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

The Surprisingly Hopeful Upside of the Milgram Experiments

Nowadays there are certain hoops you have to (rightfully) jump through when you want to conduct a psychological experiment involving human participants. The impetus for those hoops are a couple of infamous experiments that most people who have taken an introduction to psychology class will be familiar with. One of those infamous experiments was conducted by an individual named Stanley Milgram.

Milgram was interested in the phenomenon of authority and whether people would follow orders even when it went against their own moral code or values. To test this phenomenon, he set up an experiment where a participant would be given the task of trying to teach another individual. When the learner got an answer wrong, the participant was instructed to flip a lever that administered a shock to the learner. There was a series of levers in front of the participant that were clearly labelled with increasing amounts of voltage. What the participant didn't know was that the learner was actually an actor and they weren't truly being shocked. It sure sounded and looked like it, though.

Milgram wanted to see how far people would go in shocking the learner. At the highest few levels of voltage the learner would be screaming and begging the participant to stop shocking them. Eventually, they would go silent, giving the impression they passed out or even died from the shocks. Milgram would be in the same room as the participant and wearing his official looking white lab coat. When a participant would experience unease Milgram would use the following four cues:

  • Please continue.
  • The experiment requires that you continue.
  • It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  • You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. 

The results are very well known and quite distressing. The vast majority of people who participated in the experiment went all the way to the end, delivering the most violent shock three times in succession.  At this point it would appear that the learner had passed out, or possibly even died.

The Milgram Experiment, With a Twist

All of this is actually to set up what I really wanted to talk about and something I wasn't aware of until a few weeks ago. Milgram did many different replications and variations of this study. While Milgram's overall study a very distressing look at the human mind and what pain we are willing to inflict upon each other even with a relatively minor amount of official pressure, there was one variation that is incredibly hopeful.

In this variation the participant would be sitting in a waiting room while the person before them finished up the experiment. However, this "participant" was actually an actor and his role was to refuse to go on with the experiment once he realized he was "hurting" another human being (who, remember, was also an actor). When it was the actual participant's turn to be in the study the likelihood of them continuing all the way to the end dropped substantially. Apparently, seeing someone else be willing to stand up for what's right emboldened the participant to do the same thing. Whereas 65 out of 100 participants went all the way to the end and administered the massive shock in the original experiment, when there was an example of someone standing up and refusing to go further only 4 out of 40 went all the way to the end.

Positive Deviance: Do You Have It?

I don't want to beat you over the head with the implications of this because I think they're pretty clear. Where can you stand up and be a positive example to someone today? It's pretty clear we are constantly  scanning our environments for cures about how we're supposed to act. What kind of positive cues can you provide for your kids, your friends, your colleagues, or your employees? What status quo rubs you the wrong way and what small thing can you do to show others it's okay to feel, speak, or act in the opposite direction?

In one of the most eye-opening and distressing psychological experiments of all time there is a dollop of hope. You can be the domino that starts a positive chain reaction. In a world of conformity a few conspicuous non-conformists can have a huge impact. Is that you?

* I heard this story during a talk given by Dr. Phil Zimbardo in November of last year. That name might be familiar because of an eerily similar experiment he did...

Developing Your "Personal Development Gospel of Wealth"

Andrew Carnegie, the late 19th and early 20th century American businessman, followed a philosophy he called The Gospel of Wealth. He became fabulously wealthy through the the steel industry and decided to do something that had never been done by anyone of similar financial stature. Instead of hoarding his earnings and setting up a family trust fund, like most millionaires of his time, Carnegie decided to try to give away all of his money before he died. In fact, once he retired from business giving away his money became his full-time job (and actually employed several other people as well). He donated the money necessary for thousands of libraries, theaters, church organs, and a myriad of other buildings and services. He knew that this was going to be his goal while he was making his millions so his guiding philosophy, his “Gospel of Wealth,” was to make as much money as possible in order to give away as much money as possible. The irony of suppressing employees, reducing wages, and breaking strikes (often violently) in order to make more money which he eventually gave away anyway in services for his employees and other poor people is not lost on me. However, the guiding principle, being as successful as possible in order to return that success back into society, is what fascinates me.

I've been trying to live by my own version of the Gospel of Wealth. I don't think I'll ever be in the position of funding thousands of libraries and having so much money that my full-time employment is giving it away. However, I am spending my life dedicated to the acquisition of something. Instead of money, I'm interested in accumulating a life of distinction and value. My dedication is to helping people live as consciously as possible. To achieve that end, I have to be dedicated to the idea of personal development. In fact, you could say that I have my own Personal Development Gospel of Wealth. My aim is to grow and learn as much as possible in order to return that growth and knowledge back to society. If we all lived with the idea of the Personal Development Gospel of Wealth close to our hearts, we'd all be working toward making the world a better place in our own unique way.


For example, I’m currently learning as much as possible about being a great life coach. By learning the principles of effective coaching through books, experience, observation, and other learning opportunities I'm both growing as an individual and becoming a more effective conduit for positive change in my environment.

The wide variety of interests and skills that we all have allow this Gospel of Wealth to provide for nearly every aspect of life in our society. People have passions for art, writing, building, customer service, making money, answering difficult questions, and finding cures for diseases. I'm continually amazed at what some people are passionate about. But just because I can't imagine being excited about ants doesn't mean somebody else isn't. And that's awesome. That's what makes the Personal Development Gospel of Wealth so powerful.


This entire concept is connected to the idea of locating your strengths and then focusing your effort into improving them even more. I’m a huge proponent of improving weaknesses to the point where they aren’t detrimental but reserving true and focused effort for making your strengths truly world class.

I encourage you to be like Andrew Carnegie and his Gospel of Wealth. Do everything you can to grow and learn as much as possible in order to return that growth and knowledge back into society through gifts of your own personal genius. You have something that nobody else does. It’s up to you to figure out what it is, how to grow it, and then share it with somebody else. However, just because it's up to you, doesn't mean you have to do it on your own. There are people who want to help you unlock your abilities. Truly, it may seem like an altruistic act to help somebody improve themselves. But, a world full of people doing what they love, and doing it well, is quite selfishly a better world for me.

Personally, that’s what renews my faith in humanity and makes it a little bit easier to get up every morning. I’m excited to share with you and I’m even more excited to see what you have to share with me.



Obliviousness Is Not a Valid Path to Simplicity

I firmly believe that limiting the amount of information that you face is a great way to simplify your life. I also firmly believe that having a good understanding of major world events and issues is very important. These two ideas can come into conflict with each other quite easily. In fact, I've seen many minimalists write about how they don't follow world events or the news at all. It's almost a point of pride to be completely oblivious to what is going on in the world. Every time I read that particular piece of advice I cringe. The social studies teacher inside me won't let me forego understanding and following world events in the name of greater simplicity.

I should probably back up and give some credit where it's due. I realize that most of my colleagues aren't advocating complete obliviousness to what is going on around us. They are wary of being sucked into the need of checking news websites all day long or leaving CNN on the T.V. for hours on end. I support that sentiment. Nobody needs to stay that connected to what's going on in the world. However, I do think many of my colleagues understate the importance of being informed and educated about more than just what is happening in your own small sphere of influence.


An understanding of the world and the dynamics within it adds important aspects to our lives. Becoming obsessed with that which you cannot control isn't healthy, but neither is obliviousness to the travails and problems of the world around you.


Knowing about conflicts happening across the world will help you build empathy for other humans. But only if you go beyond being aware of conflicts and move into understanding the issues surrounding them. Geographically we may be spread very far apart but the things that you care about, living a fulfilling life, having your natural rights respected and protected, supporting and providing for your family, are the same regardless of nationality or culture. The protests in the Middle East may be happening on the other side of the world but they are made up of people who care very deeply about topics that you likely care about, too.

We risk shutting off our capacity to empathize with others when we disregard the events they are living through.


The majority of people who read this blog, and people in the United States in general, are some sort of "knowledge worker." Knowledge worker is just a fancy way to say that you interact with information and somehow add to or modify it in some way as to make it useful. Most of us aren't standing behind a workbench producing physical items any more. Whether you think that's a positive or negative thing is not relevant, but you can thank the Industrial Revolution for that particular social change.

When you are a knowledge worker, the only thing you have that separates you from somebody else is your unique perspective. Your educational background, your biases, your personality and your relevant knowledge is what you apply to your work everyday. Being aware of the larger world and understanding the issues that permeate it stretches your perspective. This is tied to the idea of empathy, but broadening your perspective to include the viewpoints and concerns of people other than your close friends and neighbors will only serve to improve your ability to do great work.

Perhaps you think I'm really grasping at straws here by arguing that an understanding of world events will improve your work, but I think it's a salient point. You never know when or how your knowledge  of the world will apply to your work -- especially when that work is something like writing, teaching, or something equally abstract.


Lastly, staying up to date with the world will improve your ability to think critically. Thinking critically refers to the idea of weighing multiple sources of information and deciding if they are relevant and accurate. For many people, thinking critically is a skill that has laid dormant for a long time. When you begin to accept as truth whatever you see on TV or everything you read you give up the sovereignty of the mind that distinguishes you as a human.

Thinking critically is something that must be practiced and honed over time and there is not a better arena than the propaganda-laden world of news media. It's not easy to figure out what is truth and what is spin, but that doesn't mean it's not worth the effort.


When I advocate staying up to date with world affairs, I must clarify the time frame of what I'm talking about. You don't need a minute by minute feed of information. I don't even think a daily checkup is particularly important under normal circumstances. I'm talking about understanding the large and recurring themes and problems that are present in different areas of the world. Almost every conflict that you hear about in the news has a historical basis that is well established. Understanding that historical basis is the key to understanding current events today -- not checking an RSS feed every hour.


Long articles and essays generally treat topics of importance with a greater attention to detail and nuance than short articles or clips. A well-written essay will explore many different aspects and sides to a story which makes it easier for you to digest critically. Some of the best sources for long form articles include Longreads and The Browser. If you have a mobile device, the app Instapaper has single handedly done more for my reading than anything else.


As I mentioned earlier, most world events are not spontaneous. They are usually rooted in a deep history. Most of the conflicts in the Middle East, for example can be attributed to a handful of different historical events: The split of the Islamic religion, the mandate system at the end of World War I, the creation of the modern state of Israel (which in itself is borne out of it's own unique history). Nearly everything can be explained by first looking at the past. Brush up on your history, whether that's as simple as Googling for some information about something you don't understand, checking some books out of your local library, or taking a class at a community college -- the information is available if you care to find it.


I rarely watch news on the television. Part of that is the fact that I don't have cable TV in my apartment and part of it is because I know most news television is utter crap. That which attracts viewers (and thus advertisers) is very rarely that which is actually important to understand. Bloodshed, sex, and celebrities make for so-called interesting TV but they are not the holy trifecta of important information you need to know. A more rational way to get a sampling of world events is to check a handful of news websites every couple days. For example, I regularly peruse BBC, CNN, Fox News, and Al-Jazeera. I try to select a wide array of sites so that I'm not exposed to only one type of bias -- even if I happen to disagree with the way they lean politically.


Living a life of simplicity does not mean living a life of obliviousness. Putting your hands over your ears and closing your eyes to the worlds' problems does not mean you are living a better life. In fact, I would argue the opposite. Understanding world events allows you to build empathy for those different from yourself. It allows you to broaden your perspective which allows for an untold amount of creativity and growth in your own work and thinking. Lastly, it allows you to practice thinking critically. Whether that is through identifying bias in news sources or understanding the historical basis of the ills that plague our world.

We live in a world too interconnected to expect to live completely isolated from one another. Utilize your tools intelligently to regulate the stream of information that is coming your way at all times but don't hide from it. The problems of the world are not just for those experiencing them at the moment. We all have a responsibility to understand and work toward a more harmonious world in whatever form that may take.


A Tribute to John Wooden

On June 4, 2010 the world lost one of the wisest, kindest, and inspirational people that has ever lived. John Wooden is considered by most to be the best college basketball coach of all time. He won 10 National Championships with UCLA over a 12 year span. He was the first person to be in the College Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. Despite all of his impressive accomplishments, I don't care about those at all. The reason I am mourning the loss of John Wooden is that he was a profound thinker regarding self actualization and self improvement.

Entire books have been written by Coach Wooden and others about his philosophy and I would be at a loss to try to give an overview of everything he embodied. So, instead of trying to do that I'm going to share three of my favorite Wooden quotes.


"Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. They only true gift is a portion of thyself."

Material goods and gifts are trumped by sincere donation of time. I think John's love for coaching embodied the spirit of this quote. He put everything he had into developing the young men under his charge. Gifting a "portion of thyself" speaks to the importance of experiences instead of "things." Give yourself to your family, your spouse, or your friends; they will appreciate it more than anything you can buy them.

"Do not become too concerned about what others may think of you. Be very concerned about what you think of yourself."

This quote made me think of an article I wrote a long time ago about your most important relationship being with yourself. In my own coaching and in my own life I try to emphasize that the only things worth our attention are those that fall under our sphere of influence. If something cannot be affected by our actions, what use is it to worry about it? You can't change how others think so worrying about that is a waste of time, effort, and attention.

"Don't let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do."

There will ALWAYS be more that you cannot do than you can do. If you let that freeze you into inaction, suddenly you aren't doing anything. For example, I am worthless with Photoshop and design but I tried to not let that prevent me from authoring and publishing an ebook. Sure, it wasn't the prettiest thing in the world and there is much room for improvement in that area, but at least I focused on what I could do; namely, write coherently about a topic I care deeply about. Instead of focusing on everything you cannot do, which of your strengths can you focus on? What do you do well that you can leverage?

Rest in peace, John Wooden. You were, and are, an inspiration to everyone.