Abraham Lincoln, Deep Practicing Guy


More than just rail-splittingMore than just rail-splitting

It’s one of the all-time talent mysteries: how did a poor, uneducated kid from the dirt farms of Kentucky and Illinois grow up to become one of the most skilled, wise, empathetic, eloquent, brilliant communicators in the history of the world?

A good question, and I think we see some of the answer in Lincoln’s youth.  As a kid (six or seven), Lincoln would spend his evenings intently watching his father trade tales with visitors and neighbors. Each night, the boy lay awake, replaying the stories he’d heard. From Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (which is terrific, btw).

“Unable to sleep, [Lincoln] would reformulate the conversations until, as he recalled, ‘I had put in in language plain enough, as I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend.’ The following day, he would climb onto the tree stump or log that served as an impromptu stage and mesmerize his own circle of young listeners.”

Lincoln was not simply “learning” in the conventional loose sense of the word. He’s doing something much more powerful. He was building a neural map—a skill circuit. He was absorbing ideas, distilling them to their essence, translating them into a new form, then finally delivering them in a performance. Each step of the way, he was firing skill circuits, reaching, making connections and repeating. Sound familiar?

I dimly remember reading something about how a teenage Ben Franklin trained himself to be an essayist by rewriting famous essays in his own words– does that ring a bell with anyone?  (I’d remember myself, but apparently I didn’t deep practice enough.)

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4 Responses to “Abraham Lincoln, Deep Practicing Guy”

  1. Tracy Koehler says:

    As a boy, Benjamin Franklin borrowed books from a bookseller and imitated the writing styles of his favorite authors (like Mather and Daniel Defoe).
    Hunter S. Thompson used to copy the prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway — literally word-for-word copies — to understand (and get a feel for) how the men constructed sentences and paragraphs.
    Different people. Same technique.
    I used it myself as a kid, and use it to this day. I’ve even used it with your writing, Dan. I’ve copied paragraphs from your articles and from “Lance Armstrong’s War” to get a feel for how you use subjects and verbs, and for how you structure your paragraphs.
    As you copy down each word and follow along word-by-word, choice-by-choice, you get a sense of the psychology behind a writer and gain an understanding of the choices they make from the “inside out.” You come to understand how they view writing (and how they write about subjects) from the “inside out.” Moment-to-moment…
    When you copy a writer’s prose word-by-word, it’s as if you’re writing the words yourself…which can lead to a deep understanding of the process on a personal level. It’s no different, in effect, than a singer singing along with their favorite singer’s voice…matching their voice to the other singer’s voice…word-for-word.
    You can build and influence your own neural pathways by following those of others, by doing precisely “what” they do “when” they do it…thus getting a personal view of the all-important “how” they do it.

  2. Michael says:

    You may want to check out neuroscientist Michael Merzenich’s TED talk on how the brain re-wires itself — consistent with your thinking. I thought the best part were his insights into learning disabilities. Here is the link



  3. This is such a good point, and yes, Ben Franklin
    did turn prose into verse and back again. And he
    created a character, I think her name was Silence
    Dogood, a wise old woman who tore up New England
    with her pithy voice…even though Franklin was all
    of sixteen at the time.

    The part I found most poignant was that Franklin,
    who otherwise was always scrupulously humble and
    circumspect, revealed that when he rewrote paragraphs
    from the classics — by reading a paragraph — holding
    the main idea in his mind and then writing it out in
    his own voice — that he felt in many cases that he
    had improved it.

    Sounds like a major clue!

  4. Evangeline says:

    Hi, Dan.

    My sister just sent me the link for your amazon video. Interesting! Our initial question was, If deep practice=slow repetition, how does it relate to non-physical skills? (& I understand that all skills are physical in the sense of being neurologically encoded; I mean, playing tennis & practicing cello are different from writing fiction, for example)

    The Lincoln article suggests that the Deep Practice label extends to any practice that involves deep concentration, attention, and involvement. Is this right?


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