Lessons In Conquering Failure From Abraham Lincoln
As a young man, Abraham Lincoln wanted nothing more than “to link his name with something that would redound [contribute] to the interest of his fellow man.”
His biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin explains how Lincoln aspired to achieve this ambition in public office.
From 1834 to 1840, he served as a congressman in the Illinois Legislature. There, Lincoln advocated for improvements to the state’s infrastructure.
However, Illinois entered an economic depression during his last three years and stopped work on many new railroads, bridges and roads.
This decline destroyed the state’s credit rating, and land values dropped. Thousands of people lost their homes, and many banks and brokerage houses also closed.
Lincoln’s Dark Moment
Now, in his early thirties, Lincoln faced personal financial struggles. His support of improving infrastructure improvements was blamed for the poor economy in Illinois. He also broke off his romantic relationship to Mary Owens because he felt unable to support her. In 1842, he decided against seeking a fifth term in the legislature.
Instead of achieving the personal and professional success he craved, Lincoln teetered on the verge of personal and professional ruin.
“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth,” he said.
“Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”
Lincoln’s depression was so bleak his friends worried he was going to commit suicide, and they removed knives, razors and scissors from his room.
Day after day, Lincoln remained bedridden, unable to eat, sleep or carry out his duties in the legislature.
“Lincoln went crazy,” his best friend Joshua Speed said.
According to Goodwin, another friend claimed, “He is reduced and emaciated in appearance.”
Lincoln’s Great Recovery
According to the Small Business Association 30% of new businesses fail during their first two years, 50% during the first five and 66% during the first 10.
If you’re recovering from a failed business, take heart from Lincoln.
Much like an entrepreneur who starts again after a failed business, Lincoln’s solution was far from a quick fix.
He formed a business partnership with the country’s leading lawyer, Stephen Logan and restarted his legal career, a process that took years.
He took advice from Logan, who said, “It does not depend on the start a man gets…it depends on how he keeps up his labors and efforts until middle life.”
Realizing his knowledge of the law was lacking, he spent hours reading and studying, often working by candlelight until 2 a.m. He worked later and got up earlier than many of his peers.
Together, they created the largest trial practice in Illinois. Lincoln became an expert in breaking down complicated legal concepts and explaining them through storytelling to jurors, an approach that served him well when he won the Republican nomination for president in 1860.
An Illinois judge said of Lincoln, “He had the happy and unusual faculty of making the jury believe they — and not he — were trying the case.”
Work, Work, Work
Lincoln’s origin story, as described in Goodwin’s book Leadership, offers a fascinating perspective on how entrepreneurs can recover from professional and personal failures. Lincoln argued the key to his later successes was “work, work, work.”
It’s true Lincoln put in more hours than his peers, but he also embraced what business coach Stephen Covey calls “sharpening the sword.”.
Lincoln spent time improving himself through deep reading, learning and self-reflection.
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