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.