Life lessons from Winston Churchill

“Never give in. Never, never, never.”

churchill mindset

Imagine for a moment you are so famous there are twelve thousand books written about you.

Not twelve thousand copies of a book, but twelve thousand different books with you in them.

That’s twelve thousand different interpretations of your life and times.

Imagine that.

It’s easy to if you’re Winston Churchill.

Voted the greatest Briton of all time, he is perhaps one of the most written about people in the history of literature.

It’s not difficult to understand why. Over the course of his life, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill;

  • Fought in three wars
  • Became a distinguished hero escaping from a prisoner-of-war camp
  • Wrote 8 to 10 million words (more than Shakespeare and Dickens combined) for forty books and thousands of newspaper and magazine articles
  • Won the Nobel Prize for literature
  • Became one of the world’s most highly paid journalists
  • Was one of the greatest orators of all time
  • Held Prime Minister’s office twice
  • Saved Western civilisation

Although famously known for leading the UK and allied forces to victory in WWII, which was certainly his own finest hour, Churchill led a long and illustrious pre and post-war life.

Of course, Churchill had the advantage of being born into aristocracy at a time when the class system dictated the life you would live.

Privilege can only get you so far and it’s what he did with that advantage that is most commendable.

Over the course of his life, Churchill showed bravery, grit, leadership and a commitment to bettering himself with everything in his undertaking.

As a young man, standing 5’6 with a body you could describe as wafer-thin, he wasn’t gifted with an athletism you would associate with battlefield bravery.

And being born with both a stammer and a lisp, he didn’t possess the natural skills to be one of the greatest orators of all time, whipping-up a nation with his words and rhetoric.

Nevertheless, he pushed himself to do both.

Behind Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, Westminster

It wasn’t his innate natural abilities that served him through his life, although he did have a gift with words and an excellent memory, rather it was Churchill’s mindset that was his superpower.

Coupled with an insatiable work ethic and a total belief in himself, it propelled him to become one of the most famous figures of modern times.

When we think of Churchill, we tend to imagine the slightly hunched-over ageing old man, wearing a top hat, cigar in one hand and extending the V for victory with the other.

This is him at the height of his fame. What we sometimes fail to remember is that he was a prolific doer from an early age.

Meeting both success and failure along the way and acquiring the leadership skills the UK (and half the world) needed in their darkest times.

This is the Churchill mindset.

Churchill had a lifelong total belief that he was destined for success

From a very early age, Churchill believed he was destined for great things.

“We are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow-worm,” he wrote in private to a friend in 1906, not long after returning from the Boer War as a hero and winning his first parliamentary seat.

When he was given the position of Prime Minister in 1940, a year after the UK declared war on Germany, he said he believed he had spent his whole life in preparation for this moment.

This confidence and belief in one’s self can likely be attributed to two things.

The first being his aristocratic upbringing and watching his father reach almost the pinnacle of UK (and world) politics.

The second being his mother’s belief in him who, after the early death of his father, encouraged him to do great things. “I believe in you and I believe in your star,” she would tell him.

A total belief in one’s self is the basis for Churchill’s mindset.

He turned his weaknesses into strengths

Churchill was born with both a stammer and a lisp which is not the best start for a wannabe orator and public speaker.

But when a throat specialist said there was no defect in his vocal organs and it was a matter of practice and perseverance to correct both, he began working on them straight away.

Churchill was not a natural orator and nature ensured that the odds were stacked against him.

Nevertheless, he would spend hours, days and years doing voice exercises and rehearsing and memorising the great speeches of old and even those of his father.

young churchill
A young Churchill

In 1897, the 23-year-old Churchill wrote an essay titled, The Scaffolding of Rhetoric, in which he opens with the following words on being a skilful orator.

“Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world.”

Churchill understood the power of oratory early on as he outlines in the essay. During which he gives a nod to his own speech impediments, reframing them as a positive.

“Sometimes a slight and not unpleasing stammer or impediment has been of some assistance in securing the attention of the audience, but usually a clear and resonant voice gives expression of his thoughts.”

For a 30 minute speech, he would spend 30 hours in preparation. Constantly practising and refining it and rehearsing until he could memorise it word-for-word and often until the last minute before delivering it.

Churchill was gifted with the use of words but with speaking he had to apply himself. His lisp was apparent in all his recorded speeches, including his most famous from wartime.

These weaknesses, however, did not stop him from becoming one of the greatest orators of all time.

He never gave in

Even by today’s standards, most people’s careers are over by the time they reach 65-years-old.

Not Churchill. At that age, he was on the cusp of reaching the pinnacle of his own career by leading the UK and half the world to victory against Nazi Germany.

In the 1930s he was cast out from friends and political life in what he called his “Wilderness Years.” A time when he was considered old and outdated in a new era of politics.

During this time, while most people would perhaps settle into early retirement or at the very least lighten their workload, Churchill was a prolific writer and speaker.

Author Ryan Holiday outlines this period in this article suggesting that Churchill was using his superior communication skills to build a platform where he could still influence policy, if not directly but indirectly.

“During his infamous time in the so-called political wilderness between 1931 and 1939, Churchill published 11 volumes and more than 400 articles, and delivered more than 350 speeches.”

It was this relentlessness that kept him in the public consciousness and when the time was right to step into the most important role of a generation he was ready.

His ethos of never giving in is exemplified in his speech to Harrow School in 1941. Still at war with Germany but there were signs the tide was beginning to turn in Britain’s favour.

“Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

He was a man of action

Churchill was not a career politician like many today.

From a young age, he was a man of action and sought out places of conflict he could join and become a hero.

He knew that to be successful in politics (which was his long-term aim) he had to prove himself in the real world.

At the age of 22, he was both a junior lieutenant in the cavalry and aspiring war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in India, Cuba and South Africa.

It was fighting the Boers in South African that Churchill was captured as a prisoner-of-war and subsequently imprisoned with fellow British soldiers in Pretoria.

After four weeks held captive, he made a successful escape which launched him to stardom back home in his native England and subsequently helped launch his political career.

Churchill prisoner of war
Churchill (far right) as a prisoner-of-war in Pretoria.

Churchill could never sit still and throughout his life he was a man of action and accomplishment. You could say he lived the lives of five men in his lifetime.

He learned how to fly an aeroplane just ten years after the first flight, he became a prolific writer writing 8 to 10 million words over the course of his life, he reached the top of British politics not once but twice as well as countless other achievements that would take any other person a lifetime to do.

His grandson is on record saying he never stopped from morning until night, seven days a week, all his life.

How to adopt the Churchill mindset

While we’re in a completely different era to the one Churchill lived in, we can take some cues from his life and way of thinking.

Understand that life is long and success is not exclusively reserved for the young.

At almost 65-years-old, Churchill went on to do his most important work. He believed that the previous 64 years of his life were in preparation for this moment. His career hadn’t ended but instead was about to reach its apogee.

Keep busy even when life isn’t going your way. 

Churchill kept busy in his “Wilderness Years.”  During the eight years when his political friends abandoned him and the party he belonged to no longer wanted him, he wrote, spoke and built a platform of influence and worldwide recognition.

He understood the importance of grit and maintaining morale and followed his own maxim of “keep buggering on” when he needed to most.

Take action each day. 

Churchill knew he was destined for great things but he also understood he would have to put himself in situations that would help him achieve them.

In other words, he didn’t wait around for opportunities to happen to him but instead went out and sought them.

Practice daily 

We’re often told today that we should double-down on the skills we are good at instead of focussing on ones we are not.

If Churchill, with his stammer and lisp, were to have followed this advice he would have never been the great orator he became known as.

If you want to acquire a skill you can, regardless of how the odds are stacked against you. You just have to put in the long, hard and arduous work every day.

That’s the Churchill mindset.

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