3 Things Hamilton Taught Me

A couple of months ago, I got sucked into all things Alexander Hamilton after watching a 60 Minutes piece featuring Lin Manuel Miranda, the author, creator and star of the (now Pulitzer Prize-winning) Broadway musical Hamilton.

Image credit: The Atlantic

One 800-page Chernow bio and a very expensive night at the show later, and I have a newfound respect for Alexander Hamilton and his nearly unparalleled impact on the development of our nation. My mini obsession with all things Hamilton also gave me the chance to think again about some powerful truths in life. And while these lessons aren’t new to me — and probably not to you either — it’s always good to have an excuse to reflect on and reinforce them.

Never underestimate the value of hard work

Raw talent is overrated; having perseverance is far better. But with both, and a belief in yourself, you’re virtually unstoppable as you set your mind to accomplishing anything of real value.

Hamilton got dealt a terrible hand early in life: his mother died literally in his arms when he was 12, his father abandoned him, and he was a penniless orphan on a small island in the Caribbean by the time he was a young teen. Have you ever been to Nevis? No you haven’t. You’ve never even heard of it. That’s where he was from. Despite this inhospitable start in a far off and unknown island, Hamilton earned a captain’s rank in the U.S. Army during the Revolutionary War by 20, became George Washington’s Chief of Staff by 21, and the first U.S. Treasury Secretary by 34.

He had an unyielding belief in himself, a ridiculous work ethic, and a lot of raw talent.

Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo

Hamilton had two key qualities in abundance: he was an independent thinker with the guts to stand up for his own thoughts and ideals. That’s clear from his fierce abolitionist beliefs, notable at a time when all of his fellow founding fathers owned slaves. (Cases in point: James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights, owned 100 slaves at the time of his death. Thomas Jefferson famously fathered a son with slave Sally Hemmings — and then enslaved his own child). Could he have done more? Arguably. But along with others like him, Hamilton helped pave the way for the freedom that ultimately was to come.

It can be hard — so hard — to break free of the dominant paradigm, whatever it happens to be. But it’s worth honing the skill required to question, question and question again that entrenched thinking. And if your conclusion differs from what’s accepted, it’s worth stiffening your spine to stand up for it. That’s leadership.

Too much pride is a bad thing

Sometimes it’s better to budge with a bit of wounded pride instead of sticking to your guns at all costs. Hamilton’s Achilles heel was his pride and, in the end, his downfall. Outspoken in his belief that dueling was wrong (in fact, his beloved son died at 20 in a duel), Hamilton still went to the dueling grounds to face Aaron Burr and subsequently met his demise. He was too proud to settle the dispute diplomatically, refused to back down, and it ultimately killed him.

Sometimes optimizing for the end outcome is better than stubbornly refusing to budge in the interim. A little less pride and Hamilton might have seen old age and looked back on an even more impressive career of service and leadership.

You can learn a hell of a lot from the bios of great leaders. Almost without exception, they all share a wicked combination of perseverance, hard work, and sticking to what they believe in. If you need a jolt of inspiration, pick your favorite historical leader and read the best bio you can about them. It won’t disappoint.