What can Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Baines Johnson teach us about work-life balance? Quite a lot, as it turns out, when illuminated by famed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin through the helpful lens delineated by psychologist Erik Erikson.
She theoretically brought the two presidents and the psychologist together in a TED talk a few years ago that is worth our attention. Ms. Goodwin, who wrote the best seller Team of Rivals about Lincoln and was research assistant to Johnson on his memoirs as well as writing biographies of him and other presidents, took a seminar at Harvard University as a graduate student with Mr. Erikson.
There she was taught that to live the richest and fullest life people must balance work, love and play. “To pursue one realm to the disregard of the others is to open oneself to ultimate sadness in older age whereas to pursue all three with equal dedication is to make possible a life filled not only with achievement but with serenity,” she declared at the outset of her talk, before going on to illustrate Mr. Erikson’s point through the lives of the two presidents.
Mr. Erikson was a man of balance. A student of Freud, he was similarly concerned with development through our lives, but psycho-social rather than psycho-sexual development, Mark Sabbagh, a professor of psychology at Queen’s University explains. In our late teens and early twenties, by Mr. Erikson’s theories, we deal with the duality of intimacy versus isolation, developing relationships that allow for intimacy. To the extent we fail in building such connections, we will be isolated. Mr. Erikson didn’t believe that intimacy or isolation was meant to overwhelm its polar opposite, but we were to find an effective balance.
From age 25 to our mid-sixties, the balance we must seek is between generativity and stagnation as we develop a sense of purpose and make progress in our careers. Prof. Sabbagh prefers the word stability to stagnation, since the latter word carries negative connotations, so think of the duality in more common terms as between action and progress, and stability. Within that dynamic, Mr. Erikson believed thinking through the balance between work, love, and play would be crucial.
For Lincoln, work and generativity was driven by his fierce ambition. Even as a child, Ms. Goodwin said he dreamed heroic dreams. “He had a huge ambition, but it wasn’t simply for office, power, celebrity, or fame. What it was for was to accomplish something worthy enough in life so that he could make the world a better place for his having lived in it,” she observed in her talk.
He seemed haunted by death, losing his sister when she was in childbirth; his first love Ann Rutledge, at age 22, to typhoid; and his mother when he was only nine. As his mother was preparing for death, she didn’t hold out any hope they would meet in the afterlife. “Abraham, I am going away from you now and I shall never return,” she declared. Ms. Goodwin said he was obsessed by the need to achieve something worthy in life so that an individual could live on in the memory of others: “That worthy ambition became his lodestar.”
When he was suicidal in his 30s, friends took away knives and scissors they were so fearful of what might happen. But he told one friend: “I would just as soon die right now, but I have not yet done anything to make any human being remember I have lived.” He rallied, and years later, when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he invited that friend to be present, recalled that moment years early, and said, “I believe in this measure my fondest hopes will be realized.”
Just as work requires commitment and effort, so does love and family, Ms. Goodwin said, and that’s where Johnson failed. “The Lyndon Johnson in the last years of his life when I helped him on his memoirs was a man who spent so many years in the pursuit of work, power and individual success that he had absolutely no psychic or emotional resources left to get him through the days once the presidency was gone,” she said.
He had been president and was extremely rich, with a luxurious country home and a penthouse in the city, sailboats and speedboats, and a family that loved him. “Yet years of concentration solely on work and individual success meant that in his retirement he could find no solace in family, in recreation, in sports, or in hobbies. It was almost as if the hole in his heart was so large that even the love of a family without work could not fill it. As his spirit sagged, his body deteriorated until I believe he slowly brought about his own death,” she said.
“He spoke with immense sadness in his voice saying maybe he should have spent more time with his children and their children in turn, but it was too late. Despite all the power or all that wealth, he was alone when he finally died, his ultimate terror realized.”
Johnson never learned to play. But Lincoln did. He loved Shakespeare and despite the burden of the presidency made time to spend many nights a year in the theatre, even during the Civil War. When the lights went out, he felt transported away from his troubles to another time, Ms. Goodwin noted. He was also a wonderful storyteller – people had flocked to hear him tell stories back in his native Illinois – and he would routinely take the tension out of a meeting by telling a humorous story. It also kept his depression at bay. He claimed he laughed at stories so he would not cry, and a good story was better than a drop of whiskey.
Work. Love. Play. Mr. Erikson’s prescription is as vital for us as it was for Lincoln and Johnson.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter