Updated Mon, Mar 24, 2014 6:26 am
Updated Mon, Mar 24, 2014 6:26 am
I love sitting in a train compartment, sipping a glass of wine and glancing at the scenery as we read or chat. So a while back I felt mellow, as my husband and I rode the Amtrak Capitol Limited from Washington to Chicago.
We sat reading in bed as the train traveled through Pennsylvania. Along the way, I was reminded that the Keystone State was the adopted home of one of our most intriguing Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin.
Moving from Kindle to paper, I jumped around my reading stack, from a self-help book, to periodicals, to a novel. In that brief time, I happened to come across three references to Franklin.
For me, Franklin was an important influence, not so much for his great historic contributions but because of how he coached himself into living a successful life. As a kid, I read his autobiography, where he described his youthful efforts to become a man who would do well by doing good. Riding in the train, I recalled that book, and the "aha" moment when I realized we can shape ourselves into the kind of people we want to be.
One way Franklin helped form the national character was through that posthumously published memoir. He said he wrote it to teach Americans how to grow into their full potential. In his view, practice and a little help from our friends can make us better, more successful people.
As a teenager, Franklin said, he methodically taught himself to write and speak well. He read essays in leading English journals, took brief notes, then rewrote the essays in his own words. He found ways to develop his skill sets, and later he taught others to do the same thing.
In his autobiography, Franklin described how, as a young man, he tried to systemically shape his patterns of behavior. He undertook, he said, a "bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection." He started this self-help project by listing 13 "virtues." Then he created a book with columns for each day of the week, with room to note any offense against a specific virtue.
Franklin, speaking of these early efforts with a sense of humor, said he eventually realized that perfection cannot be attained. But, he said, he felt happier because at least he had tried to better manage his conduct. Among the characteristics Franklin worked on were:
• Order – "Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time." (Franklin said that this was the toughest "virtue" for him.)
• Resolution—"Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve."
• Frugality—"Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing."
• Industry—"Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions."
• Sincerity—"Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly."
Franklin understood that self-growth efforts are more likely to succeed if you have a support group. He formed a "club of mutual improvement," known as the "JUNTO," which met once a week for many years. Members discussed moral and political issues and undertook civic projects, like creation of Philadelphia's first subscription library. Members also looked for ways to help each other's businesses and general welfare.
Throughout his life Franklin found ways to promote self-improvement. While a printer, he published "Poor Richard's Almanack," which is best remembered for the maxims scattered throughout each annual issue. Franklin borrowed wisdom from the classics and folklore, then restated it in pithy, succinct prose. Over the years he shared his philosophy of self-management with gems like these:
• A good example is the best sermon.
• Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.
• Diligence is the mother of good luck.
• Search others for their virtues, thy self for thy vices.
• He's a fool that cannot conceal his wisdom.
• No gains without pains.
Reportedly, Franklin also knew how to take breaks and have a good time. As the train chugged along I looked up this quote from Ben: "In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is Freedom, in water there is bacteria."
Want to read more about Franklin? You can download "Benjamin Franklin – His Autobiography" from many places. Among biographies consider "Benjamin Franklin – An American Life," by Walter Isaacson.
Beverly Jones is an alum of Ohio University. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.