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Honoring the Greats – Abraham Lincoln

What’s the first thing that strikes your mind when you hear the name, Abraham Lincoln? Of course, you’d say he was The Former President of the United States of America. But there is so much more to the man that perhaps is a bigger achievement – his journey from a small time worker to the being the leader of a superpower.

Let’s first look at an experiment done by the American psychologist Martin Seligman. (This will help us gauge Abraham Lincoln’s story in a better way). He was experimenting with dogs and working on the theory developed by a fellow in the same field, Mr Ivan Pavlov. Long story short, Pavlov’s the guy who got dogs to salivate when they heard a bell. He introduced the world to the concept of ‘classical conditioning’ and so on and so forth. Martin, on the other hand, took this a step further.  In his experiment he formed two groups of the same set of the dogs  – say, group A and group B. The dogs in both the groups were placed in a chamber where they received electric shocks. The dogs in the group B could end their misery by pressing a lever whereas the dogs in the group A weren’t so lucky.

In a subsequent part of the same experiment, the dogs were placed in a different chamber, group-wise of course. In this Chamber, they were subjected to similar random shocks but to escape those shocks all they had to do is jump a small barrier in front of them. The findings revealed that the dogs who were subjected to the conditioning i.e dogs of the group A, they stayed there and continued to bear the agonising pain.  They did not try to escape or even fight the torture. The dogs from group B? They hustled and forced their way out of the chamber. Good for them, eh?

“The dogs of the group A were a prey of what modern day psychologists call Learned Helplessness.”

So what’s any of this got to do with the great man? Well, first let’s trace his roots and try and understand what shaped and moulded him.

The President Abraham Lincoln had very humble beginnings. He was born in a log cabin to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln. The family worked on a public land to earn a living. Due to a land dispute, the Lincolns were forced to move from Kentucky to Perry County in Indiana.  At the age of 9, his mother died of milk sickness. This event left him devastated and the young Abraham grew distant from his father. Just a year after Nancy’s death, Thomas married a widow named Sarah Johnston, a widow with three children. Abraham quickly bonded with her and she encouraged young Abraham to read. At that time reading material was in short supply in the Indiana countryside. His neighbours say, Abraham would walk miles to borrow a book. He educated himself mostly by self-learning and a bit of formal education. Moving on to the most important period of his life; emphasising less on the details and more on his actions let’s see what made him such a great personality.

At the age of 22 in 1831, he lost his job as his Father wanted to shift his family to Illinois. In Illinois, he worked as a shopkeeper and a post master. Here is where he got famous and the locals elected him as a captain of the Black Hawk war movement in 1832. But due to his involvement with the movement, he lost the campaign for the Illinois State legislature. In 1834 he started a new store but that too, failed when his partner died. He paid the large outstanding debt and moved on.

The same year he campaigned and won a seat in the Illinois state house of representatives. Things were finally looking up. But the very next year, Ann Rutledge, his sweetheart, died due to typhoid fever just before they were to get engaged. Could it get any worse?  At the age of 27, in the year 1836, he had a nervous breakdown went into a severe depression.

Most people would have given up at this stage in life. Failure does bring a man down to his knees.  But it would take much more to break Mr Lincoln’s spirit. In 1838 he was nominated for the speaker of the house.. but didn’t win. That’s okay, he must have said. He then went on to serve as the floor leader for his party.
In 1843 he wanted to run for the congress.  But other party candidates wished to represent the state. What was his response? He agreed to hold off until 1846.

And true to his word, hold off he did. But nothing could stop the great man from achieving his destiny. At last in 1846, he won the election for U.S congress. A little taste of success after years of failure. But he would have to endure some more. In 1848 he lost the renomination. Undaunted,  he started practising law in U.S Supreme Court. Maybe he might find some success here. In 1854 he was defeated for senate. In 1856 he was defeated for the nomination of vice president. In 1858 he was again defeated for U.S senate. Phew….. still there was some soul left in him. Finally, in the year 1860, he was elected as the president of the United States and the rest is history.

This man had done something which no one has been able to achieve. Every time he failed he got up started something new hustled failed…and this continued till he achieved what he was out there for. If we relate it to the experiment he had done something exceptional he overcame his bias, his “helplessness”. Many times after multiple failures we start acting like the dog in the group A  of the experiment. We stop reacting and accept the situation as it is. What we fail to understand is that failure is temporary. This is not limited to personal failure. Even in a political voting system people become discouraged with the process and do not turn up to vote because nothing gets done usually. We need to act continuously to keep getting out of the situations life pushes onto us.

Learned helplessness can prevent people from achieving their goals. Due to this bias, we tend to sit in our safety nets and wait for someone to take control of the situation. Like the time when some decision had to be made but you waited for a higher authority to confirm the same. Even if the solution is right in front of us we tend to overlook it.  Over a period of time, this becomes a habit and it locks our brain into a very unfortunate pattern.

“What would you do if you are a prey to this Bias?”

A very interesting book named the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg explains exactly what one should do. Every habit has three important stages. These are CUE-ROUTINE-REWARD. These are hard-wired into our brains we cannot change theses three stages. All we can change is the routine. If we specifically take the case of Abraham Lincoln what he faced regularly was failure. That is the cue, his loss will arouse a feeling of depression in him. To tackle this depression or to completely get rid of it he had multiple options. Either he could have resorted to malpractices like alcoholism or he could have moved on and got himself involved in different activities. He chose the latter, even after multiple failures and setback he didn’t resort to the former activities. We all get this option in life where we get to choose what habit we should integrate into ourselves. This decision will eventually determine the path of your life.

So choose wisely, a little nudge in the right direction can help you break free from the shackles of life.


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