff after a death, a breakup, a financial hardship, or some other trial? Does your shell look the same, but on the inside you’re bitter and hardened?

Or are you like the Oolong tea? The tea actually changes the hot water or the very circumstances that bring the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases fragrance and flavor. If you’re like the tea, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you.

Louis taught me that we all need to be like the Oolong tea. We need a fluid spirit that succeeds despite the problems, challenges, and unfairness of life.


Instead of hoping you will be persistent when the tough times come, what are you actually doing to build the power of persistence in your life so you have it when you need it?