Picture courtesy of ushistory.org

As I developed the idea for this project over several months, I always knew who the first profile would be.

If there was a (modern) grandfather of self-study and improvement, it had to be Benjamin Franklin.

Known as the “first citizen of the 18th century,” Franklin was a self-publisher, inventor, signer of the American Declaration of Independence, and diplomat during the American Revolution. There is little debate that his life made an impact.

Through his writings, autobiography, and countless historical documents, we can reconstruct the core philosophies he credits with his own success. I believe they’re captured quite concisely in the quote below.

Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man.

1. Neighbors (relationships) matter.

Born poor and with little social standing, Franklin discovered one of his first keys to success at an early age – other people. In 1727, the 21 year old formed a “club of mutual improvement” called the Junto. The members of the Junto were drawn from diverse occupations and backgrounds, but they all shared a spirit of inquiry and a desire to improve themselves, their community, and to help others. Every Friday night, they gathered to discuss the topics of the day and challenge each other to broaden their knowledge.

He also had a unique approach to dealing with rivals (later called the “Benjamin Franklin Effect”), making a specific request that would require kindness to fulfill. With his keen insights into human behavior, Franklin knew that we grow to like the people we do nice things for. Working to retain his position as clerk, Franklin used this strategy to request “a very scarce and curious book” from his rival. Flattered, the rival forwarded it quickly, and Franklin replied with a thank you note. In his autobiography, Franklin notes that the two became close friends until his death.

2. Daily routines trump vices.

Maintaining a famously rigorous schedule, Franklin intuitively knew what science had not yet proven: self-imposed discipline is incredibly powerful.

Sharing that he entered into this daily plan after careful self-examination, Franklin was surprised “to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.” In describing the effectiveness of his daily routine, Franklin revealed that it was quite difficult for him to implement this order in his life, but that he was “by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”

In reviewing his “ideal day,” there is much we can learn:

  • He was an early riser and averaged 7 hours of sleep per night.
  • He valued continuous learning, making time to read each day.
  • He lived in the present, celebrating and valuing the opportunity of each day.
  • He integrated his work and his personal life, ensuring full alignment.

Reading was the only amusement I allow’d myself. I spent no time in taverns, games, or frolicks of any kind; and my industry in my business continu’d as indefatigable as it was necessary.

Further, according to Sports Illustrated (hat tip to Nerd Fitness for the discovery), Franklin believed that a sound body was critical to a sound mind and paid particular attention to his health. An accomplished swimmer, Franklin also advocated lifting weights, eating well, and drinking large quantities of water. Presciently, Franklin believed that exercise should be judged not by time or distance but by “the degree of warmth it produces in the body.” All recognized as truths today, but quite eccentric in his time.

3. Track and measure progress.

In his quest to be a better man each year, Franklin did not leave much room for subjectivity. He identified goals and developed systems to track and measure his progress. Centering his life around 13 virtues, Franklin developed a plan to achieve them, noting:

“I determined to give a week’s strict attention to each of the virtues successively.  Thus, in the first week, my great guard was to avoid every the least offence against Temperance, leaving the other virtues to their ordinary chance, only marking every evening the faults of the day.  Thus, if in the first week I could keep my first line, marked T, clear of spots, I suppos’d the habit of that virtue so much strengthen’d and its opposite weaken’d, that I might venture extending my attention to include the next, and for the following week keep both lines clear of spots. Proceeding thus to the last, I could go thro’ a course compleat in thirteen weeks, and four courses in a year.”

To serve as a constant reminder of his chosen path, Franklin carried these charts with him at all times.

Recipe Recap:

  • Invest in relationships purposefully and strategically.
  • Develop a daily routine and structure to support your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.
  • Write down your goals and plans and track your progress dutifully.