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What Ben Franklin Can Teach Us About Character

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”- Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, a brilliant, once Benin a generation personality whose influence lasted well beyond their lifetime. Franklin was a scientist, author, political theorist, inventor, diplomat, politician, and was the chairman of the Constitutional Convention, which authored the Constitution of the United States. In addition to these accomplishments he was the inventor of the lightning rod, an improved wood-burning stove, bifocals, and was the first postmaster general of the United States and created one of the nations first, free public libraries. A list of his accomplishments could easily fill this entire page.

To many Americans who grew up in the age of television and mass advertising campaigns however, Franklin has become something of a cartoonish character, used by corporations to sell insurance, promote fraternal organizations and political causes, and sell a host of products that never existed during his day. His image has become so iconic that we often forget that he was a real person who had far more important things that he could have sold us on.

Born into a working class family in Boston in 1706, Franklin’s life represents the quintessential American rags to riches story. One of the most brilliant minds in American history, Franklin never graduated from high school, dropping out of Boston Latin Academy at age 15. A voracious reader, virtually everything he learned was self taught, and he seldom forgot anything he read. He was also one of the first American self help and personal development authors, beginning his writing career at the age of 15 while writing anonymously for his brother’s newspaper. He wrote anonymously because no one, not even his brother, would take seriously the ideas of a 15-year-old. It was during the years from age 15 to his mid-20s were Franklin did most of his work on his personal development and developed most of his ideas on self-help.

Realizing at age 20 that he came from humble origins, Franklin set out to develop his own writingpersonal character through what he called his “Thirteen Virtues,” by which he attempted to live the rest of his life. These 13 virtues are worth repeating and can form the foundation for anyone’s personal development. The fact that they came from a 20-year-old shows the innate brilliance of Benjamin Franklin. He listed these 13 virtues in his autobiography, aptly titled The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin:
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 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 employ’d 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; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
10.”Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
11.”Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
12.”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.”
13.”Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Franklin did not try to work on all these virtues at once, he would choose one per week and work exclusively on that, “leaving all others to their ordinary chance.” To record progress, he carried a small notebook with the virtues and when he found himself in violation of a precept, he placed a small dot in a column next to it. Over time he found the number of dots diminishing next to each one as he became more automatic in his positive behaviors and attitudes.

Franklin quite often fell short on these virtues, like many great men he had some pretty notable flaws. He was a womanizer and fell short as a husband and father on many occasions. He fathered an out of wedlock son, William, that he acknowledged only after he was born, and spent three years in Europe away from his wife Deborah. Deborah died in 1774. Franklin, “too busy” at the time, did not return until the following year. While living in France, he indulged in fine wines and food, growing into the portly persona that most of us know as Ben Franklin. Franklin admitted his faults and explained it this way, “Tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”

It Franklin lived today, undoubtedly the media would have a field day with his personal life. The secondary lesson in this is that we do not necessarily need to be perfect in order to strive for perfection. We do need to be willing to face our flaws, fears and imperfections when trying to improve our character. We are going to fall short, that’s inevitable. The realization of this should not deter us from trying to better our character and lead a more virtuous life. Maybe that’s the reason why so many of us enjoy sensationalized media stories about politicians’ and celebrities’ moral failings. Perhaps savoring their failings and shortcomings is a distraction from facing our own.

We are often told to dare great things, dream big, and shoot for the stars. Maybe we Ben_Franklin_510should apply the same logic to our character. What’s to be afraid of? After all, are we really going to find out anything that we didn’t already know anyway? As Franklin said, honesty is the best policy.

“Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.”- Benjamin Franklin


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