This is the last post in a series of five posts that presents Benjamin Franklin as a person who epitomizes the power of the Philosophy for LYF and the LRN LAF LUV LIV deeds of goodness. The first four posts in the series are (best read in order):
- Benjamin Franklin and the Philosophy for LYF
- Benjamin Franklin and LRN
- Benjamin Franklin and LAF
- Benjamin Franklin and LUV
This post shares illustrations of Benjamin Franklin living the LIV deed of goodness by realizing the goodness in himself and inspiring the goodness in others.
Doing his best to realize himself
Benjamin Franklin worked hard and did not appear to do things half-way. His autobiography is filled with examples of the effort he put into things. A few of the examples from early in his life:
- At a young age, he spent time learning how to write well by concocting his own exercises to mimic well-written pieces, comparing his work to the originals, learning from his writing faults, and correcting them. He mentioned he was "extremely ambitious" to be a decent English writer, spending time on these exercises at night, before and after work, during lunchtime, and on Sundays.
- After twice failing to learn mathematics in the two years he was in school, he went through an arithmetic book by himself.
- He focused on reading books that could make him better, including On Human Understanding by John Locke, the Art of Thinking (Port Royal Logic) by Messrs. du Port Royal, and Memorable Things of Socrates by Xenophon.
- While working at a printing press in London, he never missed a Monday (unlike some of his colleagues who were drunk during the weekend) and was uncommonly quick at composing.
- When Franklin opened his own printing press with a friend, Franklin was so determined to compose a sheet a day of a 40-page job that he would often work late into the night.
- He wrote a list of thirteen virtues as part of a "bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection", put a process in place to break bad habits and establish good habits, created a little book to record this progress, and instituted a daily examination process. He set his goals high, putting Jesus and Socrates as the people to imitate in humility and trying to attain perfection with all of the virtues. He wrote, "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."
Franklin went so far as to devise a project to establish a new religious sect containing what he thought were the essentials of every religion known. Due to his other private business and public service activities, he did not get the opportunity to carry it further. But he believed people can do amazing things if they focus and do their best:
I was not discourag'd by the seeming magnitude of the undertaking, as I have always thought that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes, and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan, and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, makes the execution of that same plan his sole study and business.
Leveraging his strengths to realize himself
Benjamin Franklin's life history shows he primarily focused on activities that could leverage his skills and talents. He had few failures in life, not because he avoided risks (he fully engaged in life, as noted below later), but because he did not spend time on activities that were not his strengths (in addition to doing his best, as noted above).
As an example, a Pennsylvania governor assigned him to serve as a justice of the peace and sit on the bench hearing court cases. After trying it a little, he quickly recognized he needed more knowledge of common law to do it right. It was not the best use of his skills, so he withdrew from it and focused on activities that made better use of his strengths.
Starting his own printing business was a perfect fit for him because it allowed him to leverage his business skills to be industrious and financially successful, his technical skills to maintain the press and compose quickly, and his writing skills to produce his own newspapers and almanacks and push causes in which he believed deeply.
He later leveraged his curiosity, thinking skills, and ability to work with his hands to become a highly regarded inventor (Franklin stove, bifocals, flexible catheter, among others) and scientist (electrical experiments, among others).
He used all of his strengths, including negotiation skills, in his civic and political activities.
Franklin wrote he leveraged his personal traits (the virtues he worked on strengthening) to have a happy life:
To Temperance he ascribes his long-continued health, and what is still left to him of a good constitution; to Industry and Frugality, the early easiness of his circumstances and acquisition of his fortune, with all that knowledge that enabled him to be a useful citizen, and obtained for him some degree of reputation among the learned; to Sincerity and Justice, the confidence of his country, and the honorable employs it conferred upon him; and to the joint influence of the whole mass of the virtues, even in the imperfect state he was able to acquire them, all that evenness of temper, and that cheerfulness in conversation, which makes his company still sought for, and agreeable even to his younger acquaintance.
Engaging in life to realize himself
Franklin was willing to take risks throughout his life. He was not reckless, but he understood that it was important to take reasonable chances to improve his situation, to fulfill his dreams, and to do even more good in this world.
At age 17 he ran away from home thinking he would have better opportunities for himself, leaving Boston for New York and ending up in Philadelphia. He had very little money and knew no one there. He eventually became a successful businessman in Philadelphia.
At age 18, at the request of the Pennsylvania governor, Franklin ventured abroad to London (not an easy trip in 1724) to get supplies for a new print shop he was to run in Philadelphia. It ended up that the governor did not follow through on his part of the deal. But Franklin took advantage of his 18 months in London to learn more about printing and life, gain more skills, and make important connections.
At age 22 he started his own print shop in Philadelphia when there were already two established print shops. Through hard work, quality output, and friendships he had established, his business eventually outperformed the other print shops.
When he became financially successful by age 42 and decided to retire from his private business, he did not relax and fade away. He focused on scientific experiments, inventions, and public service, all for the greater good of the public.
His next 42 years were filled with even more engagement and risk taking as he helped create the United States of America. Although wanting to reconcile with the British, Franklin became a staunch supporter for independence. He was accused of treason by English authorities in 1773 and lost his post as Postmaster General of America. He was involved in several key events that made the United States a reality, including the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Treaty of Alliance with France in 1778, the Treaty of Paris in 1782, and the United States Constitution in 1787.
Franklin ended up making eight Atlantic ocean crossings and visiting ten countries during his lifetime, quite rare in the 1700's when most people rarely traveled outside the area they were born.
Even in the final months before his death, Franklin was fully engaged in life to make a difference, pushing for an end to slavery and submitting the first antislavery petition before the U.S. Congress.
Facing the challenges to realize himself
Not everything went his way in life. But he learned from the challenges, and in many cases, he tried to make amends.
He lost a child due to smallpox. He was a supporter of inoculation and had intended to inoculate his son. "I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation," he wrote in his autobiography.
He mentions in his autobiography a few other "errata", or errors, in his life. This included leaving the indentureship to his brother James by running away, spending money of a brother's friend instead of safekeeping it, and forgetting his engagement to Deborah Read while he was in London.
For the first one, his brother resented him for a long time. They eventually reconciled, and Franklin, at his brother's request, took James's son home, sent him to school, apprenticed him, and gave him some new printing equipment, "thus it was that I made my brother ample amends for the service I had depriv'd him of by leaving him so early."
For the second one, he was fortunate that the brother's friend did not ask for the money until years later, at which time Franklin asked for more time, and then later paid the principal with interest and many thanks "so that erratum was in some degree corrected".
And for the last one, he joined in common-law marriage with Deborah Read, and "thus I corrected that great erratum as well as I could."
Sharing his story to inspire others
Benjamin Franklin initially began writing his autobiography in 1771 (when he was 65 years old) as a letter to his son, William, and not as a document for public consumption. The autobiography starts with "Dear son:" and concludes the first paragraph with "my posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own situations, and therefore fit to be imitated."
Two friends urged Franklin to complete the story. Franklin decided to continue writing the autobiography to benefit a broader audience (the public and not just his descendants). He wrote some more in 1784 and again in 1788, but he was unable to finish. His narrative covers his life only through 1757.
He noted his desire to inspire after describing the benefits to himself of pursuing goodness: "I hope, therefore, that some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefit."
His grandson published the first version of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography in 1817. Although Franklin did not witness it in his lifetime, his autobiography been reprinted several dozens of times and has inspired people all over the world for over 200 years now.
Sharing his wisdom to inspire others
Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard's Almanack for twenty-five years. Because it was widely read, he thought of it "as a proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common people" and filled it with proverbs containing the wisdom from many ages and nations.
He prefixed the 1757 edition of the Almanack with a unified collection of these sayings to make a greater impression, and this prefix was broadly published in Europe and in Pennsylvania. He wrote that this sharing of wisdom may have materially influenced the increase in wealth for several years after its publication.
Leading by example to inspire others
Benjamin Franklin actions (not just his words) inspired others. Over 20,000 people attended his funeral in 1790, which illustrates the inspiration he gave to those while he was alive.
David Hume, the Scottish writer, wrote in 1762, "America has sent us many good things, Gold, Silver, Sugar, Tobacco, Indigo &c.: But you are the first Philosopher, and indeed the first Great Man of Letters for whom we are beholden to her."
Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, a French economist, is quoted to have referred to Franklin in this way: "He seized the lightning from Heaven and the scepter from the Tyrants."
He continued to inspire people after his death. James Harper, who was a founder of a publishing company in 1817 (it is now called HarperCollins), was inspired to become a printer after reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Mellon, the founder of Mellon Bank in 1870, was inspired by Franklin's rags-to-riches tale.
His life continues to inspire people today. Elon Musk, in an interview by Kevin Rose, stated Benjamin Franklin is one of the people he most admires and "is pretty awesome" (8:25 mark).
This series has presented several examples of one person – Benjamin Franklin – living the Philosophy for LYF, doing the LRN LAF LUV LIV deeds of goodness, and elevating his life and the world. May we all be empowered, uplifted, nurtured, and inspired by his legacy.