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May 8, 2006

Lessons Learned with Ben Franklin

BenFranklin2.jpg While working on the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin over the past few weeks, I was given a great chance to access Franklin's life, his time, and most of all his wisdom. In the memoir his code of ethics can be expressed in many ways. In one section he stresses how learning forms the crux of personal excellence, in another he systematically endevours to rid himself of the daily habits that impede virtue. Any one section of the book can be listened to on its own and it would be enough to chew on for several months if not a year. Here are a few aspects of Franklin's life that I found the most compelling.

Morality: Franklin was not conventionally religious: He spurned the clergy's attempts to save his soul, and he rarely attended church. Nevertheless, he did come to form his own set of beliefs based on divine principles. He codified these beliefs at one point into a series of maxims he then tried to adhere to for the rest of his life. For instance, during a period of several weeks he spoke nary an unkind word about anyone in his circle in order that he not become known as a badmouther. By taking a strategic approach to personal character, Franklin experimented with the whole concept of "good" human conduct. While he himself admitted the results over a lifetime were mixed, he still found a way to identify his personal deficiencies and objectively improve upon them.

Reading and Writing: When you think you've hit a wall in your options, there's always the option of reading more about your options in order to broaden your understanding of your options. Does that make sense? Let me put it another way, Benjamin Franklin read not just for pleasure, he read to gain a better grasp on the way the world functions and how he might best be used within it. Reading for him was a way to map the world more efficiently. He made time for reading within his daily work schedule, and at many points in the book one can see he derived extreme pleasure from his books. He was also a beloved writer, and this aspect of his many talents had a profound influence on early colonial life. His poor Richard's Almanac, newspaper editorials and self-published essays held major sway on public opinion and undoubtedly helped plot the direction of the colonial mind. It would be foolish to think he didn't sow the seeds of revolution; his writing extolled independent thought and action at all costs. What's more American than that?

Be Curious: Every waking moment can move you forward, even when it seems like leisure. Franklin was the very definition of a rennaissance man. If he wasn't creating the first library, he was thinking of a way to put fires out or harnessing the electrical properties of lightning. All of these great discoveries were made by a man that followed through on every interest he had to the nth degree. Franklin was always searching to illuminate the dark corners of his personal experience. His world was marked by a constant need to know more and to push the boundaries of convention. Throughout the book, Franklin speaks of his activities as if they didn't present an obstacle and everything he didn't know was simply something he would know if he simply took the time to study it.

That's just a bit of what I've gleaned after thinking about it here for a few minutes. There's much more to discuss here and nothing written here can encapsulate what Franklin was able to accomplish in his lifetime. He was gifted with an amazing intellect to be sure, but he was also equally blessed by his access to learning materials (even he would admit he would have gone nowhere if he hadn't educated himself throughout his life).

In the end, it constantly amazes me how era-defining historical periods produce the perfect people to lead the way. If we didn't have men like Franklin, Washington and Jefferson during the revolution, I don't know how history would have gone. The same can be said for how Lincoln appeared during the Civil War or how leaders like FDR and Churchill emerged to save the world during World War II. I hope you enjoy Franklins account of his story and are inspired by his example as well. If anything, the model he provides for living is very, very doable.