It’s that time of year when we’re reminded of the life of one of the most famous people in the history of modern civilization. What follows is a little history and a lot of inspiration.
Earthlings in every country on the planet have heard of the American who was born dirt-poor in a log cabin on the frontier, 2011 years ago this week. Even if they don’t know why, people know the name Abraham Lincoln. And for good reason. Besides almost three dozen Lincoln monuments (including internationally), there are over 600 schools, dozens of cities and counties, and no less than a gazillion streets, parks, buildings, and sculptures celebrating this great man’s iconic name and countenance.
As the 16th president of the United States of America, it’s generally accepted that Lincoln’s leadership during one of the greatest conflicts in human history was a profile in courageous genius. Even though the American Civil War was horrendous and the post-war era harsh, prolonged and contentious, both resulted in the successful reassembly of the United States – sans slavery. When you consider the blessing that the re-United States became to the world for the past century and a half, it’s no leap of logic that Lincoln is recognized as one of the most important individuals in the history of Western Civilization.
As an unlikely leader, Lincoln was a risk-taker, which makes his story especially poignant for a special group of contemporary risk-takers – small business owners. At every waypoint along the ownership continuum, from startup to locking up for the last time, Main Street business owners can draw strength and inspiration from the uncomplicated witness of Lincoln’s scrupulous character and fierce leadership.
But ironically, as much as Lincoln’s accomplishments have set him on a lofty pedestal, it’s his hard times that have most inspired generations of both leaders and followers. Indeed, nothing less than respect and admiration manifests when one considers the long list of painful personal tragedies and humiliating professional setbacks and failures through which Lincoln persevered on the way to achieving greatness. For example:
- Lincoln failed in business in 1831 and again in 1833. Without the protection of modern bankruptcy laws, he lost every asset he owned – a horse and survey gear – and was required to repay 100% of the debt – $1,000 – over 17 years.
- He was defeated for Illinois state legislator in 1832.
- His fiancee died in 1835.
- He had a nervous breakdown in 1836.
- In 1843 and ’48, Lincoln ran for Congress and lost both times.
- His U.S. Senate aspirations were no better, losing in 1855 and ’59.
- He ran for Vice President in 1856 and lost.
- His wife, Mary Todd, had a medical condition that manifested in mental and emotional instability.
- He buried two of his four beloved sons.
- Finally, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President, as America’s house divided and dissolved into what he termed in his now-legendary Gettysburg Address, “a great civil war.”
Reading this list, one is overwhelmed in at least two ways: sadness that any one person would experience so much misfortune, and admiration that in the face of such adversity, anyone could recover to accomplish so much on the way to greatness.
As 2020 unfolds, if you’re ever tempted to whine because the world licked the red off your candy, reread the list of Lincoln’s setbacks. After that, you’re likely to feel two other emotions: shame that you allowed yourself to lapse into a self-involved pity party, and renewed perseverance, now realizing that, like Lincoln, every new day you get to work on your business and life could be the day you turn the corner and win the war.
Lincoln taught us that the difference between bold accomplishment and painful setback is often summoning the courage, character, and diligence to persevere. Let his life – the good and the unfortunate – inspire yours. Who knows? It might lead you to inspire others on the way to achieving greatness.
Write this on a rock … And remember, Lincoln’s humor – even during his most trying times – is also legendary.