Abraham Lincoln and Growth Mindset

I've been listening to Team of Rivals, a book about Abraham Lincoln and his rivals turned advisors, by Doris Kearns Goodwin and it has been absolutely excellent. Today I heard something that made me stop what I was doing and start taking notes. Goodwin shares a story about Abraham Lincoln that I had never heard but made me admire him more.

Lincoln and the McCormick-Manny Case

In 1855 Lincoln had a relatively failed political career and was practicing law in Springfield, Illinois. A major patent law case related to two types of reapers was going to be tried in Springfield. The outcome of the trial was going to have major national implications so the very best lawyers were hired to represent each side. The big shot lawyers working for one of the sides decided to hire a local Springfield lawyer who might have some measure of influence over the judge presiding over the trial. That lawyer was Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln realized this trial might be a make or break opportunity for him to move his career forward. He absolutely threw himself into preparation for the trial -- working intensely for months and traveling to Rockford to learn more about the technology central to the case. At some point, however, the case was moved to Cincinatti. Since it was no longer happening in Illinois the lawyers who were running the case had no need for Lincoln. Except nobody actually told Lincoln his services were no longer needed. So, he travelled to Cincinatti under the assumption that he was still going to be part of the team taking part in the trial. When he arrived, however, he was essentially patted on the head and sent on his way. They had no need for all the work he did and never even opened the brief that he had worked on so arduously.

How did Lincoln react to this colossal slap in the face?

Did he turn around and go home to Illinois? No.

Did he make a scene and call attention to the injustice he was facing? No.

Lincoln stayed in Cincinnati and watched the trial from the audience. He listened closely to each speaker and took note of how these highly trained lawyers crafted their cases and built their arguments with ironclad logic. He didn't stick around to enjoy the potential schadenfreude of watching the men who miffed him fail; he stuck around to learn about what it takes to be a high caliber lawyer. Lincoln never attended law school and was frankly astonished at what he watched in the trial. These highly trained men were far better lawyers than Lincoln considered himself.

At the end of the trial Lincoln told one of his new friends that he was going back home to Springfield to study law. He said that these college-trained lawyers from the east were heading west and although he was a good enough lawyer to handle the relatively simple and minor cases of the backcountry, he was no match for the lawyers trained in the east. He resolved himself to be prepared for when they arrived. He studied. He pushed himself to prepare his speeches more carefully. He basically used this extremely negative experience as a catalyst to improve himself.

Growth Mindset in Historical Action

Hearing this story left me incredibly impressed with the mindset and work ethic of Lincoln. I don't know that I could've responded so positively and productively to such a setback. Stories like this certainly help me better understand how he was able to be so effective as president despite his paucity of traditional schooling.

Where have you experienced something like this in your life? Did you respond like Lincoln? Do you wish you could have responded differently?

A story like this is a perfect example of what it looks like to have a growth mindset. Having a growth mindset means that you think of your intelligence and abilities as things you can develop and grow with practice. Lincoln re-framed this situation as an opportunity for him to learn and made the most out of a pretty crummy situation. Instead of leaving Cincinnati utterly demoralized and upset, he left with a renewed sense of purpose and vigor to improve himself.

We all face versions of this situation on an almost daily basis. How we respond to negative situations says a lot about who we are as people and a lot about how we view ourselves. Almost anything can be a learning opportunity if you approach it with the mindset. Thinking about it another way, not treating everything like a learning opportunity seems like a colossal waste of time. Positive or negative, important or unimportant, every situation has something which can be extracted and applied to our work and lives. Like Lincoln, we just have to get better at recognizing and taking advantage of those opportunities.


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Photo by Gage Skidmore