Reading Ben Franklin on the Shinkansen

I was on a high-speed train in Japan when I started reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and the contrast was striking. Of course, technology had advanced since the 1700s. For one, I was traveling on the Shinkansen at hundreds of miles per hour while Franklin took weeks to cover that distance by horse and carriage.

But more interesting was how, well over 200 years ago, Franklin knew more about personal development than most people do today. Here are 7 things he did that could help anyone access a better career and life, each of which you’ll find in in Working Out Loud and Working Out Loud circles.

Franklin - Writings

Franklin - Writings

Getting feedback

When he was just 12 years old, young Ben Franklin was arguing with one of his friends. He felt his friend had weaker points to make but made them more effectively in the heat of their debate. So he decided to write down his arguments instead, and when his father gave him feedback, Franklin used it to get better.

“He took occasion to talk to me about the Manner of my Writing, observ’d that…I fell far short in elegance of Expression, in Method, and in Perspicuity, of which he convinc’d me by several Instances. I saw the Justice of his Remarks, & thence grew more attentive to the Manner in Writing, and determin’d to endeavor at Improvement.”

Modeling successful examples

How to actually get better? He actively sought out writing that he thought was excellent, and worked at emulating it. He describes one instance where he would read an article and try to rewrite it in a similar fashion.

“By comparing my Work afterwards with the Original, I discover’d many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the Pleasure of Fancying that in certain Particulars of small Import, I had been lucky enough to improve the Method or the Language and this encourag’d me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English Writer.”

Making your work visible

Throughout the Autobiography, Franklin cites examples of how he put his ideas, proposals, and inventions into writing. One early case was a proposal to print more money in the young colony of Pennsylvania.

“Our Debates possess’d me so fully of the Subject, that I wrote and printed an anonymous Pamphlet on it…the Rich Men dislik’d it…[but] they happening to have no Writers among them that were able to answer it, their Opposition slacken’d, & the Point was carried by a Majority in the House. This was another Advantage gained by my being able to write.”

Time and time again, Franklin’s visible work shaped opinion while shaping his reputation, helping him develop a larger social network, and gaining him access to more possibilities.

Making a consistent effort

He wasn’t a natural writer, or speaker, or intellect. He was one of 17 children born to a candle-maker and was going to be a candle-maker himself. But he started working hard and studying as a young boy, and he never stopped. He continued shipping - publishing and working on inventions - till weeks before his death at age 84.

“And My Father having among his Instructions to me when a Boy, frequently repeated a Proverb of Solomon, ‘Seest thou a Man diligent in his Calling, he shall stand before Kings, he shall not stand before mean Men.’ I from thence consider’d Industry as a Means of obtaining Wealth and Distinction, which encourag’d me; tho’ I did not think I should ever literally stand before Kings, which however has since happened - for I have stood before five, & even had the honor of sitting down with one, the King of Denmark, to Dinner.” 

Enlisting peer support

How does a smart, industrious young person get better? By surrounding himself with other people who also want to get better.

“I had form’d most of my ingenious Acquaintances into a Club, for mutual improvement. We met on Friday Evenings.”

The group was as large as a dozen. In addition to sharing ideas and books, they would come prepared to show their work and have others discuss it and suggest ways to improve it. The structure, support, and shared accountability of those meetings helped all of them get better.

Scheduling time for important work

As Franklin grew older, the number of demands on his time - from his business, his travel, his public service - continued to grow. How did he find time to do all the reading, writing, experimenting, and socializing he did?

He scheduled it, making sure to allocate time - to “pay himself first” - for things he found important to his development and thus to goals he cared about.

A day in the life of Ben Franklin

A day in the life of Ben Franklin

Focus on developing habits

One of the things I most enjoyed reading in the Autobiography was Franklin’s attempt at developing 13 virtues: “the bold and ambitious Project at arriving at moral Perfection.”

“While my Care was employ’d in guarding against one Fault, I was often surpriz’d by another. Habit took the Advantage of Inattention. Inclination was sometimes too strong for Reason. I concluded at length, that the mere speculative Conviction that it was to our Interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our Sipping, and that the contrary Habits must be broken and good Ones acquired and established.”

Habit took the Advantage of Inattention. So, to help him pay attention, he kept a simple progress chart and updated it every day, and that helped him develop the habits he wanted to have.

Ben Franklin's Progress Chart

Ben Franklin's Progress Chart

The remarkable thing about Ben Franklin

For me, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin taught me a bit of American history and gave me insight into an important political figure.

It also taught me that much of what we know about accessing a better career and life isn’t new. It’s putting those ideas into practice that’s remarkable.