Some Things You Can Learn From Abraham Lincoln about How to Manage Your Life.

A recent article in the New York Times showed that Abraham Lincoln’s methods of managing the country can serve as a guide to managing a business.

It struck me that each of us is the CEO of her or his own life. Could it be that Lincoln’s way of managing the country can teach us something about managing our own lives?

I think it can, and the purpose of this post is to explain why I believe that, and to show how you can try it out.

At one point in the New York Times article, it pointed out that Lincoln displayed the ability to learn and grow amidst great calamity. I had never thought of it this way, but that is really a pretty good way to describe resilience.

People who are not resilient cannot “learn and grow amidst great calamity”, largely because, in the face of calamity, they tend to do things that amplify and spread the impact of the calamity. Don’t do that!

We have to train ourselves to minimize the impact of calamity. Otherwise, all of our mental resources are drained as we imagine catastrophic possible outcomes, focus on who is to blame, or consult with people who will concur with our worst expectations about what is going to happen.

It is important to practice talking to yourself in an optimistic and hopeful way rather than catastrophizing over imagined bad outcomes, most of which never happen.

You should train yourself to relax enough to keep a clear head when things go badly. There are many ways to relax deeply; a very simple, easy one is here. All you have to do is get in a reasonably quiet place, then listen the audio, following the instructions. It’s best to do that regularly for a few weeks, and then use it as needed.

Lincoln suffered from horrible losses while he was taking responsibility for the Civil War. His generals failed him, sometimes miserably. His 11 year old son died, triggering events that deprived him of much support from his wife, instead demanding that he direct his personal resources to helping her get through the pain and distress, when he must have had few resources to spare.

He also suffered from severe depression. Still, he continued to make effective and responsible decisions. He exemplified an important aspect of resilience: we are not ruled by our moods and emotions. We can let ourselves be aware of them yet still know that they are not the arbiters of reality and we are not enslaved by them.

It is easy to say that we are not ruled by our moods and emotions, but putting that view into practice is hard, and is best done by regularly training yourself to have a clear sense that feelings are there, but they are just feelings that come and go.

Meditation is a path to developing clarity about the role of our emotions. Currently “mindfulness meditation” is very much in vogue, and it works. Here is a short description of a way to do this kind of meditation.

Lincoln tended to ponder a great deal before making decisions. He did not just lock himself in a room and think about how to turn facts he already knew into a decision. He sought out the views of others, making sure that a wide range of perspectives were included in the raw material he used for making decisions.

This does not mean that he ended up indecisive. He distilled those many perspectives into the closest thing to realism he could reach and then made his decisions firmly.

For all of us, it can be tempting to avoid information that might not fit into our mental model of the world. Sometimes that works for a while, but sooner or later we have to face reality. Lincoln provides a good template for how to reach the best match to reality you can.

Notice that Lincoln understood the importance of reaching out to others. This is an important aspect of living well.

One last principle for managing our lives gleaned from Lincoln is that we should stay true to a higher purpose. I recall many years ago reading about psychologist, Abraham Maslow, who pointed out that many of the people who came to him for treatment really did not have an illness. He felt that they just needed to “take on a task worthy of themselves”.

Now I know many readers will believe that they cannot have such lofty goals, that all they have the time and energy for is to slog through wretched days that come upon them. Contrary to that belief, Victor Frankl pointed out that finding meaning in life as a prisoner in a Nazi Concentration Camp was essential to survival.

It’s very doubtful that our painful situations are as bad as one of those camps. And finding meaning in your life will not drain you. It will energize you.


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