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What Benjamin Franklin Teaches on “Becoming”

Remember Linda’s question to me last week? In one word—why are you not more effective? Were you able to pick a word or virtue that will be your quest this year? Let’s build on that idea with one who became a model for improvement, Benjamin Franklin.

I recently reread the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin understood well the idea of becoming. Through dedicated discovery and systematic self-improvement, he lived an attitude of abundance and joy. He noted, “Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.” 

It is the little choices that inform the outcome.  

A little history about a man who made history…

Franklin was the youngest son of 17 children. He had modest formal schooling to the age of 10. He learned early that all education is self-education. One of his peers noted, 

Your biography will not merely teach self-education, but the education of a wise man; and the wisest man will receive lights and improve his progress, by seeing detailed the conduct of another wise man. 

Benjamin Vaughan

By his early teens he had taken responsibility for his own education stating:  

I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books…..Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning, lest it should be missed or wanted.  

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Franklin’s personal library included classics such as Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s ProgressPlutarch’s Lives, Locke’s An Essay concerning Human Understanding and Xenophon’s The Memorable Things of Socrates. His early education, and subsequent love of lifelong learning, was informed by these great books. Reading and learning became his routine. Each season of life found him making discoveries. He created his personal story by being eagerly engaged in building a future for not only himself, but for his community and for his country. 

A natural outcome of a love of reading? A love for writing.

Franklin’s love for reading led to a gift for writing. In 1717 his brother James returned from England with a press to set up a printing business. Franklin became one of the first employees. It was there he developed a passion for prose and poetry. At the press, he had access to many of the classic works that informed his education. He also became acquainted with a periodical called The Spectator. After reading it three times he was hooked on the beauty and power of writing. “I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it.”  

About this time, inspired by what he was learning, he published the first issue of Poor Richard’s Almanac, an eclectic collection of information and entertainment that helped to mold the American character and culture with adages both witty and wise. You may recognize these. 

  • God helps them that help themselves.
  • Good sense is a thing all need, few have, and none think they want.
  • He that has a trade, has an office of profit and honor.
  • A good example is the best sermon.
  • A lie stands on one leg, truth on two.

Each of these pithy sentences could stand as a daily sermon. 

Benjamin Franklin was always “becoming.”

Franklin’s dedicated self-improvement and the discovery and application of the principles of freedom and success allowed him to live his life in crescendo.  He exemplified his own classical trio of discovery, self-improvement, and happiness. 

Perhaps one of the crowning achievements of his life of “becoming” was developing what he called the 13 virtues to success. He even made a daily/weekly chart to mark and track his progress. Thus, keeping focus on his industry. It was during this time he noticed how difficult and painful it was to cement new habits, particularly ones that formed character. 

He captured the difficulty of improvement and change with this story. 

A man buying an ax wanted the speckled surface to be as bright as the edge. The smith consented to grind it bright if he would turn the wheel of the grinding stone. The grinding was grueling. Fatigue set in, and the man suggested he would keep the ax as it was. “No,” said the smith, “turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet, it is only speckled.” Franklin observed, “This may been the case with many, who having, for want of some such means as I employed, found the difficulty of obtaining good and breaking bad habits in other points of vice and virtue, have given up the struggle, and concluded a speckled ax was best.” 

The story, and its invitation, is one of steady daily progress. So what is your word or virtue in becoming this year?

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. ed. Charles W. Eliot. Vol. 1. Harvard Classics. New York: P. F. Collier & Son Corporation, 1960.  

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

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