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Review: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

March 28, 2013

I recently read Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  Aside from providing interesting insights into the life of one of the Founding Fathers, this book was an unexpectedly interesting set of thoughts on what makes someone successful.  Franklin, more than most famous people, feels remarkably very human-scaled. He was not born with unique, unapproachable gifts, though he was a talented writer.  He was born to a moderately prosperous middle-class family, and was never brought up with the intention or ambition of rising to great office or weighty responsibilities. Rather, throughout his life his highest principles were simply to improve himself, be useful in society, and be somewhat well-liked and locally influential.  It’s clear that even if he hadn’t happened to live during interesting times, he was destined to succeed at those goals, and it’s worth figuring out why.

One of Franklin’s gifts, and arguably the key to his success, was his rare combination of gregariousness and unquenchable intellectual curiosity. On one hand, he was a consummate networker. He made friends easily with people from every walk of life, and was particularly adept at creating sizable groups of like-minded friends. On the other hand, he combined this with what we would now regard as a nerdy interest in meticulous self-improvement and scientific curiosity. At one point in his life, he decided to cultivate a set of 13 virtues in himself. The way he went about this was to pick one virtue to work on every day, and record on an ivory board how many times he failed to exercise that virtue on that day. He was basically doing self-tracking over 200 years before the Quantified Self movement got off the ground.

Time to sync this to my Google account!

This combination of charisma and eagerness to play with new ideas contributed to a lot of his successes. By the time he started his own printing shop in Philadelphia, he’d already gathered together a large network of talented young tradesmen. But instead of making this a mere social club, a place to blow off steam, Franklin was able to organize these people around his intellectual endeavors. This group helped him found the first lending library in America, as well as the first firefighting cooperative. It was also a base that helped him create a university (UPenn) as well as the Pennsylvania militia.

By dint of these skills and his diligence, he was able to retire at age 40, a testament both to his own abilities and the amount of upward mobility possible in colonial America.  He spent some time following scientific pursuits, including his famous electricity experiments.  But after a while he felt drawn towards politics, which he’d often flirted with in his pamphleteering but which he’d never made a full time profession.

What struck me most reading about this aspect of his life is the extent to which Franklin’s entry into politics could be seen as a terrible personal mistake.  History textbooks mention Franklin almost exclusively as a statesman playing a starring role in the drafting of the Declaration, while throwing in a few anecdotes around Poor Richard and flying kites unsafely.  But his presence at the Continental Congress was at the twilight of his political career, which had by then consumed almost half his life – and his role at that point in his life was more like a mascot than as a power broker.  During his first 25 years in politics, his energies were instead spent representing middle-class tradesmen in a futile fight against the ruling Penn family, first in the Pennsylvania legislature and then in London.  This zero-sum battle consumed much of his efforts and emotional energies, and is now but a footnote in history.  Although he did continue to network and experiment as before, it’s hard not to think of what he could have accomplished if he turned his energies in a direction other than direct politics.  And on a personal level, his political years were those in which he strayed farthest from his normal equanimity and let his ties to his family fray.

As for his role in the history books, his prominence in the events of the Revolution were largely preordained by his being a prominent citizen, as well as by his being in London at the beginnings of the crisis and thus being the rebels’ natural representative.  Being sent as an emissary to France was a natural posting for cosmopolitan with his gregarious nature.  He performed each of these roles well, particularly in performing some tricky diplomacy in negotiating a favorable peace treaty in Paris, but this work was a logical extension of his previous achievements and talents, not an independent high point.

Some takeaways from all this:

  1. Being the most talented user of a new technology can bring huge rewards even if you don’t try to become Google.  By the time he was setting up his own printing shop, Franklin was, Isaacson says, “undoubtedly the best writer in America.”  In an age where printing was still a relatively new technology, his ability to both write well and own the infrastructure for mass distribution pushed him to great success both as a publisher and a writer.  His talents as a writer were later to prove instrumental in his political endeavors as well.  Whether this observation should lead you to learn blogging, programming, or gene sequencing is left as an exercise for the reader.
  2. Cool ideas and social effectiveness is a winning formula.  Franklin’s ideas led to his social circles becoming much more than social clubs; his leadership skills enabled him to put his ideas into action.  Having a balance of both is ideal; alternatively associating with someone who complements your thought/social action balance also seems useful.
  3. Politics really is the mind-killer.  Even for someone of Franklin’s stature, going into politics was arguably a mistake; it certainly would have been a mistake if not for the events of the Revolution.  Both in terms of creating global good, and in terms of enhancing his prominence, he would have been just as well served, and much happier to boot, had he continued to follow his scientific or popular-press pursuits instead of investing his time in politics.  But both his principled beliefs and his personal friends and enemies encouraged him to engage further in politics, and so even a man of his even temper and ironic detachment became obsessed with politics, to his detriment.
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