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The 4 Things You Can Learn from Lincoln’s Mid-Life Crisis

They'll help you in the crisis that is 2020.

Nothing was going as he’d hoped. The dream of governing that had sustained Abe Lincoln through a bleak youth he now saw, at age 40, in 1849, and after a term in Congress, to be a venal and hollow nightmare. He’d accomplished nothing in the House of Representatives. He had become friendly with President Taylor but Taylor then passed over Lincoln for the cabinet position Lincoln wanted — Land Office Commissioner — because Lincoln dared to question Taylor on his handling of the Mexican-American War. Taylor demanded fealty, and so the Land Office post went to another man in 1848. That job carried within it Lincoln’s lifelong hope of building the roads that would develop the poor communities in Illinois he’d served, communities so similar to the ones he’d known as a boy in Kentucky. He had spent his life wanting to leave his mark on the lives of everyone, and now back in Illinois, without public office or prestige, Lincoln despaired over how little he’d done in his decade in politics. “I hardly ever felt so bad about any failure in my life,” he wrote, and this from a man who had a few years earlier felt so bad about life that friends took away any knives he owned.

Now, as he roamed his house, Lincoln was in the deepest depression of his career. He didn’t think he would ever return to government.

Law was the other thing he knew. But cases had grown more complex in his political absence. They reflected the budding maturation of the country. Over his career Lincoln had made good money as an attorney, which meant he could perhaps fake an expertise now, maybe cash in on what little caché he had. He could learn what he needed to learn and get by, live days of quiet steadiness, a man of no notable standing but a provider for his family. That was at least more than his own father had been.

He didn’t like that option either, so he started again with what he knew. He was 40 years old and without direction or purpose. If he was going to do good work in any field he would need to dig deep within the wet viscera of his life and look critically at everything he pulled out, and from all angles.

The choice he made was the hardest one before him. We often lionize resilience in the face of adversity but there was something else, something more essential, going on with Lincoln’s self-assessment during his midlife crisis. It’s an approach we can all follow now, in a crisis that’ll define the rest of our lives. What we can learn from Lincoln will help us in our time.


Lesson № 1: Above all, drop the bullshit. Be honest about who you are.

We hear all the time how the key to success is to work hard, have patience, show resolve. It’s true. You need these traits. Lincoln had them too: As a young law student he’d walk 20 miles to get one law book on loan, walk home and read it, then walk 20 miles back to the library to get another.

What he needed now, at 40, as he returned to his legal practice, was bracing honesty. He had been proud of his self-education — and because of it had founded a firm — but that self-education still left large gaps in his understanding of the law. Lincoln saw these voids as he analyzed his life. At 40, despite his success, he said to himself, “I am not an accomplished lawyer.”

To become one, he effectively put himself through law school again, a curriculum that, in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s words, “extended well beyond the practical parameters of the law.” He studied philosophy, astronomy, science, political economy, history, literature poetry and drama. Why do all this? Lincoln knew that if he were to represent clients in ever-more nuanced cases, he would need a better understanding of the world. Most people in the same circumstance would just study legal precedent but Lincoln was not most people. He went to work during the day, spent time with his family in the early evening, then studied until 2 am. Math was the hardest for him. He broke down the theorems into their simplest parts and persisted, “almost to the point of exhaustion,” he said, until he had “nearly mastered the Six Books of Euclid.”

“The diligence and studiousness [Lincoln] exhibited during this period of introspection would have been remarkable in a young student,” Kearns Goodwin wrote. “In a man of forty it was astounding.”

What set it in motion? Searing objectivity, a principle that surfaces throughout the rest of Lincoln’s life, his ability to assess his failures and especially his “successes” with honesty.

In other words, Lincoln had the ability to look at his life without the filter of his ego. As a result the rest of that life was drastically different than Lincoln’s first 40 years.

You want to lead a good life today? Don’t blame others for your failures. Don’t tell yourself lies about your successes. Look at your life objectively. Improve where you need improving.

Lesson № 2: Apply your education in the broader world.

You and I may not see any link between Euclidean geometry and 19-century American case law, but Lincoln did. In this period of his second education he noticed he could break down a case’s complexity much as he broke down his math problems: stripping them to their simplest form, and trying to understand each element before moving on to the next. He carried this approach to the courtroom. In front of juries he presented his cases simply, and when he saw that the jurors understood one point, he moved on to the next and slightly more complex one. The end result was an “uncanny ability,” Kearns Goodwin wrote, to leave jurors believing they, and not Lincoln, were trying his cases. He won far more often than he lost in this period.

You see the broad application of what he learned in his notes from that era as well. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act troubled him, and so one day he went to the Illinois state library to research slavery. Historians would note this as the first time Lincoln really engaged with the question of slavery on the page. His notes to himself had a mathematical clarity to them, a kind of If This, Then That logic:

“If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B, why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally that he may enslave A? You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly? You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.”

Honed through his study of mathematics, Lincoln’s “theorem” on slavery showed the ridiculousness of any pro-slavery argument. And because Lincoln’s points were so logical, he soon found himself evangelizing on their behalf.

The takeaway for you in 2020: Everything you learn in life can and should become material for everything else you encounter. Problems in your career or business will always surface. The best solutions, psychologists have found, often come from your life outside your strict expertise. Be a sponge with your education and soon you’ll see associations and a more creative and efficient life where others see nothing.

As the writer and director Nora Ephron once put it: “Everything is material.”

Remember that and you’ll expand your circle of influence and your opportunities.

Lesson № 3: Be open to ideas that seem dangerous.

Lincoln spent his early political life intent on helping people like himself: Poor whites from the country who didn’t have access to the rail or roadways of the broadening America. But once he began in middle age to really question slavery, he couldn’t stop. The questions nagged at him, frightened him even. He mulled them constantly and his life’s purpose widened. He started to; a) seriously consider re-entering politics because he wanted to; b) run on a platform that valued all human existence.

A person of lesser courage would have perhaps ignored this new and animating ambition — it was so different, so dangerous even, from what had driven him in the past. But Lincoln listened to the novel impulses and acted on them.

That first day in the state library became many, Lincoln poring over U.S. Code and philosophical and religious tracts on morality. He wanted to understand not only the legal and historic claims for slavery but their opposite: the charters for freedom, from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence. Document by document, book by book, he developed a new and expansive worldview.

When he debuted it, during his 1858 run for Senate, and particularly in the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, the public was stunned. What Lincoln argued was somewhat foreign to them but he was eloquent and persuasive and just knew so much about slavery. How did Abe Lincoln know so much about slavery?

Simple: He refused to walk along the narrow path of his old convictions. He pursued new ideas because they energized him, because they scared him.

“Always do what you are afraid to do,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. Often the best pursuit is the one that terrifies us a little. The very fact that it terrifies us is actually the reason to do it. It will give us new life.

Lesson № 4: The truth won’t set you free. But courage will.

For the union, the aim of the early years of the Civil War was to bring the secessionist South back into the nation. That was the goal. Even Lincoln said as much.

He said it to gather support for the Union army and navy. He said it because it was in his political interest to say it, but by 1862 he could no longer ignore the greater truth: Slavery must be abolished. That was the real point, the only point, in fighting this war. When he first proposed the idea of an emancipation proclamation, even his own cabinet thought it was too radical. Lincoln persisted; he knew slavery was America’s greatest sin. He also saw the moment with a clarity few held, an objectivity he’d gained and then practiced over the past 15 years: A civil war that didn’t end slavery would only start more civil wars.

Shrewd political operative that he was, Lincoln pitched his objective and moral righteousness in the language of military might. An Emancipation Proclamation would cripple the South, he said. White men who joined the Confederacy often went off to fight and left their slaves to tend their fields and farms. Lincoln’s pitch was to free the slaves so that they might head North. Once they did, the Confederate economy would be in free fall — who would farm the land? — and the Confederate Army would be undermanned and overmatched, because those tens of thousands of freed slaves could fight for the Union.

It was a brilliant argument. It was also the culmination of everything he’d learned over the previous 15 years: how to understand himself, and the world around him, and how to move toward the hard truth of a better life with courage. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, he said: “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do by signing this paper. If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”

He was right. The Emancipation Proclamation changed everything about the war, and then everything about America. Lincoln knew the truth, but he had to find the bravery to act on it to make that truth a reality for everyone.

We can do the same today. Knowledge is power only when we act on it.

Look, crises like a global pandemic and worldwide recession scare us. They should. People are dying. Millions are on the brink of economic ruin.

But whatever crisis this worldwide crisis creates in your life, remember that you can find solutions to your problems much as Lincoln did. You can look at your life without ego and with complete honesty. You can improve it through education. You can embrace new ideas because they’re terrifying. You can put those new ideas into practice as an act of will, which is really an act of bravery.

Lincoln came from nothing and suffered setbacks deep into middle age. And still he rose to the presidency, the greatest our nation has known.

What he set out and accomplished in his life, we can set out and accomplish in ours.


New to my blog? I'm an award-winning journalist and best-selling author. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I'm now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.


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