Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Autobiography Worth Reading: Benjamin Franklin

I was recently intrigued by an interview with Elon Musk, one of the most interesting entrepreneurs of our time (more on that some other day). When asked what books inspired him, he mentioned Ben Franklin's Autobiography.

My ears perked up immediately. I had just been researching Ben's Junto club but never really studied the man himself. Which is strange, considering he founded the very first university in America, one I was privileged to attend.

I loved this book!

I highlighted so many sections, it's kind of funny. I could relate to Mr. Franklin because of the faults he had (he basically ran away from Boston after steam rolling some people), but I was inspired by what he did to change himself. He was a man full of wisdom, inspiration, diligence, and virtue.

I'll add some of my favorite quotes below. Hopefully they will inspire you to give the book a read. If you're an entrepreneur, I highly recommend it.

On Communication and Persuasion

...retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men 
My wife often berates me about communicating my opinion as fact. I really suck at controlling the words I use. I forget how powerful they are. To completely remove words from one's vocabulary is inspiring. I say "good" when I mean "well" at least 10 times a day. Yes, I need to learn the art of thinking before I speak.
When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny'd myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear'd or seem'd to me some difference, etc.
Speaking of those who love to be contrary:
...these disputing, contradicting, and confuting people are generally unfortunate in their affairs. They get victory sometimes, but they never get good will, which would be of more use to them.
The chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade.
If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix'd in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.
Men should be taught as if you taught them not, And things unknown propos'd as things forgot;

On Virtues and Self Improvement


This quote actually made me LOL:
It was about this time I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.
What blew me away further was the systematic process he went through over a period of decades to achieve this goal. The dude made his own spreadsheets on paper! The virtues he pursued were:

  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, clothes, 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 dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates. 

 It's safe to say Ben Franklin helped change the world. Those 13 virtues may explain why.

Throughout the book, he mentions many vices, but I found it interesting he specifically called out debt:
...which exposes a man to confinement, and a species of slavery to his creditors.
Dave Ramsey and Proverbs 22:7 would agree.

On Pride and Humility

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.
Battling my pride (which goes hand-in-hand with my man-pleasing and insecurities) is a constant activity. Glad to know I'm not the only one.

On Reverence to God

And now I speak of thanking God, I desire with all humility to acknowledge that I owe the mentioned happiness of my past life to His kind providence, which lead me to the means I used and gave them success.
"O powerful Goodness! bountiful Father! merciful Guide! increase in me that wisdom which discovers my truest interest. strengthen my resolutions to perform what that wisdom dictates. Accept my kind offices to thy other children as the only return in my power for thy continual favors to me."
That there is one God, who made all things. "That he governs the world by his providence. "That he ought to be worshiped by adoration, prayer, and thanksgiving. "But that the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man. "That the soul is immortal. "And that God will certainly reward virtue and punish vice either here or hereafter."

On Entrepreneurship

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.
He'd probably agree with Dave Ramsey who often says the only ship that doesn't sail is a partnership, though Ben does give me hope that it can be done when communicating expectations is made a priority.
Partnerships often finish in quarrels; but I was happy in this, that mine were all carried on and ended amicably, owing, I think, a good deal to the precaution of having very explicitly settled, in our articles, every thing to be done by or expected from each partner, so that there was nothing to dispute, which precaution I would therefore recommend to all who enter into partnerships; for, whatever esteem partners may have for, and confidence in each other at the time of the contract, little jealousies and disgusts may arise, with ideas of inequality in the care and burden of the business, etc., which are attended often with breach of friendship and of the connection, perhaps with lawsuits and other disagreeable consequences.
Oh, and he had an opinion on patents too:
That, as we enjoy 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.
I could probably go on and on... but you get the idea. It's a good book by an incredible man.

I'm amazed at how many areas of our daily life Ben Franklin influenced. Like him, I also want to make a difference in the world and be significant. Learning what worked for him seems like a good place to start.

What have you read recently that has inspired you?


What other autobiographies would you recommend?

16 comments:

Eugene Morgan said...

Thanks for sharing this -- challenging and inspiring. I'd also recommend the biography of George Washington by William Thayer (Free on Kindle). I learned a lot I didn't know about him, and it puts things in perspective when you see the hardships he went through and the way he took integrity seriously and treated people right -- even when he was heavily criticized.

Luke Stokes said...

Thanks Eugene! I'll check it out.


Integrity. So often, it seems great men and women were great because they were "whole" and "integral." They could be relied on because of their integrity.

Kevin Ward said...

Thanks Luke. This is the third time in about 2 days that I've heard about this book... guess it's a sign. :-)

Dave Leeds said...

Yes, for sure! I purchased it in audio book format a few years back and absolutely loved it. For something that's a few hundred years old, it amazed me how profoundly relevant it is! And all the wit really makes it fun to read, too.

Luke Stokes said...

Do it! I do think you'll enjoy it, Kevin.

Luke Stokes said...

Yeah, definitely. It's funny too, because of Ben's style, you feel like you're sitting down having coffee with him. I love that.

Mike Henry said...

Good stuff, I'll have to read it. Enjoyed the interview with Elon Musk as well. I'd like to read biographies of George Washington Carver and Leonardo da Vinci. P.S. Project Gutenberg has Benjamin Franklin's autobiography for $.99 cheaper (a.k.a. free).

John Ellis said...

Great article, thanks for sharing, and check your spelling in that title.

Luke Stokes said...

Hah! Oh man, that's funny. Yeah. Who sucks at spelling? This guy.


Thanks John.

Luke Stokes said...

Yeah, I've heard you can get it free elsewhere as well, but Amazon makes things just so dang simple.

Dan Black said...

WOW, this books sounds great! Thank you for reading and reviewing it. It's going on my book list!

Ron Coffman said...

This was fun, and it makes me want to read the book. I really enjoyed the quotes you dug out. Thanks!

Luke Stokes said...

Thanks, Dan. I hope you like it as much as I did.

Luke Stokes said...

My pleasure, Ron!

Dan Black said...

I'm sure it will. Have a good one.

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