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Would Lincoln Have Become President If He Had E-Mail?

The Allure of the Internet (Hat Tip: Academic Productivity)

(Hat Tip: Academic Productivity via why that’s delightful via OmniBrain via … via elephantitis of the mind)

Lincoln’s Focused Childhood

I watched a documentary last night on the childhood of Abraham Lincoln. (Which is exactly the type of insane excitement you can expect at the ‘ole Newport household.) What struck me was Lincoln’s focus. The tale is classic: every night, by candlelight, the young man would read into the twilight hours: seeking to understand hard thoughts and develop his own. The ambition this knowledge sparked kicked off his famed political journey.

Lincoln, of course, was not alone. I recently read, for example, biographies of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Both had a similar self-instigated scholarly dedication to mastering hard ideas and developing their own views of the world.

Here’s my question: would this have been possible in the age of the Internet?

The Era of Focus is Ending

Recent research reveals that the average office worker checks his e-mail 30 to 40 times an hour. I shudder to think what the results would be for a college student, working on an assignment with e-mail, gchat, twitter, and Facebook all standing at the ready.

Some companies, such as Intel, are even going so far as to instigate e-mail free days. The reason:

” [interruptions] prevent us from thinking carefully for any unbroken stretch of time.”

The effect: hard thinking doesn’t get done.

“After all, it’s much easier to fire off 10 e-mails than to sit down for an hour and think hard about how to turn around your division’s performance.”

If the Internet is robbing us of our ability to sit and concentrate, without distraction, in a Lincoln log cabin style of intense focus, we must ask the obvious question: are we doomed to be a generation bereft of big ideas? Will we lose, over time, like some vestigial limb, our ability to focus on something difficult for extended stretches? As a graduate student, I’ve had to put in place what are, in essence, rigorous training programs to help pump up my attention span. It’s a huge struggle for me. Somehow, I imagine, if Lincoln was in my position, he wouldn’t be having this same problem.

Moving Forward

This post is more a meditation than a plan of action. There is no magic answer; just an important thought we should struggle to answer. History’s great figures have been those who were willing to put in those long, hard hours of difficult focus on the difficult questions of their age. Do we have that ability in us And, if not, how do we start the process of gaining it back?

I’m interested in your thoughts…

27 thoughts on “Would Lincoln Have Become President If He Had E-Mail?”

  1. In the electronic age, we’re on such an instant schedule that someone like Lincoln may not have been able to cut it. Imagine the luxury of having an entire day between a newspaper printing and the next newspaper printing to accuse or respond to a comment. I think the concept of GTD would be completely lost in those days. “What do you mean that you have an inbox for everything that you need to do?” In the mid-19th century days still had clear ends and beginnings. It’s unlikely that a regular person, let alone the president, would be woken up in the middle of the night for an emergency phone call.

    Finally, let me finish with the Valley girl interpretation of today’s blog. “Hillary has, like, a stylist; if I were the party’s stylist for Lincoln’s candidacy, I’d tell them to get a new candidate. Like, ew!”

  2. The picture in your post…I feel like it’s following me around. I subscribe to those different blogs, so I can’t wait to see who posts it via your site next!

    As for the ‘era of focus’, I agree that many of us tend to check things too frequently. It’s not just e-mail. It could be TV news, RSS feeds, text messages, web forums, instant messaging…the list goes on.

    A lot of this is because of technology. If we aren’t available right away for an instant message, we worry that whoever’s on the other end will get the wrong impression. If we don’t respond to some amazing news that was blogged about five minutes ago, we fear missing out on the moment. Screw retro, we want NOW!

    How about a 30 day challenge to dump something we do too much of to see how it impacts upon life? More reasonably, we could just strictly limit ourselves to a couple of scheduled sessions a day instead of random dipping in and responding. Once in the morning, once in the evening?

    As soon as we accept that multitasking is not generally productive, we might get some necessary focus back. Even if it’s only in short bursts.

  3. I think the answer is somewhat obvious: make the high-focus activities (and their desired outcomes) far more attractive than those that add to the continuous partial attention problem. And don’t let the opinion of the more extroverted friends of yours mess with your own views. 🙂

  4. Didn’t Lincoln also have a nervous breakdown of some sort after a family member died (I think the wife)? If we had the internet back then, that would be all over the web and I don’t think anyone would have voted for him. I think you can argue that people lived much more privately back in those days.

  5. Focus and dedication to mastering hard ideas. I’ve been thinking about those lately as I try to understand the behavior of my teenage daughters which seems to be far removed from the realm of reason. I’m learning that they do not have to focus on ideas their mother and I offer or what is available in many of the fine books to which they have access. They have only to go to their bedrooms and text their friends for instant confirmation that what they want/do/think/believe is not only utterly rational, but absolutely right or an eternal truth.

    Even email is too slow for the young. If not texting, then at least instant messaging on the computer. I am learning that it is not information or wisdom they seek but instant confirmation from their peers. Confirmation by responsible adults is simply unwanted or unimportant.

  6. @Corrine:

    Thanks. The chain of attribution is ridiculously long by this point and hard to unravel. I added your source to the end of the citations.


    He battled depression throughout his life, though the word didn’t exist back then. I hear you on the attack angle. Though the mudslinging was pretty dirty at the time…


    Do you think it’s a phase? (The modern equivalent of stomping to your room and cranking up rock records.) Or something that persists into adulthood?

  7. @Amy:

    I like your vision of GTD in the early 19th century. I could imagine the next action list:

    [ ] plow

    [ ] chop wood
    [ ] kill chicken


    I would be interested in hearing about such a 30 day schedule. I know Tim Ferriss has been a big pusher for this behavior; but it’s really hard….


    That’s more or less my philosophy. If you can get real excited about and believe strongly in what you’re doing; these types of distraction suddenly lose some of their appeal.

  8. @Mike:

    For example, I use a project queue to ensure I am only working on one big thing at a time that has to be finished before moving on. I then have been trying to journal my daily efforts on these big pushes via the use of a gmail label and filter. (I send updates to a special e-mail address and it gets automatically filed in Gmail under the “ProjectThink” label.) My hope is to look back over time and see how my attempts at hard, sustained work ebbed and flowed.

  9. Quick question. I’ve been thinking about this and was wondering if having a laptop makes it easier to “get off the computer”, while your studying at your desk etc. The reasoning is that a desktop computer is right in front of you, and taking up most of the space on your desk, whereas a laptop you can put away in a case and temporarily forget about it while you do your work (“out of sight, out of mind” ?).
    Those that do have laptops, have you ever done this? Does this work?

  10. I think that as long as we have the willpower to turn off all distracting devices, we can still come up with new ideas and focus for long periods of time. It’s all a matter of self-discipline and finding ways to prevent ourselves from getting distracted. For example, I unplug my ethernet cable when I’m typing a paper so that I can’t get to the internet while I’m writing. I have a schedule for checking email, facebook, etc.: I check 3 times a day, morning, lunch, and night. (Unless I’m waiting for a response to a really important email, in which case I check about once an hour.) Forcing yourself to read stuff that requires long periods of focus helps too; it’s like exercising your self-discipline muscle so that it gets stronger.

    In my mind, it all boils down to this: what measures am I willing to take in order to accomplish what I need to do?

  11. I’ve always been skeptical of studies which show we check our email dozens and dozens of times in one hour.

    Most office workers have their email running on Exchange or GroupWise, which automatically checks email and has real-time sync.

    So right now my email application is open and if a new email comes it will be delivered right away. I’m not physically “checking” it.

    If you are clicking send/receive 40 times in an hour, I agree you have a problem. But it’s hard to tell what these studies are actually saying in terms of what “checking” means.

  12. Great, now whenever I visit your site at work, it looks like I’m looking at porn (just kidding) : )

    This is just more or less a re-incarnation of your “Einstein’s Principle” post in that you acknowledge that a laser-like focus on a few things is essential for success. In general I think the problem is simply that an easy alternative to hard thinking that exists when we’re alone (emphasis on the word “alone”) and that we’re willing to take it. There were distractions in Lincoln’s day, but I think that for the most part, they involved other people. (An easy way to confirm this is to look at the “vices” that the ministers preached against in that day and to note how many of them were indeed “social sins”). As a culture, I think the danger is that we now have a way to block boredom when we’re alone, and thus have freed ourselves of the need to be with a certain crowd at a certain time of day in order to be entertained.

    Also be careful of what you mean by “big idea.” From reading between the lines of your article, I’d guess that what you really are referring to by “big ideas” are not only breakthroughs in one’s field of specialization (as evidenced by the mention of “the average office worker”), but also one’s “world-view” or paradigm for interpreting how life works, what the purpose of life is, are there morals, is there a god, etc… Also I guessing that big ideas are insights as to how these questions can be answered.

  13. @Amy:

    I would hope that it’s a phase, but what causes me concern is that it is a psychologically successful means of avoiding rational analysis. Through these devices one can receive immediate conformation that they’re right, that they need not examine the situation further. *laughs* Of course, the current president has accomplished the same thing without resort to IM or “texting” devices.

    I’m concerned that it is far easier these days to avoid reasoned analysis by immediate resort to your own group of cheerleaders.

  14. @Ben:

    True. The journalists working on these articles just want a shock factor, so it probably helps to go back to the original research. Though we can probably all agree that the answer is, for most people: “a helluva lot.”


    Good connection with the Einstein Principle. I guess this essay is questioning whether we are losing our ability to follow this principle. A couple other points. The distractions in Lincoln’s day, I think, were much less pervasive in the average person’s life than today. There were social ills like too much drinking and gambling at the saloon, but there were still a lot of long winter nights holed up in your cabin. (I’m probably giving historians a heart attack with my cliched, non-supported, simplified views of life during these times!) In terms of big ideas, I am referring “breakthroughs in one’s field of specialization,” among other things. If you’re oscillating between urgent work and web surfing, when are you going to spend those hours working through a more efficient widget process or reading the literature on the leaders in your field, etc.?

  15. I would like to get back to the bigger picture a bit; are we really a generation bereft of bigger ideas?

    Personally, and this is my opinion after observing the scientific world over a year and half now that it is not that we are losing big/grand ideas but rather we are working so fast in todays world that big ideas in the past are currently considered small milestones.

    What I mean to say really, in the field of science we have all these powerful tools currently that past scientists did not have. In that sense it would have taken them years to come to a conclusion that we can probably come to in about half a year to a year. For example the research of genetic diseases. I was recently reading “The Language of God” by Francis S. Collins where he stated that he did his PhD. on discovering the certain genetic code for only one disease (I keep forgetting it, sorry).

    But just last year scientists found about two or three genetic defects at the same time for the Alzheimer’s disease.

    So really I think that big ideas of the past are really minute ideas in todays world, while big ideas in our present time would have been considered God-given miracles in the past.

  16. Sorry for double post, but I have another comment. This is specifically to do with common folks and the use of the internet. With the internet/information age a lot of people I believe have abandoned the ability to analyze works of literature or contemplate what they read because they know someone out there has already done the work.

    In stead these people would rather go and do what they think is more productive work, and just hammer away in memorizing what other people have said.

    This is obviously causing the amount of grand idea thinkers to decrease, and with time they might even vanish.

  17. @Ilham:


    Let me play for a moment with your thoughts on big ideas in science. True, stuff that was hard a long time ago can be done quickly today. But the measure of “big” is probably more dependent on the impact on the scientific community’s understanding of the world. On that metric, the question remains, do we have less big ideas? Of course, there is the related question of the rise of big science, and how it’s changed the research process (no more Watson and Crick playing with models in the age $50 million dollar labs.) One might also argue that science, due to its explicit reward system, is the one place that will retain focus even as the rest of society collectively loses its concentration.

    All very interesting…

  18. @Swaroop

    I agree as well, I can do better studies and all when my laptop is off or just not beside me. For some reason I tend to be lazier to turn it on when it is already off.

  19. @whitebeard

    I’m not entirely sure I get your meaning. I think it may be a personality thing more than anything else; I still mull over problems, even those that I do discuss with my friends. I think one of my biggest luxuries right now (though I hadn’t thought about it that way until now) is the time that I “waste” standing and waiting for things to start or just riding the bus. Today, I thought through an algebraic problem for my geology class; and had an epiphany on it as well. I wonder how many other people take the time to really consider things and how they connect and work, rather than just finding the quickest, easiest, most correct answer.

  20. are we doomed to be a generation bereft of big ideas?

    I think we are a generation where big, revolutionary ideas do not come from individuals, but where the crowd, through web-enabled communication, is able to embrace and sculpt ideas in a concurrent way.

  21. I think we are a generation where big, revolutionary ideas do not come from individuals, but where the crowd, through web-enabled communication, is able to embrace and sculpt ideas in a concurrent way.

    That’s an interesting angle on the issue. Here’s a follow-up question, are these new, crowdsourced ideas the same type as those that come from deep, long thinking? If not what are we missing and what are we gaining?

  22. This is an amazing article! I can’t believe I’ve been reading your blog for so long and just came across it tonight. This makes me rethink my current habits much more than I thought it would. We hold these men (and many women as well) most of whom were our countries ‘founding fathers’ (without whom we would not be here right now-so very important and obviously smart men.) I love to learn how they studied and spent their time, it puts extra importance on life long learning and highlights the problems I have with studying today! Thank you so much!


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