Recently I spent a few hours listening to interviews with successful entrepreneurs. Every once in awhile I’ll get really into it and spend something like 4 hours doing this. On this specific day I heard this book mentioned and recommended by three different entrepreneurs that I really respect. Walter Isaacson, the author, also wrote a biography on Einstein, and is more recently famous for writing the Steve Jobs’ biography, so I knew this would be a quality read. This book is a mammoth compared to my normal business books, and I’m not going to attempt to somehow describe the whole book, or for that matter summarize it, but I just want to mention some of the things that struck me the most about Benjamin Franklin’s life, and perhaps they can be useful in some way. Before I make any observances I should mention that I was absolutely ignorant to anything about Benjamin Franklin prior to reading this. I grew up in Austria so I never had an education on American history. This meant that for every story that is common knowledge in the States, I was blown away in amazement. So if any of my points below are common knowledge please forgive me.
Benjamin Franklin spent the first half of his life as a successful entrepreneur, then spent the second as a statesman and scientist. He contributed enormously to all three of these fields of work. It seems as though every other year he invented something new, a few examples are libraries, fire departments, editorial cartoons, lightning rods, bi-focals, and much more. It’s incredible to me that one life can be so accomplished in such diverse fields, and I’m inspired by it since he truly embodies the American ideal of accomplishing whatever you set out to do, and the ability to rise from poverty through hard work and persistence.
The biggest takeaway I got from this book was the fact that Franklin didn’t really have down time. He may have spent plenty of time with friends over a bottle of wine, but he was always engaged in something that would challenge him, whether it be an intellectual debate, or a chess game. Even when he was having a romantic, though not conjugal, affair with a married woman, she would lie in her bath and he would sit beside it and they’d play chess! He would also spend his months stuck on ships between Europe and America developing new scientific theories and testing them. So a day was never wasted. Imagine what we’d be capable of if we were never idly watching tv; imagine if in addition to quitting tv we also quit watching sports! A whole new world of time would open up to most of us, and if we spent that time challenging ourselves by learning and engaging in thought provoking activities, I’d imagine our lives would change dramatically for the better.
Another thing that stood out to me, was that despite the fact that Benjamin Franklin was not a religious man, he still saw the tremendous importance in morality and working on his own virtues as a life goal. The 7 virtues were chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. I think today we don’t spend enough time bettering ourselves and focusing on specifically improving in the areas today as a society, and it doesn’t have to be a political or religious thing to do so. Succeeding in conquering these virtues also has a purely utilitarian benefit as well, and Franklin was a prime example of this (although he may have struggled with humility, seeing that he sent people portraits of himself as gifts).
Finally, I’m a lot less pessimistic about the current state of US politics as a result of reading this book. The debates were just as rigid and only after intense arguing were compromises made. The constitution is in itself an imperfect compromise between everyone, and the issues back then seemed to carry so much more weight than our fiscal issues do today. They were discussing slavery and freedom of religion, we’re debating how to pay off debt. So I’m optimistic that it is possible in the United States to achieve great things against all odds, and as long as we still have the drive to succeed in America, then Franklin’s legacy will continue to inspire us for a long time.