How to Think Like Lincoln

Think through, then follow through is good advice. If you do heavy lifting with your mind, physical lifting can be efficient, productive, and pleasant.

Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest thinkers the United States has produced, grew up in a culture that held thinking in low esteem. With a frontier to tame, land to clear, and riches to claim, Lincoln felt constant pressure to get out and do something. Lincoln's father made this observation about his soon-to-be-famous son: "If Abe don't fool away all his time on his books, he may make something yet." Lincoln was 27 years old at the time.

In American society even today, action often is more highly regarded than thought, doing more than being. To be called an intellectual can be deadly for an American politician.

Yet this quintessential American politician became an intellectual. He was thinking all the time. In fact, we know quite a bit about Lincoln's thought processes. One observer who kept a careful record of what he saw was Lincoln's private secretary, John G. Nicolay. Here is Nicolay's observation.

"...Mr. Lincoln often resorted to the process of cumulative thought, and his constant tendency to, and great success in axiomatic definition resulted in a large measure from a habit he had acquired of reducing a forcible idea or an epigrammatic sentence or phrase to writing, and keeping it until further reason enabled him to add other sentences or additional phrases to complete or supplement the first--to elaborate or to conclude his point or argument. There were many of these scraps among his papers, seldom in the shape of mere rough notes, but almost always in the form of a finished proposition or statement--a habit showing great prudence and deliberation of thought, and evincing a corresponding strength and solidity of opinion and argument." (Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay's Intervays and Essays. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996, p. 107)

You can use this Lincoln technique yourself. Here's how.

First, write it down. Over five centuries ago Sir Francis Bacon wrote, "Writing maketh an exact man."

If you're expanding your business or creating one, worrying about an issue, planning a presentation, or making a hard decision, get the basic idea down on paper. Authors call it a rough draft. Marketers call it a story board. Programmers call it a decision tree.

In my executive coaching program, I insist that participants write down all the alternatives and the possible consequences before arriving at any important executive decision.

Getting it down on paper makes it easier to refine your thinking, spot logical fallacies and emotional distortions, and clear away the distractions that can cloud the thought processes.

Second, oversimplify. My writing teachers and editors taught me to state any article or book I was writing as one concise sentence. You may not be able to see the tree because of the proverbial forest.

You can make bad decisions if you allow yourself to be distracted by too much information. Push out of your mind any detail or argument that is not absolutely relevant to the problem at hand. You must be able to focus in on the specific detail and understand it completely. To use a mathematical analogy, you must reduce the situation to its least common denominator.

The first time I interviewed John Portman--who created Embarcadero Center in San Francisco and the Marriott Marquis on Times Square, among other famous buildings-Portman told me that in designing a building, he relentlessly reduced the concept to its core elements. At the time I barely understood what Portman was talking about-it sounded like jargon--but gradually I discovered that this is a characteristic of the way all great thinkers think.

Three, connect the dots. Link logical thoughts together. This is what Nicolay meant by "cumulative thought." Lincoln had self-taught himself the first six books of Euclid, so he knew how to construct a mathematical argument. In Lincoln's case, he began with the core proposition-"All men are created equal-and developed his concept of a nation as a government of the people, by the people, for the people by adding the essential ideas that are congruent with the basic, core idea.

This is the way great buildings, business enterprises, sciences, and nations are constructed.

Gene Griessman is a professional speaker, executive coach, and author of The Words Lincoln Lived By and co-author of Lincoln Speaks To Leaders: 20 Powerful Lessons From America's 16th President, with Pat Williams and Peggy Matthews Rose. Griessman's website is http://www.presidentlincoln.com.


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