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Benjamin Franklin: The Unlikely Father of Self-Help

Did you know Benjamin Franklin wasn't just a scientist and politician? He also gave us some of the first self-help tips! Dive in to learn about Franklin's simple yet powerful ways to be a better person, which still ring true today. Learn about the unexpected side of this famous American.
by Tom Anderson | Sep 13 2023

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 imaginable 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.

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

Benjamin Franklin’s Groundbreaking Approach to Self-Help and Self-Improvement

Journey back to 1758, and you’ll find Franklin’s essay, “The Way to Wealth.” Through this work, he shared the wisdom that contributed to his own success.

His advice often came in catchy, concise phrases like, “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” and “There are no gains without pains.” 

Imagine if Franklin lived in today’s digital age – his words would be viral gems spread across social media platforms!  And already, 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.

Benjamin Franklin’s Self-Improvement Chart: An 18th Century Guide to Modern Living

Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues were a set of core principles he aimed to live by in order to cultivate his character and lead a virtuous life. He developed a weekly plan where he would focus on practicing each virtue in succession, recording any transgressions in a notebook – the self-improvement chart.

The Genius Franklin’s Self-Improvement Chart

In an age without notifications to remind you of your goals, Franklin devised a simple yet profound chart to keep himself in check. Every day, he’d track his adherence to these virtues, marking a black spot whenever he faltered.

The aim? A week free of any black marks. This was his own unique system of accountability, and guess what? It’s still incredibly relevant today.

Here’s a glimpse at Franklin’s chart:

The 13 Virtues by Benjamin Franklin

  1. Temperance: “Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
  2. Silence: “Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
  3. Order: “Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
  4. Resolution: “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
  5. Frugality: “Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
  6. Industry: “Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
  7. Sincerity: “Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
  8. Justice: “Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
  9. Moderation: “Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
  10. Cleanliness: “Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.”
  11. Tranquility: “Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
  12. 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.”
  13. Humility: “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

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 #6, Industry, states that “Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.” This isn’t so different from 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 A Year 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 calendar shows how he tracked his performance in following these virtues, building them into habits. benjamin-franklin-father-self-help

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 on to 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, 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.

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