Helping Creative People Create

11 Lessons to Learn From Honest Abe, the Bumbling Entrepreneur


Photo by navycrackerjack74

It’s funny how most people believe the late Abraham Lincoln is one of the best examples of perseverance. It’s true, he’s an incredible success story. A kid born in backwoods Kentucky worked hard, became educated and eventually became the President of the United States. Pretty incredible.

However, most people think that the most fascinating aspect of Lincoln’s was that he constantly failed at life, but kept pushing on despite his circumstances. This is partly true, Lincoln did face many challenges in his life that he overcame. However, Americans have somewhat glorified the image of Lincoln as a symbol of perseverance. It turns out Lincoln didn’t have as many disastrous failures as folklore would let us believe.

The most compelling part of Lincoln’s life isn’t that he was constantly persevering. There are tons of examples of people who overcame obstacles to find success.  No, the most fascinating aspect of Lincoln was how he consistently put himself in a position to succeed.

Many people overlook this trait when it comes to success. They attribute Lincoln’s being elected as President as circumstance, that he was in the “right place at the right time”. This is 100% true. However, how did he get to that place? Successful people do things every day to put themselves into a successful position.

“I will prepare and some day my chance will come.” – Abraham Lincoln


So in order to learn from the master, lets look at ways Lincoln lived that put himself into a successful position.

1. Carry your notes with you

Lincoln was famous for his large top hat, perched on top of his towering 6′ 4″ frame. His top hat was also famous for another thing: keeping notes inside of it. Lincoln was constantly scribbling notes to himself and stowing the notes in his top hat, so as not to forget his thoughts.

Ideas never seem to come at the most opportune time, and Mr. Lincoln must have known this well. Keeping track of ideas and managing idea capture is essential to any entrepreneur. Take Mr. Lincoln’s advice and always keep some device handy for capturing ideas: a scrap of paper, an iPhone, or a moleskine. Anything that allows you to save the idea long enough to revisit it later.

president lincoln hard work
Source: Wikipedia
2. Learn the value of hard work

“Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” – Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln was an incredibly hard worker throughout his life. Not only did he understand the value of hard work, he also realized that it’s not necessarily the best part of life. “My father taught me to work; he did not teach me to love it.” Many times entrepreneurs look to find the quickest way to make a buck. This kind of success only happens 99.9% of the time. It takes working hard at something for a long time before you start to see success.

3. Didn’t fret about formalities

The President had a hard time with formalities, especially when it came to fashion. He despised dressing up in things like suits and gloves, and was much more comfortable walking barefoot around the White House (a social no-no). For this behavior Abe was constantly called names like “ogre” from the more genteel folk of the time.

So many times we’re worried about the formalities of creating a startup: hiring lawyers, moving to The Valley, thinking about scaling, getting staff in place… the list could go on. Instead of worrying about what everyone expects you to, just start creating. All of the formalities and will fall into place later.

4. Live fearlessly

Directly after the Union had taken the Confederate capitol of Richmond Virgina at the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln marched with a handful of men into the capitol city, the heart of the enemies territory. The night of his assassination at Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln denied a large security detail to accompany him to play. Even though he knew he would probably be assassinated at some point, he wasn’t about to live his life in fear because of it. It was this same attitude that allowed a relatively unknown politician to run and win the office of the President.

Fear is a crippling thing, especially to the entrepreneur. There are always a billion things that could go wrong. You just might fail. But you’ll never know until you try.

5. Don’t be afraid to laugh and play

If Lincoln knew how to work hard, he knew how to play even harder. Abe always made time to play with his children, even while commanding the most stressful and gut-wrenching war the U.S. has ever seen. There are many tales of the President playing with his children on the White House lawn or chasing the children through the White House.

If you can’t have fun working on your own ideas, then why bother? Many times entrepreneurs take themselves way too seriously. It is, after all, just work.

6. Brush off criticism

Even compared to the current President, Lincoln was criticized considerably more. It seemed like everyone had problems with his policy. Yet Lincoln still managed to brush off criticism like a seasoned pro. For example, once Lincoln was accused of being two-faced. In response, he simply stated “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”

Entrepreneurs get plenty of criticism for their ideas. Yet we can’t take it personally. Sometimes the best way to handle of criticism is to either ignore it orbrush it off with a quick joke. At the same time, we have to be open to constructive criticism. These criticisms will help us shape and fine-tune our ideas into something better.

abraham lincoln with family
Source: Wikipedia
7. Spend time with friends and family

Often we entrepreneurs get so caught up in our own little worlds that we forget to spend time with those closest to us. So many entrepreneurs do anything (yes, even drugs) to stay awake and work hours Chuck Norris himself couldn’t live up to. Lincoln was one of the busiest men in the country during his presidency, yet he still made friends and family a priority. Lincoln knew the importance of disconnecting and interacting with the people who care most about us. Hanging with friends and family helps refill your tank and keeps us grounded.

8. Don’t be afraid to fail

While this may be one of the most trumpeted aspects of Lincoln’s life, he still did fail quite a bit.    “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.Failure is essential to any entrepreneur. It builds character and allows you to see what won’t work. Another famous president Teddy Roosevelt once said that “There is no effort without error and shortcoming”. It’s not until you fail that you show your true colors.

9. Keep Reading and Learning

Everyone knows the story of Lincoln doing his schoolwork by candlelight in his boyhood home, taking his schoolwork into his own hands. Yet many may not know that Lincoln was an avid reader and took time out his stressful day to read Shakespeare and other classic literature. During the Summer of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, Abe could be found with the Iliad in his hand. He knew that staying sharp meant learning about things unrelated to politics.

10. Simple is almost always best

The Gettysburg Address is one of the best examples of simplicity in politics. Given at a dedication to the Soldier’s National Cemetery, Lincoln followed a 2-hour speech by orator Edward Everett. The Gettysburg Address clocked in at just over 2 minutes, yet became the most quoted speeches in U.S. history.

More often than not, the simplest solution is the best solution. Don’t spend13,000 words on a speech, when you can say it more effectively in 271 (in the case of Lincoln and Everett).

11. Don’t fear adversity

Lincoln never shied away from controversy. He was once quoted as saying “No matter how much the cats fight, there always seem to be plenty of kittens.” And he was exactly right.  You’ll never please everyone. There will always be critics to what you do. Sticking to your guns and following your heart is what defines who you are and will shape your success in the future.

“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing.” – Abraham Lincoln

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  • craig_sadler

    Great post thank you for taking the time to put it together.

  • http://www.mattdestefano.com Matt DeStefano

    Great post. I think we all can learn something from ol' Abe. I recently started my own blog and found this very inspiring as to what I would like to accomplish with my own writing.

    Thanks! Keep up the good work!

  • http://www.levnow.com/blog Tabs

    Great post, pearls of wisdom, you would think most of us would know these things. What is most fascinating about it is the fact that the same things that applied during the life of Abe Lincoln are still applicable today. It is so important for us to have guiding principles tin our life, thanks for sharing a couple more I can add to my life.

    Cheers,

  • smalltownwriter

    This is a really good list of some of Abe's best traits. Then again, I learned everything I know about business from Gary Busey (http://www.youtube.com/user/garybuseyonbusiness). If you watch some of those tips they're an interesting kind of distaff to these (haha).

    I think that with all the myths circulating our public school systems nowadays it's easy to lose track of the fact that our founding fathers were just men; extraordinary in some cases, maybe, but men with the many of the same day-to-day problems we have. Although it's fictionalized, there's a good older movie called “Young Mr. Lincoln” that tries to show the politician as more of an industrious, good spirited American than a god of perseverance.

  • Scott McIntyre

    This is an interesting look at what factors help contribute to success, Glen.

    I knew little of the actual background of how Lincoln became such a well-respected politician.

    The best thing is that the lessons are still applicable in today's world. Some basic entrepreneurial qualities never change, despite the advent of new technology and business practices.

  • http://shanelyang.com/blogs/articles/ Shanel Yang

    Lincoln is one of my greatest heroes. A true visionary! Since your post is relating lessons from his life for entrepreneurs, I thought I'd add a link to a quick questionnaire for folks interested in possibly starting their own businesses. It tests for mindset, personality, and business idea called “Future Entrepreneurs Test” at http://shanelyang.com/2008/07/04/future-enterpr

  • http://www.google.com Bob

    Great post, but you state,

    “Many times entrepreneurs look to find the quickest way to make a buck. This kind of success only happens 99.9% of the time. It takes working hard at something for a long time before you start to see success.”

    Did you mean to state that “this kind of success only happens 99.9% of the time” ? ..or should it be that this kind of success FAILS 99.9% of the time??

  • http://www.google.com Bob

    Great post, but you state,

    “Many times entrepreneurs look to find the quickest way to make a buck. This kind of success only happens 99.9% of the time. It takes working hard at something for a long time before you start to see success.”

    Did you mean to state that “this kind of success only happens 99.9% of the time” ? ..or should it be that this kind of success FAILS 99.9% of the time??

  • http://www.successprofessor.ca The Success Professor

    Good article.

    I wonder though about #4. “Live fearlessly” certainly is a valuable success principle, however the example of not taking a security detail to the theater is not – it is just foolish. Having a security detail was not going to take away from his enjoyment of the performance, nor was it going to limit his effectiveness in any way. Live fearlessly, but wisely.

  • http://smm-strategist.com amnigos

    I really liked this post very much , pretty close to my current state of life , failed in a startup , failed in relationship etc but life is about how you handle your failures to pay way for success and it happens when you have perseverance.

  • http://ebaysellingcoach.blogspot.com/ Suzanne Wells

    #2 is where we are losing the young people today! A respectful work ethic is what will take you places in life. Waiting for good things wil just leave you waiting!

    I live my life by #8. And I don't call them failures, but learning opportunities. When something doesn't work, that just means you must change direction in some way and move on to another idea. It took Edison 10,000 tries (or something like that) to get the light bulb to work. That says something about his persistence and determination.

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  • http://yinvsyang.com Christopher

    Great Post. Its supsected that Abe Lincoln Had Marfans Syndrome, Its a disease that effects the joints and connective tissue. It made his posture extremely poor. Even with this he still manage to work super hard run the country and a war!

  • http://enjoyparenting.blogspot.com Michael@Awareness * Connection

    Great post. Nice to hear a new angle on Abe. Our history does tend to get into ruts with little inspiring stories, whether true or not, with Lincoln's being tales of perseverance against all odds.

    I love the mention of his hat. Between the top hat and his height that must have been one imposing figure. And it occurs to me now that this was the original GTD hat. Why aren't we seeing the giant top hat hack on our GTD sites?

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  • lopside

    thx man this realy helped me!

  • lopside

    thx man this realy helped me!

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