I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life

Becoming the 'self made man'

Posted by Torin Lucas on April 24, 2019
This photo is the last known portrait of President Abraham Lincoln before his assassination.

The Stanford Commencement speech is given each year in June. In recent years the University football stadium, ‘Home of the Champions’, serves as the location for the graduating class who come to sit upon fold-out chairs on the grass of the pitch. Their parents sit behind them on the bleachers of the stadium – there poised like throngs of football fans waiting for the most wonderful of games to start at last: The great game that will see their children triumph or meanly lose the quest to make themselves the successes that they strive to be.On June 12th 2005, one of the most shining examples of a modern incarnation of the self made man was there to deliver the commencement speech that day, the college drop-out, Steve Jobs. Excerpts of his speech follow:…I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4,000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired… I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over. I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.

… Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. …Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Jobs described his life as an actualisation of potential. He believed that his success came because he found that thing he loved. The vision to recognise opportunity, in Job’s case, came first from a passion for his work. This love transcended hardship and crystallized his unique individuality as defined by that thing that he loved most of all: The creation of Apple Inc.

Lincoln was also called upon to inspire and deliver speeches of hope and inspiration. As a young man he sought to improve his oration and debating skills as a member of the Lyceum and Temperance movements which often focused on themes of aspiration and self improvement. At the heart of most of Lincoln’s addresses was a belief in the potential of an individual and the importance of equal opportunity. Abe took what was written in the declaration of independence as a treatise for living life and took it very much to heart, eventually coming transforming himself into a human embodiment of it precepts.

This ability to step into the frame of an American promise and himself a shining example of its fulfillment is nicely crystallized on an occasion as president he spoke to a regiment of soldiers camped at the White House, “I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has.” He would no doubt have connected that graduating class with the notion that they like all Americans have been given an opportunity to excel just as he had done despite his severe hardships. He was a genius at uplifting the spirit and uniting those of us who aspire in our lives to reach and succeed. It was perhaps his most defining talent and gift of his principled leadership – the ability to ennoble a collective cause.

As part of his campaigning Lincoln often chose the States Fairs to address potential voters to his cause, an invariably or not he sought to reach the crowd not merely by extolling the particular virtues of one policy but by connecting through an empathetic appreciation of their circumstances. On one occasion at the Wisconsin State Fair just presentation of farm prizes he addressed the crowd of those would be lucky enough the win a prize and those who would not. “Some of you,” Lincoln said will be successful and such will need but little philosophy to take home in cheerful spirits; others will be disappointed, and will be in a less happy mood. To such let it be said, lay it not too much to heart. Let them adopt the maxim, ‘Better luck next time’.” Since prizes went only to the few Lincoln continued,”While occasions like the present, bring their sober and durable benefits, the exultation and mortification of them, are but temporary; and that the victor shall soon be vanquished, if he relax in his exertion; and that the vanquished this year, may be the victor next.” For Lincoln, luck was an ingredient to success, but it was not the attainment of success that was the end point for Lincoln. For Abe Lincoln the self made man was created through struggle even once success was attained, the struggle would only just begin.

As we look to learn from the experience of those leaders that have come to inspire us, it is tempting to imagine that their suffering was some how heroically beaten back in a sort of happily-ever-after moment. Like many popular philosophies, biographies can often be structured in a crisis-recovery narrative which according to Louis Manand creates a scenario in which “the subject undergoes a period of disillusionment or adversity, and then has a ‘break through’ or arrives at a ‘turning-point’ before going on to achieve whatever sort of greatness obtains.” Success from Lincoln point of view was not the end in and of itself. We need only look to the graveness which he expressed upon wining the presidency of a nation on the precipice of civil war, or the tragic death he suffered at the hand of an assassin at the successful conclusion of that war. For Lincoln, success was inherently tied to suffering. It was in the doing and the freedom to pursue happiness that fired Lincoln’s ambitions and fueled his passion for self improvement through education.

Growing up he “was different from those around him,” the historian Douglas Wilson has noted. “He knew he was unusually gifted and had great potential.” And this despite his crushing poverty, dressed, as his stepmother remarked, “as an ordinary boy from a poor, backwoods family, with a gap between his shoes, socks, and pants that often exposed six or more inches of his shin.” In the eyes of his classmates like Nathaniel Grigsby “[Abe] soared above us. He naturally assumed the leadership of the boys. He read & thoroughly read his books whilst we played. Hence he was above us and became our guide and leader.” Abe was “clearly gifted and had great potential,” noted the Lincoln biographer David Donald, “and carried away from his brief schooling the self-confidence of a man who has never met his intellectual equal.

Lincoln’s yearning for knowledge sprang first from his home where night after night he would strain to listen long after going to bed those stories told by the adults around the evening firelight. He would recall decades later that nothing was more upsetting to him than his inability to understand everything that was being told. Lincoln would recall how he would spend “no small part of the night walking up and down, and trying to make out what was the exact meaning of some of their, to me, dark sayings”

Perhaps the greatest gift his father Thomas bequeathed his son was this talent for story telling. He may have been amazed to know that his stories were being retold according to Abe the following day “in language plain enough, as I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend”. The gift for storytelling would follow Abe through his entire life and be a defining feature of his endearing character.

But the process of self-education brought with it a degree of isolation and self imposed alienation, as a boy partial to reading was more often than not seen as idol. For example, Denny Hanks who otherwise held the young man in high esteem said, “Lincoln was lazy, a very lazy man. He was always reading, scribbling, writing, ciphering, writing poetry.” It is testament to Lincoln’s burning ambition and thirst for knowledge that he set out to teach himself law during a time when a mere five percent of men did non-manual labour. As a start he began to read statute texts, as the Lincoln biographer Richard Lawrence Miller noted, “an uncommon activity among his neighbours. The edition of Indiana statutes he used contained the Declaration of independence, ordinance of 1787 and the U.S. Consitution, three documents that would eventually intertwine intimately with his life.” Early on he sought to study law with John Pitcher a lawyer that had been impressed by Lincoln’s writings. But his father, “Tom Lincoln told him he was needed too urgently for other tasks.” These tasks might include the tiresome chores of felling trees, digging up stumps, splitting rails, plowing, weeding, and planting. According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin “When he found his son in the fields reading a book or, worse still, distracting fellow workers with tales or passages from one of his books, he would angrily halt the activity so the work would continue. The boy’s endeavours to better himself often incurred the resentment of his father, who occasionally destroyed his books and may have physically abused him.”

The evidence indicates that Lincoln was not only unsupported in his studies but reminiscences of this time show Lincoln is significant distress and mental anguish. Though not as uncommon then, one can only imagine the herculean effort it would take to self teach oneself law. “He read hard – day and night – terribly hard, ” remembered Issac Cogdal. In the summer of 1835 the school teacher Mentor Graham recalled that Lincoln “somewhat injured his health and constitution…” and according to the local farmer Henry McHenry, “He became emaciated… and his best friends were afraid that he would craze himself.”

Despite the mental toll, in September of 1837 Lincoln passed the bar exams and became a lawyer and moved to Springfield, the new capital of Illinois, to become the law partner of John Todd Stuart, the Whig leader of the county.

As Jobs also recognized, extraordinary individuals and great leaders become beacons of realised potential because sometimes, a lucky constellations of interests and individuals arise from the fog of happenstance. In his case, happenstance came in the form of Steve Wozniak. Luck or not, it takes the vision and the ambition to see the opportunity and translate it into success.

And like Steve Jobs, young Abraham Lincoln was lucky. During the 1830’s, America experienced what came to be coined the “Jacksonian Boom” that precipitated a great westward migration and settlements on what was then the frontier – primarily the Midwestern states which reached its zenith between 1832 and 1836. Precisely the time in which Lincoln and family came to Illinois spent his youth in New Salem, and his arrival in Springfield where he came of age. He “studied what he should do,” and improved himself. His admission to the bar and his move to Springfield occurred in early 1837, just as the boom began to fade. His timing could not have been luckier. Migration in and of itself is often an ingredient for spark for entrepreneurial endeavour. In a landmark 1975 study Albert Shapiro writes that ‘research finds that most entrepreneurs are DPs, displaced persons, who have been dislodged from a comfortable, safe situation. Some are literal DPs, such as political refugees, but most common are people fired from their jobs, or deprived of an opportunity to advance in their jobs.’ That great American westward migration that Lincoln was swept up in was the first of several entrepreneurial infused by the aspirations of the displaced that has become part of the North American business fabric.

The notion that opportunity and the realisation of fortune might come like a lightning strike broiled under the surface. It created an antidote to the disillusionment that simmered with the monotony of an agricultural existence. For many the hope and joy that lay in the existence of personal pursuits offered succor from the realities of the frontier which might otherwise be too heavy to bear. The frontier existence was usually short, brutish and often violent. An existence which threatened to leaden the hearts of the young whose wick had been lit by the sound and fury of revolution a generation before and by those works of the enlightened free thinkers who promised to free them from the crushing drudgery of an unremarkable farming life. They were ready. They believed in the promise of this new America.

A tantalising taste of sudden entrepreneurial success came to Lincoln when he was a teenager working a skiff on the Ohio River. He happened to one day row two men out to a larger boat that awaited them on the river. Instead of an expected “two bits” for payment, one of the men tossed him two silver half dollars. “I could scarcely believe my eyes,” said Lincoln recounting the story when he was President. “Gentlemen you may think it was a very little thing… but it was a most important incident in my life. I could scarcely credit that I, a poor boy, had earned a dollar in less than a day… The world seemed wider and fairer to me”.

The self-made ethic originated during this Jacksonian Boom and appeared at a time when a whole new set of roles entered into a the emerging American market economy which was fast moving to challenge the prevailing agrarian way of life. New occupational opportunities transformed not only Lincoln personally but American society as a whole and with it the rise of an “American entrepreneurial culture”.

The ideas of “individualism” were new to the world at the time and uniquely American. 1835 the travelling French author De Tocqueville observed individualism as he found it in America as “a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows” and noted that “Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link”

Many young men were fired by exuberance. There was an over whelming tide of literature that emanated first from the founding fathers and the free thinking movement of the era. The culture of “Self-Help” can find its modern roots to this time. Take for example this excerpt from the Illinois Journal entitled, “How to Succeed”:

Push along. Push hard. Push earnestly… You can’t do without it. The world is so made – society is so constructed that it’s a law of necessity that you must push…Who succeeds? Who makes money, honor, and reputation? He who heartily sincerely, manfully pushed and he only… We never knew a man in the world, who was a light smart pusher, who finally did not become rich, respectable wise, and useful.

This endowment of personal individual freedoms brought with it both a fantastic array of possibilities to a young man as well as it’s corollary the peril of personal failure. As the historian Scott Sandage explains that the phrase, “I feel like a failure.. is a figure of speech: the language of business applied to the soul” and that people of the 19th century fueled by this emerging sense of selfhood believed that people who failed had an inherent problem that reflected their constitution as “born failures” or as Steve Jobs alludes to himself being a “public failure” as though failure like success is self made and part of the fabric of the individual, his grit or lack there of.

While Lincoln was a congressman in Washington in 1848, his young law partner, William Herndon, asked him for advice about how to succeed. Lincoln, quite typically, pondered the question and then frankly admitted that “I hardly know what to say.” After searching for an answer, however, Lincoln soon found it within himself. The key to success was self-improvement. “The way for a young man to rise,” Lincoln wrote, “is to improve himself every way he can.” To Lincoln, self-improvement meant a combination of hard work and a single-minded, unwavering pursuit of knowledge. “You have been a laborious, studious young man,” Lincoln reassured his partner. “You can not fail in any laudable object, unless you allow your mind to be improperly directed.” A young man need not depend on his family, rely on his friends, or even go to school. The surest way for a man to succeed, from Lincoln’s perspective, was to “improve himself.”

Take a contemporary example of this fictional account of the meeting between Robert Ford and the famous train robber Frank James in which Ford insinuates himself into being taken as a side kick:

Folks sometimes take me for a nincompoop on account of the shabby first impression I make, whereas I’ve always thought of myself as being just a rung down from the James brothers. And I was hoping if I ran into you aside from those peckerwoods, I was hoping I could show you how special I am. I honestly believe I’m destined for great things, Mr. James. I’ve got qualities that don’t come shining through right at the outset, but give me a chance and I’ll get the job done – I can guarantee you that.

One can imagine a character like this springing up from the farms fields of the frontier full of wild notions of possibilities with a keen belief that their own “qualities” might come “shining through” if given the opportunity. This was the age of great new American possibilities in which “special things” would happen for those who are “destined” or as with the case with Robert Ford, first a thief and then the killer of Jessie James, destined to become a personal failure.

According to the historian Joyce Appleby”The range and sweep of enterprise in this period are awesome… suggesting the widespread willingness to be uprooted, to embark on an uncharted course of action, to take risks with one’s resources—above all the resource of one’s youth.” While the vast majority of individuals remained close to the family farm, a few enterprising individuals defined what it meant to be a “success” in American by “shifting of loyalties from home and habit to self and progress.” These individual like Steve Jobs and those self made men that inspire us persevered despite hardship, believed in themselves and their intuition despite forces of conformity. It was in this climate of opportunity that the ideas of the founding fathers came to bloom. The notion that all men have equal opportunity to realise liberty and happiness was a God given right and, for those with the ambition to pursue it, there for the taking. It is difficult to describe the climate of the prevailing attitudes as Lincoln came to view in measured sober tones. To read Lincoln’s speak about the “great struggle of life” one can’t help but feel the headiness of enthusiasm, so great was his belief in the promise that America presented – to all equally. He believed success was there for those who endured failures and plod on as his own “sever experience” had taught him. For Lincoln it was the “pursuit” and not so much the attainment of “happiness” that was central to his personal view on success, and self improvement was the road for such a pursuit. Lincoln educated himself, worked hard and succeeded above all he believed because he lived in a country that allowed for it. Lincoln saw that impediments in that pursuit, even when self imposed, were tantamount to a form of slavery of the spirit and mind writing that, ” It is very probable—almost certain—that the great mass of men, at that time, were utterly unconscious, that their conditions, or their minds were capable of improvement. They not only looked upon the educated few as superior beings; but they supposed themselves to be naturally incapable of rising to equality… It is difficult for us, now and here, to conceive how strong this slavery of the mind was; and how long it did, of necessity, take, to break it’s shackles, and to get a habit of freedom of thought, established.” This access to opportunity and a self-fulfillment of one’s inner potential is what our modern entrepreneurs now embody. Lincoln might well suggest that Steve Jobs reflected the success and wealth made available by the proceeds of a cheque written by the founding fathers and there for all Americans, black or white, rich or poor to cash as reflected in remarks he made to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois in January 27, 1838, “We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate,” Lincoln believed it was the duty of each American to accept the “task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general”.

The Lycium address was delivered shortly after the recent burning of negro in St. Louis a few weeks before and provided a backdrop to the occasion and subtext to Lincoln’s remarks. It was a speech that was later published in the Sangamon Journal and contributed to the the young man’s emerging reputation which would soon extended beyond the limits of the locality in which he lived. And while the slavery issue would soon come to define him in political terms the driving force behind his words and behind Lincoln himself was that opportunity exists for those who pursue it must exist in equal proportions to slave and non-slave alike. Lincoln to a large extent has come to be defined by the emancipation of the slaves. But moreover, this principle of opportunity not only extended to the slaves consequentially, it galvanized the ambitions and optimism of all his constituency into a fierce support for freedom that came to fuel a very American sense of entitlement. Part of Lincoln’s enduring legacy is the perception he endowed onto his fellow Americans that they are the rightful heir to this pursuit of success and happiness and opportunity exists for those willing to endure.

Lincoln’s message was that emancipation of the slaves was a consequence of the much grander inheritance and right of all American citizens. This right to pursue one’s individual sense of happiness, and success not only fueled and ennobled the cause of the American North over the South, but continued on as a premise of the American character and ingredient for the development of the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that endures today.

For Lincoln, success was inherently tied to suffering. It was in the doing and the freedom to pursue happiness that fired Lincoln’s ambitions and fueled his passion for self improvement. He would no doubt extend to this graduating class similar encouragements to this Stanford graduating class that education is the key to the self improvement. He might also point out that on acceptance of the presidency in 1861 his own resume listed, as he put it, “one term in the lower house of Congress.” He’d had barely a year of formal education; he had few connections in the capital and had no executive experience.

Like his mentor and political inspiration, Henry Clay before him, Lincoln brought himself up by the bootstraps and became a “self made man” – the epitome and perhaps the first and most recognizable embodiment of the American entrepreneurial, spirit we see still very much alive today. A spirit rooted deeply in what was in Lincoln’s time very new and revolutionary notions of entrepreneurship, individualism, and republican forms of government. A new society driven by individual voices providing the inspiration for freedom for the people as expressed by those individuals just like Steve Jobs, and you my reader, who are of the people.