How did Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) achieve so much with so little? How could he form the country’s first hospital and first lending library, lead the formation of the 13 Colonies, and found the University of Pennsylvania?
He did it by creating the resources that he lacked. At 24, around 1830, with only a few books of his own, he formed a private lending library among five friends, and then expanded the concept to the general public of Philadelphia. He looked at his problem, recognized that others shared the problem, and went about creating a solution, which benefited eventually the whole country.
How was he able to create resources where he had none? In two ways: First, he set about to create himself how he wanted to be; and second, he set about to become virtuous.
Franklin Created Himself
From a young child, he began creating himself. This is not reframing Franklin’s perspective on life from a modern self-improvement perspective. Franklin consciously set out to “improve himself” from 8 years old. Some have even called Franklin the “father of self-improvement.” And he did so against considerable odds.
For example, he had only two years of education. Franklin’s parents, immigrants from England, had money to send him to school for only two years. From 10, he was apprenticed to an older brother, working 10 or more hours per day, making tallow, which is blocks of beef fat. Imagine yourself at 10, taken out of your fifth-grade class, at which you had been the top student, and put to stirring noxious vats of beef fat. That was to be your life 10 hours per day, for the next 7 years.
His father, learning that Benjamin planned to escape the apprenticeship by going to sea, apprenticed him to another brother in a print shop, from age 12.
Without schooling, he sought out books from family friends or booksellers’ assistants, such as his early favorite book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan, about a hero’s journey to reach the celestial city. The idea was that individuals moved forward, based on knowledge and the wisdom that comes from conquering adversity.
Another favorite was Bonifacius — essays to do good — by Cotton Mather. Franklin wrote Mather’s son, many years later, “If I have been a useful citizen, the public owes the advantage of it to that book.”
Beyond being a voracious reader, Franklin believed in making a plan for his life and improving himself daily.
Franklin’s Daily Planner for 13 Virtues
Franklin explained in his book The Art of Virtue about writing a plan on how to live, his 13 virtues, on which he monitored himself daily. In 1726, at the age of 20, he was returning to America from England.
In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, he wrote: “I propos’d to myself, for the sake of clearness, to use rather more names, with fewer ideas annex’d to each, than a few names with more ideas; and I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express’d the extent I gave to its meaning.”
Franklin’s 13 virtues were:
1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness, and drink not to elevation.
2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself — i.e., waste nothing.
6. Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice: Wrong none, by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forebear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes or habitation.
11. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; Never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
12. Tranquillity: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
He focused on one virtue per week, so after 13 weeks, he moved through all 13 virtues. After 13 weeks, he would start over.
He tracked his progress in a small book (shown in his autobiography and at right). At the top of each chart was one of the virtues. The charts had a column for each day of the week, and 13 rows marked with the first letter of each of the 13 virtues. Every evening, he would review the day and mark each virtue if he had a fault in it that day.
He wrote that he gained inspiration for this exercise from Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”
Did you know?
That Benjamin Franklin almost stayed in England in 1726 to become a professsional swim instructor.