Not too many people will dispute that the United States’ 16th president is among the greatest of the greatest; the best of the best. In nearly every poll of historians, Abraham Lincoln ranks among the top leaders in history. Whether for his charisma, oratorical skills, his leadership qualities, or the fact that he was the first president to wear a beard, Lincoln gets plenty of high marks.
What’s even more astounding about this extraordinary president is that there was nothing ordinary about his path to greatness. Lincoln, who grew up in poverty, reportedly only spent the equivalent of 12 months in any type of formal school. Even worse, some of his teachers were poorly educated themselves.
Lincoln once wrote of his early education, “No qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond readin’, writin’, and cipherin’ to the Rule of Three. If a straggler supposed to understand Latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard.”
So, how did young Lincoln not only learn reading, writing and arithmetic —but gain the skills to practice law and, eventually, become a Congressman and President of the United States? He was a non-traditional learner.
Here are 5 lessons we can learn from Lincoln about how to achieve greatness without taking a traditional path.
1. Be a self-learner. Lincoln, who spent most of his childhood doing farm work to help out his father, taught himself in his spare time. He built his own homeschool, using books given to him by his stepmother, neighbors, and teachers, who were all aware of his thirst to learn. He later started reading on law, learning enough to be admitted to the Illinois bar so that he could practice. He never learned a lesson in a law school.
2. Never stop reading. You can study from a book to make sure you score an A on a test. You can read one for entertainment. You can also use books and other reading material to keep learning for a lifetime. To sum it up, you can be like Lincoln, who didn’t quit his quest for knowledge long after he reached many of his goals. As president, he regularly checked out books from the Library of Congress. He also could be found regularly reading newspapers and classics, including Shakespeare works and the Iliad by Homer.
3. Try something new. Lincoln embraced the technology that was available to him at the time, which led him to become the first president to use the telegraph (the Internet of his day). Historians said he used the telegraph to communicate with generals, much in the way we use email today. Follow in Lincoln’s steps by getting out of your comfort zone to learn a new skill or an unfamiliar course.
4. Don’t lose your sense of humor. Even under the most challenging and intense circumstances, Lincoln was known to keep his sense of humor. During a debate with Stephen A. Douglas during an Illinois state campaign, Lincoln’s opponent accused him of being two-faced. Mocking his own looks, Lincoln replied, “Honestly, if I were two-faced, would I be showing you this one?” When studying, don’t forget to relax and laugh every once in a while. It will ease the tension.
5. Dare to be different. Lincoln, who was known for his honesty, stood up to his critics and stuck by his beliefs. That approach didn’t always make him popular. They were even some newspaper columnists who made fun of his inability to “speak good grammar.” Like Lincoln, you may run into your share of critics. Stick to what you know is right — and stay the course.