Abraham Lincoln’s Tough-Love Letter to His Step-Brother About Laziness and Work Ethic
By Maria Popova
Boredom is one of the most essential yet endangered human capacities, a seedbed of sanity the creative benefits of which have been championed by some of humanity’s most fertile minds. And yet the line between boredom as unburdened mental space for idea-incubation and boredom as an idle, purposeless, procrastinatory squandering of time is a fine and ever-elusive one.
That fine line is what Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) addresses in a magnificent letter to his step-brother, John Daniel Johnston, found in Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832–1858 (public library).
On January 2, 1851 — a decade before he won the presidency — 42-year-old Lincoln scolds his step-brother, one year his junior:
Dear Johnston: —
Your request for eighty dollars, I do not think it best to comply with now. At the various times when I have helped you a little, you have said to me, “We can get along very well now,” but in a very short time I find you in the same difficulty again. Now this can only happen by some defect in your conduct. What that defect is, I think I know. You are not lazy, and still you are an idler. I doubt whether since I saw you, you have done a good whole day’s work, in any one day. You do not very much dislike to work, and still you do not work much, merely because it does not seem to you that you could get much for it. This habit of uselessly wasting time, is the whole difficulty; and it is vastly important to you, and still more so to your children, that you should break this habit. It is more important to them, because they have longer to live, and can keep out of an idle habit before they are in it easier than they can get out after they are in.
But Lincoln’s critique is no idle condemnation — his sternness stems from loving concern and aims to motivate rather than dishearten. To incentivize his step-brother to work, he makes him a bargain — for every dollar John earns by his own labor in the next five months, Lincoln would make a matching gift and thus double his earnings. And yet even so, he admonishes John, any financial aid would be lost on him unless he cultivates a healthier relationship with work, money, and property. Lincoln writes:
You say you would almost give your place in Heaven for $70 or $80. Then you value your place in Heaven very cheaply, for I am sure you can with the offer I make you get the seventy or eighty dollars for four or five months’ work. You say if I furnish you the money you will deed me the land, and if you don’t pay the money back, you will deliver possession — Nonsense! If you can’t now live with the land, how will you then live without it? You have always been kind to me, and I do not now mean to be unkind to you. On the contrary, if you will but follow my advice, you will find it worth more than eight times eighty dollars to you.
Affectionately your brother,
Lincoln’s letters are in the public domain and are available as a free ebook. Complement this particular missive with philosopher Roman Krznaric on how to find fulfilling work, entrepreneur Paul Graham on how to get rich, and the great French painter Delacroix on the cure for procrastination.
Published June 22, 2016