Fail Like Lincoln - A Key to Career Success

Abraham Lincoln is rarely associated with failure. 

But as history tells us, Lincoln was a failed businessman long before he was our sixteenth president. 

In his early twenties, Lincoln partnered with a gentleman named William Berry and purchased a general store (tavern) in New Salem, Illinois. As the story goes, Berry was a drunkard and Lincoln, for his part, was a teetotaler, often preoccupied with odd jobs and laying the foundation for a congressional run. Neither were great businessmen, and New Salem wasn't exactly a thriving metropolis. Ultimately, Berry died, the business floundered, and the doors of the Berry-Lincoln general store were closed forever. Lincoln worked diligently for many years to repay the significant debts of the failed venture. 

If Lincoln's story ended there, he might have been remembered as a failure. 

He was not.

I tell this story to many of our new hires to demonstrate a few great lessons about failure. 

Failure does not discriminate

Failure is an equal opportunity entity. Many of us have a hard time believing failure will happen to us (especially early in our careers), but it will happen at some point. From the analyst who misses a critical fact, to the CEO who makes a terrible acquisition, everybody fails.

You should never expect to fail, but recognize that failure is both possible and likely. 

If Abe Lincoln failed, you might too. 

Failure is a temporary condition

The nice thing about failure? It's temporary. 

You lose a deal, move on to the next one. Your memorandum gets shredded by your boss, analyze the edits and do not repeat the mistakes. Your business venture tanks, you can still be President. 

It's like my high school baseball coach used to say when you made an error, "the best part about what you just did is that it's over."

Failure is merely an unfortunate moment in time - move on. 

Success trumps failure every time

My favorite part about the Lincoln story is that I had to go digging for it. Nobody remembers Lincoln as a failed businessman. And why would we - he's Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator, the savior of the Union, the author of the Gettysburg Address, and so on. 

Lincoln did not let his failures define him, and as a result, he will never be known as one. 

Like Lincoln, you cannot allow short term failures to define your career. Instead, remember that failure is the testing ground for success. 


Frank Ewing

Frank Ewing

Frank Ewing is the partner in charge of operations and subject matter expertise in the firm’s risk and compliance practice and also serves as Assistant General Counsel.  He is a licensed attorney and an anti-money laundering expert with over 13 years of combined professional experience in global consulting, banking, and law. Mr. Ewing has extensive hands-on experience in the areas of anti-money laundering compliance, regulatory enforcement actions, regulatory affairs, internal audit, commercial litigation, corporate investigations, fraud, and risk management.