Chapter 4 - The Greatest Underdog Story

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was born in Japan in 1536 to a poor farming family. He was short, about five feet tall, weighed 110 pounds, had stooped shoulders, was really ugly and wasn’t athletic. His oversize ears, oversize head, sunken eyes, tiny body, and red, wrinkled face gave him the appearance of an ape resulting in most everyone calling him “monkey” throughout his life.

Most people today would think there was no way someone like Hideyoshi could have succeeded in life.

They’d be wrong. 

Hideyoshi grew up at a time when the only choices for a poor peasant to move ahead were to become a priest, or a warrior or samurai. It was the Age of the Warring States in Japan, a period of social upheaval and near-constant military conflict. It was a mess. If you live in the United States, imagine your state in constant war against your neighboring state. This period of unrest in Japan lasted more than a century.

The samurai were the warriors of premodern Japan. Samurai employed a range of weapons such as bows and arrows, spears and guns, but their main weapon and symbol was the sword. Samurai led their lives according to a set of rules, or ethic code, called bushido: the Way of the Warrior.

Although puny and clumsy at martial arts, Hideyoshi still dreamt of becoming a samurai. Eventually, he rose to the top, unified his country, and became its supreme ruler. He is perhaps history’s greatest underdog story.

How did he do it, and what can you learn from him?

Hideyoshi was only seven years old when his father died. Afterwards, his mother remarried another farmer. Hideyoshi hated school and loved throwing rocks and playing at war with wooden swords. He played outdoors most of the time. Sometimes he cut grass and caught fish to help his mother make ends meet but they often went hungry. Hideyoshi did not get along with his stepfather who would often whip him. 

One day, his mother had had enough, and since Hideyoshi wouldn’t stay in school, she sent him away to a nearby family to learn a trade, just like some young men do today when studying to become electricians, carpenters, or plumbers.

Hideyoshi was fired from that first apprenticeship and tried again with other families only to be fired every single time. 

This kept happening for eight years.

At fifteen, he reached a decision, and told his mother he would leave for good to find his own way.

His mother cried because she knew how dangerous it was for such a young boy to roam the countryside on his own. She feared she would never see him again. She hugged him goodbye and gave him a sack of coins, enough to buy a year’s supply of rice. She had been saving this money for Hideyoshi’s inheritance.

Hideyoshi had never set foot away from his village. I was the only place he knew. As he walked down the dirt road leading away from his hometown, he promised himself to one day give his mother a better life. He vowed to work his way up, take her away from the farms, and provide her with the kind of comforts she’d only known in dreams.

Hideyoshi used most of his inheritance to buy sewing needles which he planned to sell to village seamstresses and samurai families. But this took a while to work out, so he soon exhausted most of his inheritance and often found himself sleeping outside and going days without eating. Besides selling needles, he worked at several jobs such as carpenter, repairing casks and barrels, as a fish salesperson, a metalworker, a field mower, and a knife sharpener. He encountered good people and villains; kind people and greedy ones; people who were gracious and those who were thieves. 

He said all those experiences made him an expert at judging people’s characters and moods. This is called emotional intelligence which you can’t get by staying home playing video games, watching TV, or texting friends. You have to step away from your familiar surroundings.

Rather than remaining a tradesman, Hideyoshi still dreamt of becoming a samurai. With that goal in mind, he travelled for weeks to the town of Sunpu, home of a powerful samurai family, the Matsushita, who ruled three provinces in Japan. Close to the Matsushita household, Hideyoshi stopped at a bridge to rest. 

One of the servants of the Matsushita family rode by on a very tall horse. “Where are you from,” he asked Hideyoshi. 

“I’m from Nakamura,” Hideyoshi replied, “but I’m heading east to find work in a samurai household.” 

The servant looked down at him and said: “Who would hire a scrawny runt like you?” 

Standing his ground, Hideyoshi replied: “Well, you don’t look like a lord yourself. Just because you don’t like my looks doesn’t mean other people won’t!”

Hideyoshi’s surprise daring made the servant laugh. Instead of beating him up, the servant took him to the Matsushita household and introduced him to the other servants as an interesting fellow. Shocked by his ugly looks, they began making fun of him, tossing chestnuts and persimmons to the floor close to Hideyoshi. Rather than becoming angry or upset, Hideyoshi controlled his emotions, used his sense of humor, and got down on all fours, picking up and gnawing on the chestnuts and persimmons making the servants laugh. The called him ‘Monkey’ from that day forward.

Hideyoshi not only controlled his emotions but turned a disadvantage (his ugly looks) into an advantage just like David did, the shepherd boy who defeated the mighty Goliath.

So think!

What would you say is your biggest disadvantage? 

Being tall is great if you want to be a basketball player but disastrous for someone who wants to race horses as a jockey. And professional jockeys make a pretty good living. For example, in the twenty years Javier Castellano has been racing horses, he’s earned a total of $250 million dollars. Javier is 5’1” and weighs exactly what Hideyoshi weighed: 110 pounds. I’m not suggesting it’s the money that’s important but trying to show you that we all have a place in the world.

So think harder! If you can’t overcome what you think is a disadvantage, how can you turn it to your advantage? 

Hideyoshi was hired by the Matsushita family and quickly rose through the ranks. His first job was as a sandal bearer tending to the constant donning and doffing of footwear. In Japan, it is customary to take off your shoes and put-on slippers when you enter a house, so Hideyoshi’s job was to keep track of all the slippers, sandals, and shoes. He also followed his master on daily errands. Next, Hideyoshi became a house servant, looking after the family’s wardrobes and helping them dress and undress. Finally, he was put in charge of the warehouse.

Because he was not physically strong, Hideyoshi decided that working really hard was the only way to distinguish himself. But outsiders who rise swiftly in an organization attract envy, just like a new kid in school does when getting all the attention during the first few weeks. Hideyoshi’s extraordinary devotion to his work was making all the other servants look bad in the eyes of their master. 

One day, a jealous servant falsely accused Hideyoshi of having stolen something from the warehouse. Others added new lies, and, in the end, the master of the house told Hideyoshi that even though it wasn’t his fault, he had brought conflict to the Matsushita household which left him no choice but to fire him. Hideyoshi was eighteen years old at the time.

Here again, rather than becoming depressed or angry, Hideyoshi said he began to understand that viewing experiences as either good or bad was a waste of time. The only thing that matters is what we learn from them.

A wanderer once more, with only a few copper coins left from his mother’s inheritance, Hideyoshi decided that instead of letting chance choose who he’d work for next, he would make that choice himself. He had heard of a powerful young warlord by the name of Lord Nobunaga who many called the Thunderbolt of War for his ferociousness in the battlefield. Hideyoshi decided he would not only work for Lord Nobunaga but would make him his mentor.

A mentor is someone who helps a hero prepare for his adventure or quest, just like Professor Dumbledore helped Harry Potter. Another example is Yoda, from Star Wars, who trains young Luke Skywalker to become a Jedi. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Bilbo Baggins are guided by the wizard Gandalf. Simba, from The Lion King, receives advice from Rafiki, the monkey. Aristotle, the wise Greek philosopher, tutored Alexander the Great (more on this guy later). 

Later on, I’ll tell you why it’s so important for you to find yourself a mentor, although, by way of this book, I like to think you already found one, in me.

Hideyoshi knew he couldn’t just show up at Lord Nobunaga’s house and ask for a job. He wouldn’t even get past his guards. He had plenty of enthusiasm, but no rank, wasn’t from a noble family, and had neither the reputation nor the skills or strength of a warrior. How could he draw Lord Nobunaga’s attention? 

Hideyoshi used his mental sharpness, his courage, and inventiveness.

From his days as a tradesman, Hideyoshi had met someone who worked for Lord Nobunaga. To this man, he paid all the money he had left in exchange for information of the comings and goings of Lord Nobunaga. One spring evening, Hideyoshi hid behind some bushes next to a massive gate leading to the home of a noble family that Lord Nobunaga was visiting. It was the third time he had waited for the arrival of the mighty Thunderbolt of War. The first time, his horse had trotted away before Hideyoshi could leap to the roadside. The second time, he had called out to Lord Nobunaga, but a sudden burst of rain drowned his call. But on this night, luck was on his side. 

As Lord Nobunaga rode slowly through the gate, Hideyoshi sprang from the bushes, got on his hands and knees and bowed. “Lord Nobunaga,” he said, “I offer my services.”

The young warlord stopped his horse and glared down at Hideyoshi who kept his brow close to the dirt not daring to look up. 

“So, boy,” Lord Nobunaga said, “you wish to serve me?”

“Yes, Lord Nobunaga,” Hideyoshi said. “I do!”

Lord Nobunaga turned to look at the men riding behind him and smiled. “This little monkey thinks he might be of use,” he said, which made them laugh.

Hideyoshi lifted his head and looked straight at Lord Nobunaga. “Yes sir,” he said, assertively, but with respect, “I believe so.”

The warlord cocked his head. “Well then, tell me, how much do you think it costs to hire one of you? One man eats 330 pounds of rice per year. Add vegetables, salt, beans, fish or chicken once every ten days, plus cooking and transport costs, and every man I hire costs me the equivalent of 278 pounds of rice every year. Add the expense of clothes and some spare change and you’re up to 926 pounds of rice per year! So how about it Monkey? Can your work cover all these costs?”

Buying and selling was the thing in which Hideyoshi felt most confident. Daily haggling had left him with strong knowledge of the fair price of goods and services. Because he had been so poor, he knew how to stretch a copper coin and save money. 

“Yes sir,” Hideyoshi answered the Lord’s question with boldness and self-confidence. “My service will cover twice…no…three times that amount!”

How?” roared the Thunderbolt of War!

“By economizing, my Lord. By being careful of what you spend.”

Nobunaga was so impressed, he hired Hideyoshi on the spot as his go-to man, a job at which Hideyoshi said he worked three time as hard as anyone else.

Lord Nobunaga had a powerful dream to end the Age of the Warring States in Japan and unifying the nation under a single ruler. Under his mentorship, Hideyoshi slowly learned all about government and politics, and especially, how to be a good leader. Those who aspire to lead, he said, must first learn to serve, and those who would master over others must first master themselves. He was referring to the Life Force of Temperance, or self-control, which we’ll explore later.

As the years went by, Hideyoshi took-on greater and greater responsibilities, never allowing his lack of experience or physical disadvantages to get in his way.

When Hideyoshi was twenty-one, a powerful enemy of Lord Nobunaga invaded his territory. Fierce typhoons had destroyed a large section of the stone wall surrounding Nobunaga’s castle. If the enemy army attacked the castle before the wall was rebuilt, it would be the end of Lord Nobunaga and his clan.

Lord Nobunaga assembled five hundred men to repair the wall as quickly as possible. Yet days went by with little progress. Some suspected the enemy had paid some of the workers to delay the repair work. Furious, Lord Nobunaga summoned his foreman and demanded an explanation, but the man responded with vague excuses and blamed the problem on his workers. Returning to the job site, the foreman started yelling at his workers and calling them lazy and stupid which only made them work even slower.

Hideyoshi hadn’t yet risen to the position of foot soldier. He was still a lowly servant, even though he had helped Lord Nobunaga save a lot of money by economizing on the purchase of food, supplies, and firewood. He certainly had never led a group of men, nor knew how to repair walls. But that did not deter him. He was determined to play a role to fulfill Lord Nobunaga’s vision of uniting Japan and ending the Age of Wars.

As Lord Nobunaga rode his horse back and forth across the damaged section of the wall, the workers’ slow pace drove him nuts. “Damn them!” he screamed. “It’s not even one quarter complete!”

Hideyoshi was next to him and murmured: “This is dangerous…hmm…with the wall in this condition, the enemy could overrun us tomorrow.”

Monkey!” Roared Lord Nobunaga. “What did you say? Say it again!”

Expecting to be punished, Hideyoshi leapt forward and bowed. 

Hideyoshi apologized for his insolence but repeated his words, and then added how he thought the wall might best be repaired. “Great works,” he said, “are never accomplished without enthusiasm. Instead of threatening punishment, why not give workers a break with food and drink, and, in addition to their daily wage, why not give them a bonus if they finish early.”

Nobunaga was impressed and gave Hideyoshi three days to prove his method would work. If it didn’t, he promised Hideyoshi a sound beating.

Hideyoshi broke out in a cold sweat. His audacity had placed his fate in the balance once again.

The next day, Hideyoshi gathered all the workers. Standing on a makeshift wooden platform, he said: “You all know what dangerous times we live in. Reports of the collapse of the wall have reached enemy ears. If attacked today, our fortress will fall, and everyone, including you and your families, will perish. This is why we must complete the repairs at once!”

To speed progress, Hideyoshi divided the five hundred workers into ten teams to compete with each other. “To each member of the fastest team,” he said, “Lord Nobunaga will pay an additional bonus of five hundred copper coins!” At his signal, a group of foot soldiers carried forth a heavy chest overflowing with copper coins and slammed it down on a wooden barrel next to where Hideyoshi was standing. “How about it?” he shouted,” plunging his hands into the chest and letting a jingling cascade of coins spill back onto the heap. “Who wants to try for the bonus?”

A murmur of excitement rippled through the workers.

“I know how hard you’ve been working these past few days, so take the rest of the day off,” he continued. Lord Nobunaga has provided plenty of food and drink, so fill your bellies!”

Cheers broke out among the crowd.

From that moment on, the men looked at Hideyoshi in a different way: no longer just as Lord Nobunaga’s servant, but as a leader who stood with them rather than above them. He treated the workers as equals. He told them why the wall needed to be repaired, how to do it, and how they would be rewarded if they completed the work on time.

They managed to rebuild the wall on time and halted the enemy’s attack. 

Hideyoshi continued impressing Lord Nobunaga by taking on greater challenges which others dared not. Even though he didn’t know much about repairing walls or building fortresses, Hideyoshi pushed himself out of his comfort zone and did it anyway, and did it well, with unshakeable determination.

After Lord Nobunaga was murdered, Hideyoshi took over and fulfilled Nobunaga’s vision of bringing an end to the Age of the Warring States in Japan. He became Japan’s supreme leader. He is perhaps history’s greatest underdog stories.

What can you, and all of us learn from the “Monkey”?

  1. That you don’t have to be rich, strong, tall, athletic, or good looking to be a hero.
  2. That you can turn your disadvantages into advantages. Hideyoshi was ugly but had a sense of humor. He made fun of himself. He didn’t whine or complain about being called a “monkey” but used it to his advantage. He used the experiences he had as a poor boy to first impress Lord Nobunaga.
  3. That the only way to develop emotional intelligence is to go out into the world and experience it yourself. Hideyoshi gained priceless experience from dealing with all sorts of people. He also took the time to know himself. 

There was an old Chinese philosopher by the name of Lao Tzu who lived in China more than 2500 years ago. Legend says that when Tao was 160 years old, he was riding West on a water buffalo and came to the Hsien-ku mountain pass where a guard stopped him and asked him to write a book. This book is called the ‘Tao Te Ching’ which is still read today by many. In that book, he had this to say about emotional intelligence and overcoming limitations: 

“Knowing other people is intelligence,

Knowing yourself is wisdom.

Overcoming others takes strength,

Overcoming yourself takes greatness.”

4.   Hideyoshi also teaches us that being assertive, speaking out for ourselves with firm respect, always wins over being aggressive.

5.   If you want to be a leader, you must first learn to serve. Once you are a leader, treat your team with respect, share your vision, and reward them for a job well done.

6.   It pays off to get out of your comfort zone and tackle new challenges. By doing this, you will bring out forces within you that you never knew you had, just like Hideyoshi discovered when he accepted the challenge to lead the workers to repair the wall.

7.   Viewing what happens to you in life as either good or bad is a waste of time. The only thing that matters is that you learn from those experiences. 

8.   It’s essential to find yourself a male mentor; someone you look up to; someone you respect. It could be an uncle, your grandfather, a teacher at your school, a friend of the family… your own Lord Nobunaga, Yoda, or Aristotle. Then pay attention and learn.

9.   Finally, be grateful, and never forget those who help you along the way. Remember the guy who Hideyoshi met on the bridge when he was travelling to the town of Sunpu? The one that took him to the Matsushita household and got him his first job? Hideyoshi never forgot him, and once he became supreme ruler of Japan, Hideyoshi went back to look for him to repay the favor. Unable to locate him, he rewarded his son with lands and made him a lord.

I haven’t been able to find out what Hideyoshi did for his mother once he reached the top, but knowing his sense of honor, I am sure he kept his vow of taking her away from the farms and providing her with the kind of comforts she’d only known in dreams.

You know what’s funny? 

To imagine the ‘tough-guys’, who made fun of Hideyoshi’s ugly looks and called him “monkey”, saying to themselves: “Hey! I want to be a monkey too!” after seeing what Hideyoshi had accomplished. It makes me remember all the tough guys who used to tease me at school because of my long nose and short stature. I bet they are now wasting their lives crushing soda cans against their knuckle-skulls while I am here, writing this book for you. 

I wish I would’ve read about Hideyoshi when I was your age because, instead of being bothered by their taunts, I would have learned to lighten up and use my so-called “disadvantages” into advantages.

Turning disadvantages into advantages is another way of saying: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” 

Which is what Alexandra Scott literally did. 

When ‘Alex’ was one-year old she was diagnosed with cancer. When she was four, having just finished receiving treatment at the hospital, she told her parents she wanted to set up a lemonade stand and give the money she raised to her doctors. She raised two-thousand dollars with that first stand.

In the next four years, ‘Alex’ inspired hundreds of supporters who set up lemonade stands throughout the country and raised a total of $1 million for childhood cancer research. She died at the age of eight, yet her spirit and legacy live on through the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. 

Now, let's find out how other heroes started their journeys.

(Chapter 5)


Be a Hero and champion this extraordinary book!  - CLICK HERE.

Join our rapidly growing audience, HERE.

By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 14 exclusive posts
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 14 exclusive posts