The end table on my side of the bed sits right in front of a window facing the street. To intimidate my new neighbors and put would-be burglars to sleep, I’ve begun stacking a bunch of impressive sounding books on the table, spines pointed toward the window and visible from the front walkway, with titles like Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Managing Yourself, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and The Power of Story.
Since there’s no better way to assert your superiority than with a 700-page biography of Abraham Lincoln, I’ve also tossed one of those on the stack. My ego feels great, though I do worry that this mountain of knowledge will tip over in the middle of the night sometime and kill me.
Now and then, I’ll actually read portions of these books – and what I’ve learned about Lincoln has surprised me. I generally think of him as the complicated, towering political genius portrayed in the recent Steven Spielberg movie.
But how did he get to that point? Did he sit down one day and write a few goals? Become President. End Slavery. Attain Mythological Status.
Ronald C. White’s excellent book A. Lincoln suggests that Honest Abe never wasted much time at all dreaming about a better life. He was more than occupied just trying to make it through the challenging frontier life he already had.
A backwoods guy with no formal education, Lincoln spent his late teens and 20s finding work wherever he could. He built fences and piloted boats. He surveyed land. He ran a store. He served as a small-town postmaster.
On the surface, it looks like a lot of fragments, a bunch of disconnected experiences that won’t add up to more than a few amusing stories.
But, gradually, Lincoln figured out how they fit together. The fence building and boat piloting gave him credibility as a working man with his neighbors. Surveying land throughout a big county in Illinois gave him a chance to meet new people. Running a store taught him something about business. Serving as postmaster didn’t pay much, but it did give him access to newspapers that educated him about the world – and connected him with people as they came by to get their mail.
When Lincoln put them all together, these activities added up to a sum that was far greater than their parts: a perfect training ground for meeting, understanding and impressing voters.
We’re all like Lincoln in this way: Our lives are broken into jagged, seemingly random slivers of experience too numerous for our own two hands to hold. The shards don’t automatically make a well-fitted puzzle, and they won’t unless we decide they should. Making the effort to put that puzzle together won’t turn most of us into Lincoln. But it might very well help us see possibilities we never saw before.