Book review: Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography


Written 250 years ago, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is surprisingly easy to read. In today’s world, Franklin would be a mix between Tim O’Reilly and Tim Ferris. Franklin operated a printing company through which he influenced public opinion; he founded organizations as a fire brigade and a university and he actively tried to change the way he acted through smart exercises and habits. I found it valuable to read his autobiography because Franklin was on a relentless pursuit to become a better person. In his own words:

“I grew convinced that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life; and I formed written resolutions which still remain in my journal book to practice them ever while I lived.”

I wrote about one exercise to nurture your virtues in a post one year ago. Below are some of the thoughts flowing from his book.

# Study voraciously

Franklin took all the time he could to read. At sixteen Franklin became vegetarian, so he could eat a light lunch at his office, saving money and time to read more books.

# Changing someone else’s opinion

Socrates’ method of inquiry – as documented in Xenophobon’s book – is a tool to let other people rethink their beliefs or opinion on a subject by mastering the art of questioning. Franklin also taught himself to avoid argument. When he disagreed with someone, he would put his remark in the form of a question “Do you not think that the issue can be seen from another perspective?”. The point he makes is phrased by Alexander Pope as:

“Men should be taught as if you taught them not, and things unknown proposed as things forgot”

# Build relationships

Benjamin Franklin was recommended by two Governors for his work. “This was the second governor who had done me the honor to take notice of me; which, to a poor boy like me, was very pleasing.”

# An exercise to learn to write 

Franklin learned to write by sending in pieces to his brother’s printing press under the name of an invented elderly lady. Franklin describes one exercise he used to improve his writing: Take a piece of work that you think is well-written and copy the essence of every sentence. Put the notes to the side for a few days. Then, pick up the notes and try to recreate the original essay from the notes. Compare your paper to the original, and observe where and how the author of the original created different sentences.

# Stick to your principles

A friend who travelled alongside Franklin from NYC to Philadelphia was drunk and did not want to row when it was his turn to take the oars. Franklin insisted he would, because he saw every man on the team as equal. Here, Franklin was a man of principle – not bending to suit a friend who drank.

# Work with the best

When Franklin arrived in England, under the false conviction that the Governor had set up meetings for him with printers, he had to look for something else to do. He was advised to work with experienced printers in the UK; training with whom would allow him to set up his own shop afterwards.

# Learn to say no to requests

When he speaks about a governor who did not keep his promise. “It was a habit he had acquired. He wished to please everybody; and, having little to give, he gave expectations. He was otherwise an ingenious, sensible man […]”

# Think independently 

At the time Franklin started work in a printing press in England, the workmen at the printing press would drink beer during the working day, supposing they needed the beer for nutrition. Franklin reasoned that the nutritional value of 6 pints of beer could be no more than a loaf of bread, because:

“The strength afforded by beer could only be in proportion to the grain or flour of the barley dissolved in the water of which it was made.”

Franklin did not drink beer and was a better worker and wealthier man as a result.

# Be ethical in your work

Franklin refused to print advertisements or letters that spoke negatively of others.

“I carefully excluded all libeling and personal abuse.”

When his customers would claim “freedom of press”, Franklin would respond by saying that he would print the article for them, but that he would not distribute such a piece.

# Find smart ways to learn

When Franklin wanted to learn Italian, he found another student with whom he would play chess. The winner of a game was allowed to impose a language-learning task on the other.

Franklin also created a “club of mutual improvement” called the junto. The group would meet every week to discuss questions on morality, politics or science. 

# Turn enemies into friends

One man spoke against Benjamin Franklin. In stead of attacking him, or writing him a nasty letter, or even asking “Why did you attack me?”, Franklin tried a different tactic: he asked the man to use something he deeply cared about. Franklin asked to borrow a book, which the man highly treasured.

“He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

Try to think in opportunities when someone reproaches you – try to tickle their interests.

# Spread ideas through writing

Franklin used the written word as a method for spreading his ideas. He would come up with a solution to a social problem – for instance, an Academy to reduce the levels of illiteracy in Philadelphia – write a convincing essay, share it with friends to receive feedback, and publish it into local newspapers. This is no different from the method Elon Musk uses today to spread the idea of the Hyperloop.

Glancing over the different lessons learned, Franklin’s autobiography could easily fit into a business-book section.

Book review: Mountains beyond Mountains, a biography of Paul Farmer

How did your last visit to Belize or the Philippines influence you

At twenty-three years old, on a path to becoming a doctor, Paul Farmer spent several months as a volunteer in Haiti. Like other American visitors, Paul Farmer was amazed by the jam-packed third-hand European vans and struck by the warmness of the Haitians. Unlike other Westerners, Paul Farmer turned a one-off visit into a lifelong relationship. He decided to build a health clinic in Haiti, for the poorest people in the country.

Mountains beyond Mountains tells the story of Farmer’s life. I highly recommend the book as an inspiration for living a life of service. Farmer calls his life approach pragmatic solidarity: not the life of an ascetic who attempts to achieve nirvana by meditating in solitude; but the life of a person who is out in the world helping others every minute of the day.

What did I learn from Paul Farmer? 

A deep love for all people. He helped the poorest, the ugliest, the neediest. The people others try to avoid, Farmer treats like dearest friends.

Complete, selfless dedication to a cause. Farmer would be the last to go to bed and the first to wake up. He let go of all personal comfort to spend more time with patients.

“The problem is, if I don’t work this hard, someone will die who doesn’t have to. That sounds megalomaniacal. I wouldn’t have said that to you before I’d taken you to Haiti and you had seen that it was manifestly true.”

Courage and persistence. When Farmer’s organization, Partners in Health, did not have enough money to buy drugs for patients in Haiti, Farmer would bring the medicine from the Brigham Young hospital in Boston, where he was a practicing doctor.

“Paul and Jim would stop at the Brigham pharmacy before they left for Peru and fill their briefcases with drugs. they had sweet-talked various people into letting them walk away with the drugs. […] Better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

Clear in communicating his views. Farmer convinced the World Health Organization to change their specified treatment for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis all around the world. That does not happen if you do not clearly speak your mind.

“He was fresh as hell to me, but I liked him, because if you said boo and he didn’t think boo was right, he’d tell you. He was way ahead of me, on service to the poor.”

Excellent at maintaining relationships. Farmer would thank everyone personally for making donations – even the individual $10 contributions from fellow church visitors in Boston.

As a reader, I observed a though coming to mind: “How can I lead a life as impactful as Farmer?”. I don’t think that question follows from the right intention. The goal is not to be just like Paul Farmer – we should all find our own paths in life.

What we can learn, however, is to focus our work on the needs of others – not the comfort it provides to ourself; to commit to the problems we believe should be solved; and to pursue our cause with vigor and persistence, not being attached to the outcomes of our actions. 

On the Good Life

If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty stars, the marvelous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it for himself

– old Roman saying.

I had the pleasure to spend the last weekends traveling Europe. In Zurich, Belgium and London, I found myself surrounded by beautiful friends who truly made me feel at home. What would life be without friends? Below some reflections taken from Cicero’s “On the Good Life”:

Friendship can only exist between two good men.

When a man thinks of a true friend, he is looking at himself in the mirror. Even when a friend is absent, he is present all the same. However poor he is, he is rich: however weak, he is strong. […] Even when he is dead, he is still alive. He is alive because his friends still cherish him, and remember him, and long for him. This means that there is happiness even in his death – he ennobles the existences of those who are left behind.

A good man is attracted by other good men; he wants to annex them for himself.

Scipio’s greatest wish was that all his friends should gain, not lose, in stature because of their association with himself.

You ought to give each of your friends just as much assistance as you have the capacity to provide.

What to do?

Dear Michael,

Thank you very much for your recent letter concerning “thinkers and doers.”

The things to do are: the things that need doing: that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done-that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or imposed by others on the individual.

Try making experiments of anything you conceive and are intensely interested in. Don’t be disappointed if something doesn’t work. That is what you want to know-the truth about everything-and then the truth about combinations of things. Some combinations have such logic and integrity that they can work coherently despite non-working elements embraced by their system.

Whenever you come to a word with which you are not familiar, find it in the dictionary and write a sentence which uses that new word. Words are tools-and once you have learned how to use a tool you will never forget it. Just looking for the meaning of the word is not enough. If your vocabulary is comprehensive, you can comprehend both fine and large patterns of experience.

You have what is most important in life-initiative. Because of it you wrote to me. I am answering to the best of my capability. You will find the world responding to your earnest initiative.

Sincerely yours,

Buckminster Fuller

From Buckminster Fuller’s introduction to Critical Path

What Technology Wants


“What technology wants” by Kevin Kelly is an intellectual exploration of the nature of technology (What is technology?), its fundamental character (Is technology good, bad or indifferent?) and humanity’s relationship to technology (How do we control technology’s evolution?).

My biggest insight from the book is an answer to the last question – How do we control technology’s evolution? The answer: we don’t, really (as we like to think), but we can steer technological development by using new technologies for the best possible use.

To answer “What is technology?”, Kevin Kelly defines the technium, the “organism” of technologies from past, present and future, “the technological assemblage we have surrounded ourselves with”. Much of the book tries to explain the what this technium wants. This concept is at times difficult to grasp. Unlike mice, monkeys or humans, the mixture of factories, iPads and screwdrivers does not have a “brain”. The technium is not conscious. So, where does the will – or where do the goals – of the technium come from? According to Kelly, the will of the technium is more like the tendencies and urges of technology. According to phsycial principles, technologies develop in some way. We can study the technium’s will by looking at the history of technological development and the evolution of life.

Kevin Kelly makes the argument that technology’s will is similar to human will. Increased efficiency, increased opportunity for development and increased complexity (the number of lines of code in Microsoft Windows has increased 10x between 1993-2006) are examples of both human and technological wills. An interesting observation: the wants of technology and humans are different from nature’s wants (I don’t observe nature wanting more efficiency or complexity).

Although we can not pick and choose technologies, there is a role for us to influence technology’s evolution. Kevin Kelly suggests that our task is “to encourage the development of each new invention toward this inherent good, to align it in the the same direction that all life is headed”. We need to “steer our creations toward those versions, those manifestations, that maximize that technology’s benefits”. Looking at our track record, this task of steering technology to its best version is not easy: the inventors of torpedo’s, radio, machine guns, color television and dynamite all believed there inventions would bring peace. They did not – and I did not find an answer in Kelly’s words how we can effectively steer our creations to be more benign.

Elementary School is more than 1,2,3 – The Importance of Character Development in Early Years

Can you remember an experience in your elementary or high school years that truly shaped your character?

For me, playing field hockey was a key opportunity to build my character. I was not the most skilled of athletes – far from it, in fact. As is relatively common in the Netherlands, I played field hockey. Starting at age 9, the first years of hockey offered little competition. As I grew older, kids were started to be separated into different teams. From that moment onwards, there was a (very) strong incentive to perform. I remember that often when I started the training, I committed to put in twice as much effort as the other players, just to compensate for my skill.

It was a perfect opportunity to build my character at an early age. Most of us can think of several experiences in early adulthood that taught us certain values, but very few have had the opportunity to have such experiences at an earlier age – right when they are fundamentally important.

I strongly believe that elementary schools and high schools should go beyond teaching cognitive skills – reading, writing, mathematics – and start building character. Why? Because research shows that what distinguishes “successful” students later in life is not a difference in cognitive skill at an early age, but a difference in character.

Besides sports, starting and running Projects is a perfect opportunity for learning. That is why I think every child aged 11-12 (the final two years of high-school in most European countries) should have a compulsory project as part of his or her education. The success of such project education heavily depends on the skill of the teacher and the support of parents, other kids and partners. Inherently, project education seems unscalable, because it depends on the quality of people.

My question to you: How can a “project education” module be designed for scalability?

KIPP School in the Bronx

Knowledge is Power Program

Book review: The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

This wonderful short novel is beautiful in its simplicity. It tells the story of an old fisherman from Cuba, who goes on a journey which truly tests his persistence. As I was reading the book on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, the ocean setting made the writing very vivid.

Taking place only a few days, the adventure Hemingway sketches is fascinating. Hemingway has an interesting way of writing about an internal dialogue taking place in parallel with an external adventure. In his writings, Hemingway reminds me of authors like Herman Hesse and Paulo Coelho, who also write about the transformation of a character within external adventures.

Pick up this book and read the first half whenever you’re facing a period in which your persistence is truly tested. When you read about the battle the main character goes through, you will find regained energy to keep working on the challenges you are facing!

Fishing on the beaches of Ghana

Book review: Little Bets by Peter Sims

Little Bets communicates one big idea: to create breakthrough solutions in today’s dynamic world, we need to learn by doing. Fully formed ideas based on assumptions are bound to change, as we learn a tremendous amount in the process of turning ideas into reality. We need to discover what works by making little, experimental bets. Action produces insights that can be analyzed.

Sims uses the life stories of successful business leaders, entrepreneurs and creative professionals to illustrate and further explore the central idea. He explains how Chris Rock creates hilarious stand-up comedy shows by tirelessly trying out jokes on a small audiences; and how Bill Hewlett & Dave Packard regularly produced small batches of prototype-products to discover whether customers liked their product.

The idea of experimentation does not only apply to product-ideas, but also to personal choices. I wrote in a previous post about my opinion that the best way to find work that you love is to try things. A recent article on BigThink, as well as Reid Hoffman’s book The Start-up of You, also stress the importance of this thought.

One of the realizations that came to me while reading the book, was that every creative process brings with it the fear and self-doubt of not succeeding. Also, Sims tells a great story about learning a little bit from every person you meet, particularly children, as well as learning a lot from people who are passionate about using your product. Although the “experimental approach” has been documented by other authors, Little Bets succeeds in triggering thoughts on how to be more experimental, as well as documenting some very revealing personal stories.

Lessons from a Stoic – Practical Philosophy by Seneca

Imagine you were alive during the height of the Roman empire, at the start of the Christian calendar. As an admired political figure, you spend most days orating in parliament or tutoring soon-to-be emperors. Everyday life brings you huge banquets, death sentences and near-fatal strokes of disease – not exactly the circumstances inductive to the virtuous life. Yet it was under those temptations that Seneca, one of the most practical philosophers, relentlessly focused on improving his personal character. The series of letters he wrote at the end of his life, collected in “Letters from a Stoic”, are a must read for every (young) person who is interested in forming his or her own character.

Seneca’s writings are surprisingly timely and highly practical. I have collected below excerpts from his letters that I found truthful or that triggered personal questions. Note that I do not agree with all quotes below.

“Extend your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, […] if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”

“Think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship. But when you have decided to do so, welcome him heart and soul, and speak as unreservedly with him as you would with yourself. […] Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal.”

“Personal converse and daily intimacy with someone with someone will be of more benefit to you than any discourse. […] Plato and Aristotle derived more from Socrates’ character than from his words.”

“Retire into yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.”

“The many speak highly of you, but have you really any grounds for satisfaction with yourself if you are the kind of person the many understand? Your merits should not be outward facing.”

“Indulge the body just so far as suffices for good health. Spurn everything that is added on by way of decoration and display by unnecessary labor. Reflect that nothing merits admiration except the spirit, the impressiveness of which prevents in from being impressed by anything.”

“If you wish to be loved, love.”

“The wise man, unequalled though he is in his devotion to his friends, though regarding them as being no less important and frequently more important than his own self, will still consider what is valuable in life to be something wholly confined to his inner self.“

“We need to set out affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.” 

“Every day should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives.” 

As the opening of a letter: “I trust this finds you in pursuit of wisdom”

“When a person is following a path, there is an eventual end to it; with wandering at large, there is no limit. If you want to know whether the desire to pursue a journey is natural or unseeing, ask yourself whether it is capable of coming to rest at any point.”

“Making noble resolutions is not as important as keeping the resolutions you have made already. You have to persevere and fortify your pertinacity until the will to good becomes a disposition to good.”

“Appoint certain days on which to give up all physical pleasures and make yourself at home with next to nothing: bread, water, a bed. Cultivate a relationship with poverty.”

“Assume authority […] and produce something from your own resources. The people who are forever acting as interpreters and never as creators are always lurking in someone else’s shadow.”

“Praise others for what is truly their own. Do not praise for possessions or physical shape, but praise for spirit and certain characteristics you admire.”

“Treat your inferiors in the way in which you would like to be treated by your own superiors. […] To be really respected is to be loved; and love and fear will not mix”

“Let us rouse ourselves, so that we may be able to demonstrate our own errors.”

“People who are really busy never have enough time to become skittish. And there is nothing so certain as the fact that the harmful consequences of inactivity are dissipated by activity.”

Reading the classics

In a recent biography of Einstein, by Walter Isaacson, I learned about the “Olympia Academy”. During Einstein’s first year as a patent officer in Bern, Switzerland, he founded, together with two friends, what was to become the basis of a reading club. Multiple evenings a week, Einstein, Solovine and Habicht would get together for a wholesome meal to discuss their readings of the classics. They covered books from Hume’s A treatise on human nature to Spinoza’s Ethics, discussing their personal views and critically reflecting on the concepts proposed by the authors.

As I was visiting the Rocky Mountain Institute in Boulder, Colorado last week, a friend kindly showed me around the University of Colorado campus. My eye was caught by the quote on the face of the library. When you think about it, time plays the role of a very strong filter on century-old pieces of literature, art of music that are still recommended.


As the urgency of books on best-seller lists fades with time, only the truly good, beautiful and truthful books will keep being recommended. That’s the beauty of diving into old books: it takes a lot more effort to read, but you will find very deep sentences on each page, forcing you, the reader, to think about the truth contained in them.

From that perspective, I would like to share with you an index of great books I recently stumbled upon, mentioning some of the best works of the past 2500 years. We should all take more time to actively read these. I have found that the most valuable way of reading the classics is to stop after every other sentence, to try to think of (counter-)examples of your own life that (dis-)prove the truth of the matter. It is slow, but meaningful. If you want to recommend a book, or discuss a certain topic, please do reach out to me.