One of the great icons of American history, Benjamin Franklin is a fascinating and timeless individual. Through the pages of his autobiography, he teaches the value of character, the satisfaction of constant improvement and basic financial lessons that are as applicable in today’s world as they were in the eighteenth century.
While he is perhaps best known for his experiments with electricity (most remember the kite) or his involvement in the formation of the United States of America (the only person to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Treaty Alliance with France, and the Treaty of Peace with England), Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is of a much less grandiose nature than his myriad accomplishments. Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography is the 171 page musings and recollections of a great man about the specific path and choices he took that ultimately led to his success. While not a single one of the choices made was large enough to make a lasting impact on his life and legacy, Franklin instead imparts a mindset that, when followed, is destined to create nothing short of lasting excellence.
The Pursuit of Perfection
"But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious in obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavor a better and happier Man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it"
Lexus gets it. So much so that they’ve branded their entire business around the idea: Lexus, the pursuit of perfection. The pursuit. Not the attainment. The journey, not the final destination. Franklin not only spends a great deal of time discussing the pursuit of perfection (both of morals and of reputation), but truly embodies the spirit of the chase. Every major accomplishment for which he is remembered is the outcome of a desire to improve – to improve himself, his community and the world at large. By his own admittance, he fell short on most (if not all) occasions of attaining perfection but, as he realizes in later life, the pursuit was all that really mattered anyway. In his constant, daily determination to make himself and his world better, he accomplished more than most of us could ever imagine. And he did so with a sense of humility, service, and adventure.
Unanimous is Boring (and Ineffective)
"There are Croakers in every Country always boding its Ruin. Such a one lived in Philadelphia, a Person of note, an elderly Man, with a wise look… Had I known him before I engag’d in this business, probably I never should have done it."
As Franklin learned early in life (and you most likely already know), there will always be doubters. Always. Even 300 years ago, in an unsettled land of adventure and opportunity, there were people waiting to tell those willing to take chances that failure was just around the corner. In fact, doubters are so common in the lives of great leaders that if you find that your ideas meet with unanimous agreement, chances are your idea is going to fizzle. True success comes to those who dream big. True abundance comes to visionaries who can see further than most; those who see a better alternative just on the other side of a little work. And since many can’t (or aren’t willing to) see as far, they will doubt the viability of your dream.
Push your dreams a little beyond what’s “acceptable”. As Robin Sharma says, “If people aren’t laughing at you, you’re not dreaming big enough.”
"…in the Autumn of the preceding Year I had form’d most of my ingenious Acquaintances into a club for mutual Improvement, which we called the Junto."
Here’s the caveat to dreaming big: chances are if your dream is big enough, you won’t be able to accomplish it on your own. As Keith Ferrazzi taught in Who’s Got Your Back – you need a team. You need to surround yourself with like-minded, big picture thinkers who will propel you to greatness.
One important piece that Franklin adds to Ferrazzi’s case that a team is essential to success as the “sounding board” element of a trusted group. Before every major idea of Franklin’s was shared with the public, or lobbied in parliament, it was first shared, discussed and amended by his mastermind group, his “Junto”.
Just like a “great idea” at 3am can pale when reviewed in the light of day, so can a concept in your head lose value or passion when shared with the public. Having a safe environment in which to test your ideas can be a brilliant way to insulate yourself from the “croakers” of the world. Not only does a “sounding board group” protect you from public embarrassment, it also gives your ideas a place to flourish before being attacked by the harsh critics of the world. The lesson here – bounce your ideas off someone you trust before you take it to someone you want to pitch.
Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography has been referred to as the original personal development book and, having now read it, I can say I fully understand why. In addition to (and perhaps the cause of) his many varied and splendid accomplishments, Benjamin Franklin was a man dedicated to improvement, starting with his own character. His book is filled with tangible personal development activities and programs he created and tested; programs that would be worth exploring today. That a man’s self-recollection would live on this long, in the popularity it has, is a testament to the public’s respect for Franklin’s character and the timelessness of his message. Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography is a classic in every sense of the word.