“What is more valuable than Gold? Diamonds. Than Diamonds? Virtue.” - Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1751, Ben Franklin
Ten years ago, I became re-acquainted with Ben Franklin after my four-year-old granddaughter gave a little boy a black eye and bit an older girl. I found Franklin’s book while browsing my mother-in-law’s old tomes.
The little book was a simple method of self-discipline and self-improvement which had worked for him. Perhaps it could work for my granddaughter. Maybe even me (I have been tempted to bite a few people myself).
Franklin was an impressive, wildly successful man from working class roots. Despite having almost no formal education, he was a respected author, political theorist, scientist, musician, inventor, educator, and highly engaged in the workings of the Continental Congress where he was instrumental in the process of drafting the Declaration of Independence and The Articles of Confederation to form a new union.
Ben attributed much of ability and many of his achievements to his own self-improvement method. Franklin called the method his “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”
Ben concentrated on certain “virtues” by listing them on a chart daily. Then he reflected at the end of each day on how he’d done.
My daughter-in-law found a simplified version of Franklin’s self-improvement chart on the internet. The chart had a picture of Ariel the Mermaid (my granddaughter’s favorite princess at the time. We would not dare mention Ariel to her today as she expertly wields her lacrosse sticks and is totally grossed out by anything related to princesses).
The top of the chart said, “Things I Need To Work On.” Each day of the week was listed on the chart with blanks provided to write in desired behaviors. My granddaughter’s selected behaviors were:
1) Be kind
2) Be polite
3) Be respectful
4) Count to ten slowly when I’m mad
A line below the chart asks, “How did I do?” which encouraged her own reflection and opened the door for a discussion with her mom and dad.
The idea seems to have worked. My granddaughter became more focused on doing more of her desired behaviors. She seemed happier herself. Understandably, her little friends liked her better too - as they were no longer being bitten and socked in the eye.
Now, these 10 years later, she is no longer interested in identifying in any way with being a princess, but she is an outstanding athlete, student, and seriously aspires to continue the work of self improvement toward being a good human being.
We shouldn’t take these little structures like a chart too lightly. They can be quite useful for holding us accountable and helping us move forward. It worked for Ben and my four-year-old granddaughter; it could work for you and me.
Benjamin Franklin died on April 17th, 1790 at the age of eighty-four. He hoped that posterity would read his autobiography and find his self-improvement “artifice” useful. He confesses in his autobiography that he never arrived at perfection. (He found himself truly incorrigible with respect to “order.”)
Though Franklin claimed that he fell far short of his ambition, he claimed he was a better and happier man by attempting it. It makes sense to me because self-discipline, self-control is connected to a slew of benefits including, believe it or not, compassion and kindness.
Most of us would like to be better, kinder, more self-controlled, and happier. We want our own children and our children’s children to be better and happier.
If we’d like to keep Ben Franklin’s self-improvement spirit alive, we can allow him to be our role-model. We first decide on what behaviors, values, or virtues we would like to make into a habit. Then we can chart our progress each day and reflect on our growth.
Only a few of us may choose to commit to Ben Franklin’s entire project toward "moral perfection" (and we probably would not refer to our self-improvement attempts that way). He spent his whole life trying to be and do better.
All of us, however, can improve ourselves a bit, become more self-controlled, kinder, and a little happier by using the two questions that Franklin asked himself every day.
In the morning: "What good shall I do this day?"
In the evening: "What good have I done this day?"
Franklin was quite aware that ultimately, we must take personal responsibility for becoming better, happier people. “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself,” he is quoted as having said.
How might we Journey to The Good Life by using Ben Franklin’s example of self-improvement as our guide?
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