We can dissect Hamilton on many levels — lessons, history/politics, words/writing, singing/acting, etc. But that's not what this post is about.
Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a story about how to live a life of significance and meaning.
“America, You Great Unfinished Symphony, You Sent For Me. You Let Me Make A Difference. A Place Where Even Orphan Immigrants Can Leave Their Fingerprints And Rise Up.”
According to creator Lin Manuel Miranda, we only have one shot at life and we all have something important to contribute.
In addition, we each define success for ourselves, and it’s our responsibility is to make a positive dent in the world. Further, we can make a dent only through hard, purposeful work.
But that’s not all. Here are the 6 life and career lessons from Hamilton:
1) Success is improbable, but it’s not impossible.
The colonies were an extreme underdog in the fight for independence from England. England was richer. They had the most powerful military in the world.
And yet, the American colonists prevailed because they wanted it more. They fought harder and smarter. Ultimately the Americans had much more to lose. This provided the motivation essential to prevail.
Time and time again, our backs will be against the wall. This allows us to summon the necessary courage to keep fighting. Aim higher — the universe has a way of opening doors when you need them most.
2) We each have just one life and only 24 hours in a day, so we must make the most of it.
Hamilton is full of examples of ways in which its title character consistently out-hustles and outworks the people around him. As an example, Aaron Burr describes his contributions to the Federalist Papers:
“The plan was to write a total of 25 essays, the work divided evenly among the three men. In the end, they wrote 85 essays, in the span of six months. John Jay got sick after writing 5. James Madison wrote 29. Hamilton wrote the other 51!”
Yes, 51 essays in 6 months.
As he and so many have said in so many different variations, we only get one shot at life, so we must make the most of it.
3) If we aim high enough, we’ll make many mistakes along the way.
As Hamilton’s life progresses, his accomplishments can never keep up with his ambitions. With each greater ambition, there are more foes, bigger hurdles to overcome, and larger tests of commitment. His goals only get bigger, and he is never satisfied. At first, he looks to make a name for himself in America after emigrating from the West Indies. Then he seeks to command an army. Then he guns for a cabinet position. Finally, he looks to the presidency.
Hamilton’s political prospects are ultimately doomed by his extramarital affair, subsequent extortion, and a related scandal. Lin Manuel seems to argue that mistakes are inevitable, and the true test is in how you respond to this adversity.
4) There will be many times we feel defeated. The bigger our dreams, the more we will have to sacrifice to achieve them.
For his entire life, Hamilton remains unsatisfied. He remains doggedly committed to the next accomplishment and then the next. Ultimately the presidency and vice-presidency elude Mr. Hamilton, and though he gives it his best shot, he is ultimately killed by an inability to get beyond his pride.
Before his own death, he endures incredible sacrifices — the death of many friends, the death of his son, the death of his presidential ambitions, and more. Many of these he is able to surmount with dogged commitment and hard work, but eventually, as we see with Alexander Hamilton, death comes to us all.
5) Take the time to rest and recharge. Dig deeper so you can take on even bigger challenges.
Alexander Hamilton’s wife Eliza is often seen encouraging Hamilton to slow down, to take a break, to leave New York City, and enjoy the countryside. He sometimes obliges. During these times he often finds new sources of strength and is able to summon the strength to pick himself back up. Hamilton fails to take sufficient time to rest and suffers major consequences — including leading to the affair that dooms his chance at the presidency.
We all need a significant amount of time to rest and reflect. If we don’t make this time, there’s a good chance we will eventually pay a heavy price.
6) We do not have control over how history will judge us. We do have control over our values, our goals, our friends, our work habits, and our mentors.
This is the most significant, and most complex lesson of the show, and ultimately the one that speaks most to me at this point in my life. Hamilton is focused on living his life according to his rules. He writes about what he believes in. He does what he thinks is right. His strength comes from his alignment — from his values to his beliefs to his actions.
Hamilton’s ambition comes from his commitment to his beliefs, and to making them a reality. This gives his life meaning, it gives him strong roots. And it cements his place in history. In contrast, Lin Manuel presents us with Aaron Burr, who has no such strength.
But when all is said and all is done
Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none
While both Hamilton and Burr experience setbacks in their lives, Lin Manuel shows that Aaron Burr had a weaker character. In contrast to Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Burr is tortured by this. He lets his anger get the best of him, which leads him to kill Hamilton. He pays dearly for this and has to live with it for the rest of his life. Burr’s approach is not without advantages. It arguably leads to greater career success within his lifetime. He becomes a senator and then vice-president under Jefferson, while Hamilton’s highest office is Secretary of the Treasury under Washington. But Hamilton is better memorialized by history, and for good reason.
The lesson here is clear — a life lived in alignment with values may not be easier, but it is worth the challenge.
Focus on you: it’s what you can control
At many times in my life so far, I have found myself overly preoccupied with people and things outside of control.
Whether it’s my boss, my company’s leaders, the CEO, the US President, my wife, or my children, I’ve focused too much mental and emotional energy on them. Focusing on other people is draining.
I’ve created success criteria for my life that are impossible to fulfill because they are dependent on what other people choose to do.
This is a recipe for disaster because my influence over other people has a limited range — from little to none.
In comparison, when I choose to focus on myself, my own values, who my friends are, what my work habits are, and who I choose as mentors, I feel incredibly engaged.
This does not mean I do not care about other people — quite the contrary. It simply means that I do not make my happiness dependent on what they do.
“You don’t want your happiness to be conditional upon the behavior of other people. It’s bad enough that your happiness is conditional upon your own behavior.” The Untethered Soul
Miranda’s Hamilton focuses on what he can control: his actions, his beliefs, his commitments, his goals, his work. In doing so, he secures his place in history.
I plan to do the same. I know you’ll be with me.