Book cover art for The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin

A portrait of a fascinating life well-lived, and it's comforting to know that 'life hacks' are not just the preserve of the internet age.

Reading, Writing and Arguing

The dispute of ideas is worthwhile and useful but be careful that you do not fall too hard int to the habit of it. You may become a contrarian for the sake of it, and an argumentative person unpleasant to be around!

Franklin was often in the habit of expounding on various views to teach others of what he had learnt. He observed that, if you wish to inform and instruct others, you should be modest about how you do it. Or do not be immodest, either way: this will get people's backs up and they may choose to oppose and contradict you in what you are trying to get across.

After some years of arguing, Franklin also found it useful to be a 'reasonable creature', chief reason being that it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

Eighteenth Century Productivity Hacker

As a young man, Franklin was a productivity obsessive before it was cool. He obsessed over how to improve his writing abilities and, wherever he could, he would snatch all the time he could each day to read his books. This would then allow him to devise various writing exercises that he would also conduct in his spare time.

He also revelled in frugality, finding all manner of ways to save his money, including eating only a vegetarian diet to avoid paying costly butchers' bills.

Franklin also spent most of his youth engaged in reading, writing, arguing and working at his trade (printing).  He simply taught himself while he earnt a living.

He was also full of ideas and bold about them. He regularly took opportunities to write and print his ideas into pamphlets - the common blog post of the time. Being interesting, well-read and his writing so well-received it often opened doors to him with opportunities and the chance to meet various different people. In short: show your work.

Straight Edge Polymath

'Nothing was useful that was not honest.'

Sobriety was important for Franklin, evidence by his time working for a printer in London. He was able to achieve far more than the other men who would drink as they worked. He profited considerably for his temperance.

'I grew convinced that  truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost important to the felicity of life.'

He formed a self improvement group with a collection of close friends called the 'junto'. This junto would meet every Friday night to discuss morals, politics, natural philosophy. It would also be the source of many an idea that Franklin would develop.

The first of which was the creation of a library, paid for by subscription, that might supply the local population with sufficient reading materials that they might better themselves. His intention was that others might use this readily available knowledge to better themselves.

Franklin's List of Moral Virtues

Somewhere along the way - he doesn't date it exactly - he Franklin creates a list of moral virtues. Just wanting to be good, he thought, was not enough: 'contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established.'

Here are the virtues, each with their own elaboration in two or three parts:

  1. Temperance - eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation
  2. Silence - speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order - let all 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 employ'd in something useful; cut of all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity - use no harmful 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; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness - tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility - be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity.
  13. Humility.

Apparently Franklin felt no need to elaborate on the final two.

He would track each of these, day by day, to see if he was able to stick to each. He had the most difficulty with 'order', apparently, because of the incursions of others on his work. So perhaps not so useful, that one.

Franklin's Daily Schedule

Another one of Franklins self-improvement efforts was to devise a daily schedule that helped him achieve the above list of virtues on a daily basis.

5-7am: Rise, wash and address powerful goodness! Contrive day's business, and take the resolution of the day: prosecute the present study, and breakfast.

8-12pm: Work

12-2pm: Read, overlook accounts, dine.

2-6pm: Work

6-10pm: Put things in their places. Supper. Music or diversion, or conversation. Examination of the day.

10pm-5am: sleep.

'While you may not reach perfect attainment in the things you seek to improve, you will end up better and happier for it.'

A Speckled Ax Is Best

When we attempt to improve ourselves, we start by sharpening the cutting edge of our blade.

We grind the edge until it is sharp, but the rest of the axe remains dull and untouched.

When we want to improve ourselves wholesale, we must turn our attention to the whole blade - not just the edge. In doing so, the effort is enormous and the strain intense to cover such a large area.

Yet even the strongest of efforts in grinding and polishing will still leave speckled marks on the blade that will not budge.

Should you continue to grind and shine every day until the specks are gone, or are you engaged in a fools errand?

Those speckles are our flaws and idiosyncrasies that cannot be ironed out so easily. Once all is said and done, the blade still shines brighter than it did before.

Franklin Turns an Enemy Into a Friend

In government, Franklin encountered a great many people as well as a fair share of those that disagreed with him and vice versa. But, in one instance found himself wanting to build a better relationship with one other who he saw as having considerable potential (and, in time, a greater rival).

Instead of being simply 'nice' to the man, he asked a favour.

On learning he had a great many books, he asked to borrow one. He then read it and returned it with a note thanking him profusely for the favour.

Shortly afterwards, this contender struck up conversation with Franklin and the two became good griends.

'This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged."'

Don't Count On 'Big Breaks' - Just Get to Work

Franklin was keen to remind the reader that big breaks don't come often and should not be relied upon for the creation of success.

'Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.'

We are at out best when we are put to work - useful work in a useful fashion. We are worst when we do not labour.

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