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.)