In 1858, Abraham Lincoln ran for US Senator of Illinois against Stephen Douglas, a man who Lincoln held little sympathy for. About Douglas, he once remarked, “He does not quite know himself. Like a skillful gambler, he will play for all the chances . . . He never lets the logic of principle displace the logic of success.” In accepting his party’s nomination for senate candidate, Lincoln wrote a speech, one that that his friends thought “would lose him the Senate and maybe end his career.” To these critics, Lincoln replied, “if it is decreed that I should go down because of this speech, then let me go down linked to the truth. Let me die in the advocacy of what is just and right.” What followed was Lincoln’s famous House Divided speech. Lincoln lost the senatorial race to Douglas.
Lincoln played the long game. While Douglas won the 1858 senate seat, his rousing speech and subsequent debates with Douglas split the Democratic party to which Douglas belonged. That opened the door for the 1860 election, though Lincoln in no way thought he would be the man to walk through that open door. He wasn’t after political power but lasting change. A a matter of fact, he thought the ultimate goal might only occur long after he perished. He once asked, “Whoever heard of a reformer reaping the reward of his labors in his lifetime?” And of that 1858 speech, Lincoln astutely prophesied, “I am after larger game. The battle of 1860 is worth a hundred of this.”
Lincoln played the long game, putting principles ahead of acute success. He put the cause over his own ambitions, even if the payoff wouldn’t occur until long after his death. As he once remarked in remembering the time course of abolition in Britain, “Though [the anti-abolitionist] blazed, like tallow-candles for a century, at last, they flickered in the socket, died out, stank in the dark for a brief season, and were remembered no more, even by the smell.” Remembering these things. I can not but regard it as possible that the higher object of this contest may not be completely attained within the term of my natural life.”
The lesson: put your ego aside and do what’s right, even if takes a very long time.