If you are looking for ways to simplify your life, increase your productivity, and make a larger impact on the world around you, I suggest you study the life and work of Ben Franklin, the most influential American of the Revolutionary days. I recently read through his autobiography and discovered that Franklin was a curious character: a true Renaissance man, single-handedly revolutionizing the colonies through his work. A printer by profession, Franklin founded the first nationwide newsletter, Poor Richard’s Almanack, and used it as a medium to spread practical and moral advice through the colonies. He also made fundamental contributions to the earliest civil departments in the soon-to-be-independent colonies. As an amateur scientist, he also discovered new approaches in 18th century physics and meteorology. We could go on and on – the list of his accomplishments and awards would fill 20 pages.
The manner in which Franklin lived is remarkably simple. He lays it out in his autobiography. Here are 7 key takeaways from how he was able to create such a vast impact on the course of US history in just one life time.
(1) Develop A Plan For Your Life – And Write It Down
Franklin describes how, during a transatlantic ship journey he took in his early twenties, he wrote down a plan for his entire life. Towards the end of his life, he rediscovered this plan in one of his journals, and was astonished at how closely his life course fit with his early plan for it – even though he was not purposefully carrying the plan out.
This overarching plan gave Franklin a sense for the overall direction of his life. He took to implementing it. You can do the same with a written plan for what you want to do with your life. You can consider what you want to have, who you want to be around, where you want to go, and what you want to do with your life. Write out 5 central plans for each of these. Now, save the paper you have written it on, or record it online, then later in life you can review this to see how you are progressing.
(2) Build A Consistent Day-to-Day Schedule
Franklin planned out his schedule for the 6 working days of each week, and maintained it for the majority of his working life. This allowed him to adjust to a routine. His detailed schedule included time for organizing, accounting, and leisure. Notice how simple the plan is. It only includes 6 actual working hours, yet Franklin was able to use this to great effect in his life. Also note the hour he devoted to organizing his space each day, and the questions he asked himself each morning and evening.
5: Rise, wash.
6: Powerful goodness! The morning. Morning prayer and plan for the day. [He asks himself], “What good business shall I do today?”
7: Study, and breakfast.
12-2: Read or overlook accounts, and dine.
4-6: Evening rest.
6: Put things in their places, ie: cleaning and organizing
7: Reflect on the day with the question: “What good have I done today?”
8: Supper, music, or diversion, or conversation
9: Examination of the day
There is a saying: take care of your routine, and your routine will take care of you. Franklin did this and he notes it was a crucial element of his success.
(3) Generate A List Of Principles On Which To Base Your Life
Our life principles are like an operating system for our behavior. They govern how we run our lives. Franklin was quite explicit in determining how he lived his life. The short version is that he inspired to follow Jesus and Socrates. The longer version of his principles, as outlined in his autobiography:
“Temperance – avoiding eating so much as to dull the senses, and drinking not to elevation
Silence – speaking only when it is of benefit to self or others, and avoiding far-flung conversation
Order – letting all things have their places, and giving each part of one’s business its due time
Resolution – resolving to perform one’s duty, and performing without fail what you resolved to do
Frugality – waste nothing, and make no expense but what is beneficial to oneself and others
Industry – not wasting time, always being employed in something useful, and cutting off all unnecessary actions
Sincerity – making no hurtful deceit, thinking innocently and justly, and speaking accordingly
Justice – wrong no one by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are one’s duty
Moderation – avoid extremes, forbear resenting injury, so much as you think they deserve
Cleanliness – tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation
Tranquility – be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable
Imitate Jesus and Socrates”
If you generate a similar list of principles on which you operate – and write it down – you will have a guide on which to base your actions in the world. You may deviate from it at times, as all humans do, but having the principles set in ink, or memorialized on a computer, will give you a clear reference point for how to carry yourself.
(4) Focus On Solving Problems That Surround You
Benjamin Franklin was able to build massive influence and create a lasting impression in human affairs, yet in his autobiography he never indicates if he had great aspirations. Instead, he simply focused on solving the immediate problems surrounding him.
The first problem he had as a young independent man who had just arrived in Philadelphia was creating a stable income. He solved this problem by inquiring with local printers, then using his expertise with books to get a entry-level job as printer’s apprentice. He slowly worked his way up and established his own printer’s shop, all the while actively engaging in commercial printing activities such as his Poor Richard’s Almanack. By the middle of his life, he says he built up sufficient wealth, enough to live on comfortably for the remainder of his life.
During this time he also devoted himself to solving problems he encountered in Philadelphia and the colonies. He found that Philadelphia lacked a professional security force. The growing city was experiencing a nighttime crime problem and the security officers were unable to keep up with it. So, Franklin persuaded shopkeepers of the city to contribute a monthly fund to pay the salary of a more professional and organized security department, effectively an early version of the Philadelphia Police Department.
Another problem Franklin noticed and set out to solve was when he found that dust from the streets of Philadelphia blew into the shops, making them dirty and unwelcoming. He began to look for a solution, and one day noticed an older lady who developed an efficient method for sweeping a nearby street, utilizing the gutter system. Franklin took this idea and implemented a systematic method for removing clutter from the streets, involving repaved roads, strategically designed gutters, and a garbage disposal department. Again, he was able to raise the money for this from local shopkeepers, whose business would benefit from a tidier city.
Franklin also developed a number of other solutions to problems facing his surrounding citizens and the colonies-at-large, including introducing a fire department, a new stove system, and the academy that would eventually become the University of Pennsylvania.
What was the key to all of these creations of Franklin’s? Again, he focused on the problems directly around him, and set out to develop solutions for them. Many of these solutions later became introduced on a broader scale in the young American nation.
(5) Don’t Limit Yourself To One Role
“Specialization Is For Insects”
Franklin is renowned for his skills as printer, inventor, and statesman; however, he never saw himself as fitting into any one role. He instead developed a wide range of interests, and worked in these as a devoted amateur. His amateur status did not hold him back, though. Instead, he saw every area he studied with fresh eyes.
This amateur status actually aided his inventive capacity. He was less constrained by the reigning ideas of the time, so he was better positioned to introduce radical new ways of thinking about the world, whether in society or natural law. One example of this was his well-known discovery surrounding lightning and electricity. At his time, electricity was seen as more of a curiosity or matter of entertainment at science shows, rather than a matter for serious inquiry.
Franklin; however, wasn’t satisfied with the explanation of electricity he was given by a physicist at a Boston exhibition. He thus devoted himself almost entirely to the study of electricity for a period of years. He ultimately discovered the connection between lightning and electricity, as well as the concept of positive and negative charge. Franklin’s fresh approach to electricity – and many other areas of science – were not possible for someone in the established scientific establishment.
It may be somewhat more difficult for an amateur to make radical new discoveries in this highly specialized age, but Franklin’s model of being an amateur thinker in a wide variety of areas still works.
(6) Look After Yourself First
It may sound radical, but Franklin’s life shows us that we are better equipped to be productive and impactful if we take care of ourselves first. Frankin’s first mission after leaving home at 17 was to build his personal financial independence. He went to work as a printer’s apprentice, and at the age of 24 began his own printing shop. He focused this early period on developing his business prowess, and at a relatively young age gained the financial independence that allowed him to work freely on whatever he wanted to.
As Franklin put it: just as an empty potato sack cannot stand upright, so a person who lives in poverty cannot live virtuously.
(7) Disagree, But Don’t Be Disagreeable
Franklin developed a personal ambiance that served him well, even when dealing with personal or national enemies. He notes in his autobiography that, during the days leading up to the Revolution, he encountered an envoy from Britain on the streets of Boston. Even though they disagreed about the basic policies regarding the American colonies, Franklin and the envoy still enjoyed a friendly walk, dinner, and conversation over wine.
This habit helped Franklin in negotiations with the British, and later gained Franklin a position as ambassador to France, where he was widely loved by the people of Paris.
If you are interested in learning more about this fascinating historical character, I encourage you to read his autobiography. It is full of anecdotes and tidbits about life in the American colonies in the 18th century, as seen through the lenses of this down-to-Earth yet larger-than-life man.