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The UnCollege Blog

5 Takeaways from Benjamin Franklin's Life

By Radhika Morabia

Radhika Morabia is a high school junior who writes at She obsessed with attaining success and not being pseudo in the process. You can email her at, she loves talking to people.

Benjamin Franklin was an awesome figure in American history. He was the first person to suggest independence from Britain, invented the bifocals, and discovered electricity. Your resume can’t get much better than that. But wait, Ben also published a yearly almanac that became a best-seller for the twenty years in which it ran.

You would expect Ben to have extensive schooling and an aristocratic family, but his father was a soap boiler and only schooled young Ben long enough to learn basic writing and arithmetic. Through books and a large array of mentors, Ben went on to become the first Postmaster General of the United States, along with many other impressive titles.

That's right. Benjamin Franklin, the Newton of Electricity, ultimate hackademic. The groundwork for his later accomplishments was mostly laid out within his first twenty years of life, starting with guidance from his father, and ending with his famous thirteen virtues. He applied calculated wisdom and immense energy towards rapid development. He wasn't an inborn genius, but a dedicated individual who had the good fortune of being exposed to challenging ideas early on.

The Wisdom of Young Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin began his ascent with a huge influence from his father, Josiah. Described as "...very strong; he was ingenious, could draw prettily, was skilled a little in music, had a clear pleasing voice...but his great excellence lay in a sound understanding and solid judgment in prudential matters, both in private and public affairs," in Ben's autobiography, Josiah allowed Ben a good amount of freedom and encouragement. He was also intelligent and popular enough to expose Benjamin to an assortment of ideas and peoples.

Once, when Ben was a child, he and his friends needed to build a wharf at the edge of a marsh to fish for minnows. He saw large stones nearby, to be used for a new house, and used them to build a wharf when the workmen left. Feeling very pleased with himself, he didn't expect the workmen to look into who had stolen the rocks. They found out and told the fathers of the boys. Although Benjamin tried to convince his father that what he did was useful, Josiah said "nothing is useful which is not honest."

That lesson stuck with Ben for the rest of his life. Later, when Ben had grown up and began to form ideas and argue about books, he met a boy named Collins. Together, they argued on friendly terms by sending one another letters. One day, Josiah picked up these letters and read them. He proceeded to tell Ben that although his ideas were sound, his eloquence was lacking. Benjamin agreed, and proceeded to diligently work towards improving his craft.

He picked up a periodical called the Spectator, and thinking the writing was exquisite, attempted to imitate it. He pulled a couple of the essays and tried to rewrite them by focusing on one sentence at a time. Then, Ben would compare his work to the Spectator's and quickly found his flaws.

TAKEAWAY #1: Look for opportunities for improvement everywhere. Although this may not be the best way to improve your writing, once Ben was met with criticism, he found an unconventional, yet efficient solution. He didn't throw money at the problem or simply continue to write and rewrite letters until his writing might have improved. Ben developed a focused, creative solution with constant feedback.

Around the same time, Ben happened upon a book about the Socratic method.

I was charm'd with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter.


...the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so, or it is so, if I am not mistaken.

With this newfound knowledge of argumentation, Benjamin went out and "practis'd it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved."

TAKEAWAY #2: Apply what you learn. It would have been easy to simply read the book, think about it, and move on with life. Benjamin did what 99% of readers don't do. He took action, and this event allowed him to become an ambassador to France--the ally who helped win the American Revolution.

After working with his father for a couple of years, he was sent for an apprenticeship with his brother, a printer. Being a bachelor, his brother didn't own a home and paid a family to house and feed him and his apprentices.

Ben did something extraordinary during this time. He went to his brother and told him that he would feed and house himself if his brother gave him half of what he gave the family to house him. His brother couldn't resist. Ben stayed in the printing house at night and ate mostly bread to sustain himself. With the rest of his money, he bought books.

TAKEAWAY #3: Question your surroundings. As an apprentice, Ben received no income, and he ingeniously thought of an alternative method to fulfill his #1 priority: books. You don't have to survive on bread to do this. This can help other quantities in your life, like time or energy. If you're spending 2 hours a day on your workout routine, think about adopting an intense regimen that lasts less than 15 minutes.

Eventually, Ben ran away to Philadelphia, got scammed by the governor, met his future wife, stayed in Britain, tried to woo his friend's girl, and met a ton of interesting people. If you want to hear about all that, I highly recommend picking up a copy of his autobiography. (It's $2.25!)

He did this all with a genuine interest in meeting people. What often started with a pleasant, intelligent, and respectful conversation, led to financial advantages through either discounts (housing, etc.) or employment opportunities.

TAKEAWAY #4: Learn to network. Every relationship is an opportunity, as long as you view the relationship as an opportunity, and not only as a means to an end.

Finally, on the trip back from London to become a clerk for a merchant, Benjamin developed the thirteen virtues which would guide him for the rest of his life.

...I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ'd in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our best interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct.

Through his reading, he saw patterns of virtues that he thought were important. However, he found that most were too strict, and he "propos'd to myself, for the sake of clearness, to use rather more names, with fewer ideas annex'd to each."

From this, came the thirteen: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquillity, Chastity, and Humility. He wrote a bit accompanying each name, and you can look at that here.

TAKEAWAY #5: Develop a set of virtues. They don't have to be the same as Benjamin's, but make a list of of something you wish to strive towards every single day. Then document it, perhaps like Ben did:

I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul'd each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross'd these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.

I prefer to mark the box when you successfully abide by said habit for motivational reasons, but do whatever works for you.

After all this, he went on to open his own printing business, soon to get involved with politics and science, writing Poor Richard's Almanack, and basically transcending all measures of how much you can get done in one life.


The biggest takeaway from reading Benjamin Franklin's autobiography was that he was human. That's why I can call him Ben. He made mistakes, he got stressed, and life wasn't always easy. It taught me that I can accomplish at least half of what he did, which is more than 99.99% of people.

All five takeaways are a bit similar, and can be easily summarized into three words. Diligence with awareness. Proceed forward purposefully. Focus on your energy.

It's simple, but it's not easy. As a hackademic, it's your job to take on the difficult. Here's your challenge: become the modern Benjamin Franklin.