Lessons from a Teenage Lincoln


My great concern is not whether you have failed, 

but whether you are content with your failure. 

– Abraham Lincoln

Like everyone else trolling for insight into the President-Elect’s political brain, I am joining the District of Columbia in brushing up on my Lincoln studies, starting with David Herbert Donald’s magnificent biography. Obama has made it clear that Abe tops his list of political mentors. Resurrecting the Team of Rivals is likely just the beginning. 

Lincoln the man has captivated the country since his improbable arrival on the national stage, for obvious reasons. Among his strengths was a remarkable ability to unleash the talent of other people, an ability that few other people with oval or any-other-shape offices have been able to match, and one that’s rising on the list of leadership essentials. Gone are the days when we could rely on a few wise men for national renewal, if we ever really could. Leadership today is a burden of the many. 

Lincoln the boy, I’m discovering, also has a surprising amount to teach us. Lincoln failed early and often and sometimes dramatically. As the life coaching industry has trumpeted for years, he stumbled painfully in business, politics and love. He had a difficult relationship with his father and fought his way through severe bouts of depression.

A widely circulated summary of his road to the White House looks something like this:

  • 1831-Lost job
  • 1832-Defeated in run for Illinois State Legislature
  • 1833-Failed in business
  • 1834-Elected to Illinois State Legislature
  • 1835-Love of his life died
  • 1836-Nervous breakdown
  • 1839-Defeated in run for Illinois House Speaker
  • 1843-Defeated in run for nomination for U.S. Congress
  • 1846-Elected to U.S. Congress
  • 1848-Lost re-nomination
  • 1849-Rejected for land officer position
  • 1854-Defeated in run for U.S. Senate
  • 1856-Defeated in run for nomination for Vice President
  • 1858-Defeated in second run for U.S. Senate
  • 1860-Elected President

Donald’s Lincoln prepares for this run by learning how to fail at a young age. He learns how to lose gracefully, to pull the insight out of setbacks, to start over without dragging too much of the past with him. He refuses to let failure cripple him, and he refuses to let his shortcomings reduce his extraordinary ambition. Young Abraham is a winner, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.  It’s a rare marriage of humility and audacity.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: