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Written by Gretchen Wollert, author of Born To Fight.
Abraham Lincoln never lived really well—until he made it to the White House. He never made it to Manhattan, at least not to live there or to build skyscrapers there; he had Kentucky and then Indiana and Illinois to deal with. His lot in life was much more spartan than anything in Queens, let alone Manhattan. Lincoln didn’t just rise above his circumstances; he rose from nothing—nothing but a small cabin with a dirt floor in the middle of backwoods Kentucky. There were no limos to help him make his rounds (whatever those might have been in his small parcel of the world).
What young Abe Lincoln did embrace at an early age was the belief that he was meant for something far better. It was an inner drive that he ambitiously nourished before anyone else arrived in his life to contribute to that effort. Other than a stepmom who fed into Abe’s growing fascination with books and reading, and the occasional kick in his butt from a dad more concerned with cutting down trees and clearing bush than feeding Abe’s intellect and daydreams, Lincoln the boy and then Lincoln the adolescent was mostly on his own with his own devices (curiosity, work ethic, and so on), and he wasted little time exploiting those. There was a tension, a strain, between youthful Abe Lincoln and his father, Thomas, but Abe chose to let that friction feed his yearning rather than stifle it. It was a sign of resiliency that would serve him well in overcoming obstacles and bouncing back from political defeats.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin observes:
Year after year, as he persevered in defiance of his father’s wishes, managing his negative emotions and exercising his will to slowly master one subject after another, he developed an increasing belief in his own strengths and powers, He came to trust “that he was going to be something,” his cousin Sophie Hanks related, slowly creating what one leadership scholar calls “a vision of an alternative future.” He told a neighbor he did not “intend to delve, grub, shuck corn, split rails, and the like. I’ll study and get ready, and then the chance will come.”
Goodwin adds, “From the beginning, young Lincoln aspired to nothing less than to inscribe his name into the book of community memory.”
At any given moment, the world in which Lincoln lived and the people and settings around him didn’t define who he was. From the time he was a young boy, Lincoln demonstrated a gifted mind that was exceptionally well-ordered and intelligent, with a knack for inquisitiveness that would be relentless in his pursuit of knowledge and retention of it. He learned how to read and write at the age of seven while attending ABC school in rural Kentucky. While he was there, others observed how Abe was able to learn more quickly and grasp the material more deeply than his peers. He was at or near the top of his class, despite being frequently pulled away from school by Thomas Lincoln, who needed his strong, reliable son to help work on the family’s scrimpy farm.
Lincoln’s lack of formal schooling didn’t prevent him from becoming an exceptionally learned man. But he was almost entirely a self-taught one. All he needed were books, including the Bible and Aesop’s Fables. He was a voracious reader, and his powers of retention were remarkable. To his friends, classmates, and others who knew him, Lincoln had a gift. This was a perception that he disputed, claiming that, in fact, he was slow to learn, yet slow to forget what he had learned once he had absorbed it.
It wasn’t just that Lincoln read relentlessly and sought out ways to expand his acquisition of knowledge, it was how he read books that caught the attention of others, a certain peculiarity in how he kept his nose in his books—often lying on his back, his feet sometimes propped up against a wall. Maybe it was a way to take the strain off his back, a distinct possibility considering how fast he grew and how lean he was.
Donald Trump’s schooling was completely different from Lincoln’s. He had great schooling and educational opportunities, although there was still a sense that he was doing things his own way and seeking or creating opportunities for himself outside the norm of the privileged school child.
Trump was old school in his own way while coming up in the world. Before setting off on his own to build grand hotels and casinos, he was at his father’s knee, so to speak, often performing mundane tasks and running errands. These were the sort of “gofer” things that a no-name apprentice— no pun intended—would start out doing at the ground floor in hopes of working his or her way up the ladder.
“He was a real eager beaver, a go-getter,” Trump Village architect Morris Lapidus said. “Whenever his father gave him something to do, he would be off and running. You could tell that he was going to get somewhere.”
It’s all about being teachable, as well as paying it forward. Visualization is also an ingredient to being a successful man or woman, at least in Trump’s eyes. You need to have a purpose in what you are doing and see it through to the end, picturing the project before you get to work on it. “So I want you to ask yourself: What is it that you are aiming for?” Trump writes in Think Like a Champion.
What precisely is your motivation? What’s the point of building a bridge if you’re not sure you want to get to the other side, or if you don’t know what you’ll do once you get there? A bridge must serve a specific purpose, and your goals have to be just that specific. Visualization is a powerful tool for bringing your intentions into focus.
Both Lincoln and Trump, through their writing, advised success seekers to study something other than basic business—Lincoln said to study history, and Trump points to English literature, more specifically the works of William Shakespeare:
I was having a conversation a few years ago with a few people when one guy mentioned that the Trump name had become a famous brand around the world and then added, “What’s in a name?” he then sort of laughed and said to me, “In your case, a lot!” I noticed that one guy seemed out of the loop about the quip. So I said, “That’s Shakespeare. ‘What’s in a name’ is a famous line from Shakespeare.” So he still looked perplexed and asked, “From what?” And although I knew it was from Romeo and Juliet, I said, “Look it up. You might learn some interesting things along the way.” . . . Don’t be left out! Take a few hours a week to review the classics in literature or history or something outside of your usual range of interests. Limiting yourself is not the best choice.
Trump also calls on Shakespeare in giving some of his best career advice.
Shakespeare put it this way, in a famous quote from Julius Caesar: “The fault is not in our stars, dear Brutus, but in ourselves.” That’s a clear message. We are responsible for ourselves. We are responsible for our own luck. What an empowering thought! If you see responsibility as a bum deal, then you are not seeing it for what it really is—a great opportunity. . . . What will separate you from the complaining crowd will be how you choose to look at your situation. If you believe you are in control of it—and you are—you will know exactly who to look for when you need help: yourself.
Lincoln’s advice was to study a slice of history, while embracing the value of education as society’s most important work for citizens to be engaged in. While running for public office for the first time, he wrote a letter in March 1832 that he sent to the residents of Sangamo County in Illinois:
I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least a moderateeducation, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions.
Trump uses the words tenacious and indomitable to pinpoint his keys to success, which in his case has often meant facing a firewall of cynics and critics, such as when he moved his operations into Manhattan despite being told that this was a bad time to be investing in real estate in the Big Apple. “I overcame some great setbacks just by being obstinate. I refused to give in or give up. To me, that’s an integrity of purpose that cannot be defeated or interfered with to any significant level. Being steadfast in your intentions can reap great results.”
A relentlessly positive mindset helps, too. Trump hit what might have been the lowest point in his business career around 1990, when he found himself about a billion dollars in debt with banks threatening foreclosure. This was just after Trump had indulged in a third casino, an airline, the world’s second-largest yacht, and the Plaza Hotel. Painted into a corner with seemingly no way out, Trump engaged in weeks of around-the-clock negotiations, coming out of them relatively unscathed and still very much in business. In a 2009 interview with Psychology Today, he gave credit to Norman Vincent Peale’s all-time bestselling book The Power of Positive Thinking, giving a shout-out to his father Fred’s friendship with Peale while calling himself a “firm believer in the power of being positive.” He added, “What helped is I refused to give in to the negative circumstances and never lost faith in myself. I didn’t believe I was finished even when the newspapers were saying so.”
Even in those days, “fake news” wasn’t going to stop Trump.