Faced with a less than satisfactory self-improvement program? What would Benjamin Franklin do?
Yes, that Benjamin Franklin. The politician and statesman and face of the US 100-dollar bill. Or was it author, publisher, scientist, inventor, or postmaster? Franklin was a true polymath whose achievements range from inventing the lightning rod to being one of the USA’s Founding Fathers. It turns out, to nobody’s surprise, that he was also heavily into self-improvement.
At the tender age of 20, Franklin identified 13 desirable traits that he called ‘virtues’ and put these to practice so they would become part of his ongoing behaviour.
According to his autobiography, these 13 virtues were:
- Temperance. “Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
- Silence. “Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
- Order. “Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
- 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 employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
- Sincerity. “Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
- Justice. “Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
- Moderation. “Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
- Cleanliness. “Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths [clothes], or habitation.”
- Tranquillity. “Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
- Chastity. “Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
- Humility. “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”
Franklin did not set about trying to apply these rules in one go but instead chose a more methodical, more effective way to train himself. Each week he would fully focus on getting better at one of them. The next week he would focus on another attribute he wanted to possess. Once he’d spent time on every character trait on his list, he would go back and start again.
It’s a simple but highly effective training method because it’s less overwhelming than trying to change everything about yourself at once. The repetition also helps you reinforce and enhance the gains you made the last time you focused on an attribute to improve.
By his own admission, Franklin didn’t succeed at all of these; in addition to having a fondness for drink, jeopardising his attempts at temperance, he also fathered an illegitimate son, which was not a good advertisement for chastity. However, he was clear on the value of the process: “I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”
5 tips to focus like Franklin
- Identify the aspects of yourself you’d like to improve. These could be personal or professional in nature. Try to keep the list manageable: aim for under 15.
- Develop a program of self-improvement by scheduling a trait to focus on each week.
- Repeat until such time as you believe you’ve achieved your goals or other traits become more important.
- Learn from each week and apply those lessons to the next cycle so you progress.
- Don’t beat yourself up about not being perfect. This is a lifelong process.
Try Franklin’s technique for the next few weeks and track how much better you get.