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David Brown

What Business Owners Can Learn from Abraham Lincoln’s Failures

He would never have been in position to succeed if he hadn’t failed first.

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WE ARE CONDITIONED BY society to fear failure. Our education system defines performance as “getting the answer correct.” This result-based measurement is an effective method for assessing a level of knowledge, but it doesn’t encourage the hands-on learning process so necessary to develop true understanding and retaining of information — nor encourage the discovery of new knowledge.

Sadly, this aversion to getting things wrong starts at an early age and continues our whole life. Despite the copious number of successful people who have failed spectacularly before achieving success, we still attempt to follow a path that has more to do with avoiding ignominy than with enjoying the benefits of stretching ourselves into uncharted territory.

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Abraham Lincoln never feared failure — he could little afford to. His list of unsuccessful endeavors in both business and politics would have forced a lesser man to give up. Here are just some of his “failures.”

1831: Failed in business.
1832: Ran for state legislature — lost.
1832: Also lost his job — wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.
1833: Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business, and by the end of the year was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years paying off this debt.
1838: Sought to become speaker of the state legislature — defeated.
1840: Sought to become elector — defeated.
1843: Ran for Congress — lost.
1846: Ran for Congress again — this time he won — went to Washington and did a good job.
1848: Ran for re-election to Congress — lost.
1849: Sought the job of land officer in his home state — rejected.
1854: Ran for Senate of the United States — lost.
1856: Sought the vice-presidential nomination at his party’s national convention — got less than 100 votes.
1858: Ran for U.S. Senate again — again he lost.
1860: Elected president of the United States.

What sort of president would Lincoln have become if he had not had his failures? Had his life been a succession of unbridled achievements, would he have had the fortitude or fighting qualities to drag the country through its toughest challenge ever? Or would he have been ill-prepared for the physical and mental battle the presidency required? I believe his history of failing provided him with the steel and determination he needed to see the job through. Had he not “failed” so many times, he would not have become the man he was — and the history of the United States may have looked sharply different.

Learning to fail helps you overcome the fear of testing your boundaries and ultimately helps you grow and succeed. When it happens, embrace it for the lessons it can teach.

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