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Benjamin Franklin: The Unlikely Father of Self-Help

For an industry worth billions, self-help is relatively young. However, its roots go back further than you think—to founding father and polymath, Benjamin Franklin.
by Tom Anderson | Jan 17 2018

The self-help industry is worth billions; every year, hundreds of new self-help books are released. Go to your nearest bookstore, and you’ll find titles on every conceivable aspect of self-improvement: from those teaching you to develop your confidence, to those advising you on how to save for retirement.

The self-help industry itself took-off in the early twentieth century, and that period’s most successful self-help gurus — most notably Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill — are seen as the fathers of the genre. But, in reality, the history of self-help goes back a lot further. And, the person who deserves the actual credit for its popularity is Benjamin Franklin. Yes, that Benjamin Franklin!

When you think of the achievements of Benjamin Franklin, writing self-help won’t immediately spring to mind. This is perfectly understandable; compared to co-authoring the Declaration of Independence, discovering the electrical nature of lightning and developing, and naming, the first electrical battery (not to mention his groundbreaking work on the science of breaking wind), Franklin’s self-help exploits have been largely ignored.

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It’s time to take a closer look at Benjamin Franklin’s writings on self-help.

Let’s begin in 1758, with Franklin’s essay, “The Way to Wealth,” in which he gives the advice that had made him a fortune. Many of his recommendations come in a series of short, pithy phrases; for example, “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” or “There are no gains, without pains.” It’s a pity Franklin wasn’t alive in the era of Facebook; he could have made a killing designing shareable motivational quotes.

But, it’s his celebrated autobiography that you’ll find Franklin’s strongest self-improvement advice, in particular, in his attempts to travel through life “without committing any fault at any time.”

As a young man, Franklin realized that simply trying to live a good and worthwhile life wasn’t possible. He knew that slipping into bad habits can be all too easy, and this is a constant threat to those trying to live virtuously. So — in an effort to keep the bad habits at bay — he drafted 13 virtues which he could follow every day.

If you take a closer look at these 13 virtues, you’ll realize they wouldn’t be out of place in a modern self-help bestseller.

For example, virtue #5, Industry, states that “Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.” This isn’t so different to the central premise of 21st-century self-help titles such as The 4-Hour Work Week, which argues that non-essential tasks should be delegated to others or cut altogether, or Essentialism, which asks us to cut out the superficial and focus on the few things that make a difference.

Or look at virtue #11 Tranquility: “Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.” Quite a strong overlap here with works such as The Power of Positive Thinking, or Think and Grow Rich, which place our success, not on what happens to us, but on how we deal with them.

What’s more, Franklin didn’t just outline the virtues that he thought had made him successful; he also shared how he used them in his daily life. Franklin’s autobiography contains a calendar showing how he tracked his performance in following these virtues, building them into habits.

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On this calendar, Franklin added a black mark each day he found himself wanting in one or more of these virtues. Each week, he’d focus on one of the virtues, and ensure he kept it in mind throughout the week. If he’d stuck to his task the whole week, he’d move onto the next virtue and then the next until his week contained no black marks at all. To this day, the concrete program of habit building is a self-help staple. Books from Mini Habits to Better Than Before, all advise tracking desirable habits and behaviors on a daily calendar.

Franklin’s autobiography really was a milestone in the art of self-help. By reading this incredibly specific and actionable advice, the reader could make similar improvements to his own life. Many did. In fact, quite a few of those who did read Franklin’s autobiography went on to create their own works of self-improvement. Among the people inspired by Franklin’s autobiography were Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey, authors of How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, two of the bestselling self-help books of the twentieth century.

But why was Franklin’s autobiography so influential as a work of self-help?

Maybe the answer can be found in the time, and, especially, the place Franklin found himself in. By the end of the eighteenth century, the newly independent United States was developing at a rapid pace. Immigrants from across Europe were flocking to the new nation in search of a better life. And, unlike the ancien régimes found in Europe, in the United States, there was no aristocracy or established elite to hog power and influence. Over in the new world, the opportunities existed for people to better their position, and even reach the very top. While practically no one could become the King of England, practically anyone could become President. So, perhaps Benjamin Franklin (who had himself risen from poverty and obscurity) found a ready-made audience ready and willing to listen to advice on how to make it big.

Image source: The Library Company of Philadelphia

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