Earlier this year I made Benjamin Franklin my exemplar for 2016. That meant that I’d spend part of this year learning about his habits & practices and then implementing some. The idea is to learn from the wisdom of a great person and try to benefit from some of that myself.
Two months into the year I’ve narrowed into a few things that stand out to me about Ben.
1. Pursuit of Excellence in His Craft
Benjamin Franklins business & political success often draws back to a single asset he had available to him – his writing. He is cited by some scholars as being the best writer in colonial America. He used that talent to create a newspaper & almanac that drove both profited him and helped keep his print shop busy. He also used it to convince others of topics that were important to him such as the creation of a volunteer fire department or the adoption of the stove he invented.
His talent in writing wasn’t an accident though. Though he certainly had a gift for it, this was a well nurtured gift. He spent much of his early life reading everything he could get his hands on an analyzing the writing style and argument structure of that writing. He drew clear inspiration from his favorite authors and upon becoming familiar with them, it becomes clear that he wasn’t a singular outlier of brilliance, but rather a well disciplined craftsman hailing from a long line of great minds.
Applying this to my life will be somewhat similar – my craft isn’t exactly the same as his – though it is close. My talent is in story telling – something I’ve utilized in everything from making movies to building software, marketing products or analyzing data. What I do at its root is to take a mess of data points and opinions and simplify it into a compelling story. There are so many people that create brilliant stories and though I love them, I wouldn’t say I’ve applied as much rigor to learning from their style as Ben did. Doing this will be one way in which I emulate him this year.
2. Intentional Creation of a Network of Contacts
Benjamin Franklin’s role as a diplomat rather than president was no mistake. It was a perfect fit for his role. He is known for having a broad network of acquaintances who were especially valuable because of their willingness to help him. He was just the type of person people liked helping.
That network developed intentionally through his nurturing relationships, being willing to help others and being a great conversationalist. He also went out of his way to develop social gathering, volunteer groups, committees, etc. Many members of those groups went on to have success and they in turn drive some of that back towards Franklin, whether it was in the form of business for his printing shop, appointment into positions or donations to his various projects for public good.
Though I have the pleasure of calling many great people friends, I have never been very intentional about the process of networking. I just happen to like talking about certain topics & participating in certain activities and throughout the years have spent more time and build closer relationships with people who enjoy the same. This year I would like to take some intentional steps to think about the people I know, how I can stay in better contact with them and how I can help them more.
3. Works for the Public Good
Throughout his autobiography, Franklin spends a lot of time discussing various public good projects he initiated and his efforts in raising supporters. His common plan was to put together a plan and to get a number of able families to contribute on a monthly subscription a small sum to maintain the work. Some efforts included the hiring of a street sweeper, the fortification of the city, the construction of the speaking hall and university, among others. Many of the things our tax dollars pay for today were not available then and their presence in Philadelphia was first introduced thanks to Franklin.
Along with caring for others, it is clear that Franklin knew that a rising tide raises all ships. Almost all of the projects were on a local level and benefited the people of his city, which was of course a good thing for a local business owner. A city with good infrastructure would attract & support more residents, which would result in a growing local economy which would drive more business to his print shop and more potential subscribers to his newspaper. Many of the projects also directly benefited him through either creating work for his print shop or putting him in a position of authority.
As I reflect on how I could help the public, my first though it is to do it on a global scale, focusing on information distribution. That tends to be what I’m good at. I think there is something to learn from Franklins local projects though. My neighborhood isn’t in need of a street sweeper or library, but I can certainly think of a few local services and events that could gain local support if only they had a champion. The rising tide would of course benefit me as well in the increase of local quality of life.
4. Eagerness to Debate & Refusal to Argue
So adamant was Franklin’s pursuit of excellence, that he intentionally sought out the opportunity to debate topics. He formed a group he called the “Junto” in which members would bring position papers which others would then criticize. From it, he became very good at arguing and also very well informed.
It is obvious from his writing, and occasional public spats, that he liked being right. In his early 20s he decided that it wasn’t prudent to always strive to win arguments though – he felt it resulted in near term victory but long term loses. Because of that he adapted other styles of debate, refraining (usually) from personal attacks, direct contractions and such. There are pros and cons to that style of talk – it is one reason Ben likely wouldn’t have made a great President, but it certainly served him well.
Like Ben, I love to debate. I am prone to playing the devils advocate for the sake of learning. I find it much more entertaining to defend a point that not even I could agree with. Also like Ben, I like to argue, I’m prone to going for the jugular in a conversation. I could use a dash of Ben’s intentional tact. He clearly had some pride issues, much like I do, and so taking some learning here will likely do me well in the future as I deal with more delicate topics and less forgiving company.
5. Tinkering & Scientific Research
Aside from the story of the kite and lightning storm, Benjamin Franklin isn’t often thought of as a scientist – at least not in the way his contemporaries like Isaac Newton or the scientists of the 1800s were. But he in fact was an avid tinkerer and hails a number of inventions to his name. He had a collection of what he describes as ‘curiosities’ that he would show to guests and which seem from description to be akin to the type of science demonstrations we show to schoolchildren today.
One of my favorite stories is of Ben’s habit of taking air baths in the winter to avoid catching colds. At the time it was thought that being outside in the cold air got one sick, but he suspected fresh air was good for you and so in order to increase his exposure to it, he would sit outside completely nude for periods of time. It wasn’t until ~100 years later that we learned about germs and the illnesses they caused. It turns out he was mostly correct. (Though time might tell that being nude in fact helps too.)
I am a bit of a tinkerer myself and like to do some experimenting. Most of it is more social or productivity based than a study of the natural sciences (and I steer clear from electricity), but I’d like to change that. There are many fields ripe for experimenting today and I’ll soon have to show ‘curiosities’ to my children, so I guess I need a collection myself. This year I’ll look to tinker more.
Along with running his own printing shop, Franklin engaged in a number of business ventures. One thing that stood out to me is that he was eager to use his skills, reputation & assets to setup a business partnership that the other party would run. He didn’t need an empire of things for him to oversee, instead he would rather have a stream of income – even if that were only 10% of the profits, leaving the other 90% to the person running the business. There was a lot of wisdom in this and we still see similar practices today in the worlds of private equity and venture capitalists.
I’ve started a number of projects over the years, but most of them were solo ventures that would eventually expire when my interest did. I’m not sure that I’ll have time this year to start a business, but I’d like to reflect some and at least ideate on how I could initiate a business that I would be an eventual minority stakeholder in.
BONUS: Use of Spreadsheets for Self Betterment
I couldn’t help but mention that Franklin used spreadsheets to better himself. There is no action here, but as I first discovered it, I felt a deep sense of joy and connection.
His particular exercise, which started on paper but later moved to an stone ‘dry erase’ tablet, involved tracking his moral failings.
I use spreadsheets to make a number of aspects of my life more efficient and to track others. I have no fewer than a dozen, of which I use a few every day. I find it much more helpful to have accurate data when making decisions.
For example the statement ‘I surfed only 12 times last year’ is more helpful than ‘I didn’t surf much in the last year’ because with the former I can quantify an acceptable level, for example 24 times, and implement a strategy to achieve it. With the latter I’m simply complaining. (FYI – I’m on track so far having surfed 4 times in 2016)
Honorable Mention: Industriousness in His Work
I would be remiss to talk about Ben Franklin’s best traits and not mention his industriousness. For any future readers, this would be one to include at the top of the list. For me, at this time, I don’t feel this is an area I need growth so I’ve excluded it from the actionable list.
Not only was Franklin one of the hardest workers, but he made it a point to make that known. He knew that hard work built trust which was as good for business as actual hard work was.
He described himself as often working from before breakfast until the wee hours of the morning. In his autobiography he quotes a time where he pulled an all nigher in order to finish a project on time that would otherwise been late because of an error on his part. One thing of note is that he did publish his daily schedule which consisted of two four hour work blocks – though nine of the hours of the day are described broadly as including ‘meals, study, conversation & overlooking his accounts’ – not exactly Netflix.