The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin


So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

One of my favorite blogs, The Art of Manliness, has written many articles highlighting Ben Franklin, covering everything from his daily rituals to his financial habit. I have enjoyed every bit of information I have obtained about Franklin, and just recently got around to reading his auto-biography, The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin, which is currently free on Kindle.

I have not a been a reader of biographies and before this book I had only read one when I was in high school. At the time this was not just the first biography I had read but also the longest book I had ever read. Never underestimate the influential power of professional wrestling.

I was blown away by Franklin’s life and his achievements. Franklin achieved so much in his life that I caught myself shaking my head several times reading his book. It made me rethink my grasp of what one person was capable of achieving in a single life time. Yet at the same time, the way Franklin tells his story, it also made me understand the compound effect of taking consistent risks and action, somehow making his feats more conceivable.

Franklin was well ahead of his time and much of his commentary about his environment applies today. One area where Franklin’s thoughts were particularly timeless was politics:

That the great affairs of the world, the wars and revolutions, are carried on and effected by parties.

That the view of these parties is their present general interest, or what they take to be such.

That the different views of these different parties occasion all confusion.

That while a party is carrying on general design, each man has his particular private interest in view.

Although the majority of the book covers his life’s milestones, which there are many, Franklin also takes detours to analyse and share various life lessons he experienced. In these detours, Franklin often makes note of his “Errata”, or mistakes. I think the focus on his mistakes comes from his commitment for self-improvement. Franklin was a diligent reader and engaged in many currently popular self improvement activities like goal planning, masterminds and obtaining new skills and hobbies.

Franklin’s love of reading was the most interesting component of his life to me, since it so clearly opened doors for him both personally and professionally. There are several times in his life where Franklin enhances his network or networth through his reading prowess. I think Franklin’s passion about reading is a great historical example of the concept of tribes, which Seth Godin has crusaded and wrote about in depth.

 From my infancy I was passionately fond of reading, and all the money that came into my hands was laid out in the purchasing of books.

After his passion for reading, the next most interesting aspect of Franklin’s life for me was his pursuit of moral perfection. This may sound grand or pompous, but at its core, it’s just Franklin’s simple guidelines for living the best life he can. I would encourage anyone to read  Lessons In Manliness: Benjamin Franklin’s Pursuit of the Virtuous Life and its companion articles on the Art of Manliness (AOM) blog. This series breaks down each of Franklin’s virtue and provides additional anecdotes and resources for better understanding and addressing these vices.

A central theme surrounding all of the virtues is the critical role of habits:

Habit took the advantage; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded at length that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous was not sufficient to prevent our slipping, an that the contrary habits must be broken and good ones acquired and established before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct.

Franklin’s system for tracking and managing his virtues inspired me to take my own step doing the same. I created a webpage that displays a different Franklin virtue every week, in a never ending sequential rotation. Each virtue takes the weekly spotlight four times a year, which forces you to keep them top of mind much more frequently than on instinct. I currently display my virtue of the week in the Status Board app on my iPad:

virtues status board screenshot

For the code I used to create my virtue of the week webpage, please see the Github repository I created.

The last appreciation for Franklin I will highlight was his concept of sharing his ideas and his civic contributions. When it came to his ideas, he believed:

That as we enjoy the great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.

Like most people, I was already aware that Franklin was an accomplished inventor. What I wasn’t aware of was that patents were in existence during his time, and that he choose not to acquire them for his inventions, forfeiting the wealth he would have acquired in exchange for the personal satisfaction of making other peoples lives better. That is not to say he was against business or profits, but he choose to profit from his business ventures such as printing, not his ideas, which he shared freely.

In addition to Franklin s reputation as an inventor, I was also familiar with Franklin’s contributions to the American revolution, but I had no idea about some of his lesser known social contributions. I am sure people who live or grew up in Philadelphia or the surrounding area know plenty about his impact, but growing up in rural Minnesota I had no idea. He helped form one of the first volunteer fire departments, the first American hospital, a major university, and the first public library. The way Franklin went from one civic project to the next, impacting almost every facet of someones life during that time, was an amazing feat of resolution. Franklin was probably the first great project manager in American history.

If you combine these contributions with Franklin’s economic, philosophical and scientific contributions, it’s inspiring and overwhelming at the same time.

Leisure is the time for doing something useful. This leisure the diligent person will obtain the lazy one never.

Reading this book opened my eyes to the value of studying the lives of great people, past and present, and the value of better understanding history, which there is much more utility then I had thought. I have now added several other books to my reading queue for the people who most inspire me. I also have a new found interest in better understanding history and the people who had the most effect shaping it.