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The First Great Founder
Benjamin Franklin on writing, living, and leadership
Throughout his life, Benjamin Franklin had a closely held view of the world:
Slow and steady diligence was the true way to wealth.
This worldview didn’t just apply to money, but wealth in all forms: happiness, health, personal development, and relationships. In the last decade of his life, Franklin wrote this in his autobiography:
“Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.”
Franklin was America’s first self-improvement guru. He worked hard to maintain an image of “frugality and industriousness,” but he also walked the walk. Franklin’s scope of accomplishments is nothing short of incredible—even for someone who lived to 84 (the average life expectancy for men was about 43 at the time).
The great biographer, Walter Isaacson, sums it up best:
“He was, during his eighty-four-year-long life, America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical, though not most profound, political thinkers. He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He devised bifocal glasses and clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold. He launched various civic improvement schemes, such as a lending library, college, volunteer fire corps, insurance association, and matching grant fund-raiser. He helped invent America’s unique style of homespun humor and philosophical pragmatism. In foreign policy, he created an approach that wove together idealism with balance-of-power realism. And in politics, he proposed seminal plans for uniting the colonies and creating a federal model for a national government.
But the most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself.”
Re-read Isaacson’s last line: “The most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself.”
Franklin’s ability to transform himself is how the youngest son of a tradesman became a profitable poet by age 12, the owner of a print shop at 22, the most successful inventor and scientist of his generation by middle age, and a vital foreign diplomat in his later years.
No person—not even Franklin—is born with so many innate abilities. He wasn’t a genius in any particular field of study. His genius, rather, was his ability to learn, act, and lead in any field he chose to explore.
The catalyst for his success? Writing.
“Prose writing has been of great use to me in the course of my life, and was a principal means of my advancement…” he wrote in his autobiography.
Franklin used writing as a tool for self-improvement.
As a boy, he devised an exercise for himself where he read a volume of famous essays, set them aside for a few days, and then set out to recreate them from memory. He’d then compare his versions with the originals and make corrections as needed.
He also wrote as a means to grow his popularity.
Throughout his life, Franklin wrote letters and essays under various pseudonyms, including Silence Dogood, developing a uniquely American strain of dry wit and homespun humor. His congeniality won him countless friends and only a few enemies, most of whom eventually came around to Franklin anyway.
Franklin eventually used writing to outwit his competition and grow his business.
When he lacked the funds to start his own newspaper in Philadelphia, Franklin decided to bolster the leading newspaper with a series of wildly popular essays. His goal was to sink the only other newspaper in town, thus thinning out the competition. Franklin succeeded, and the failing printer eventually sold his newspaper to Franklin at a steep discount.
Over the following decades, Franklin would continue outflank his rivals on numerous fronts and build the most successful media conglomerate in America.
Last but not least, Franklin wrote to benefit the public, whom he felt a deep conviction to serve.
For over 30 years, Franklin published The Poor Richard’s Almanac, a vital resource for common people in Colonial America. His clear, simple, and humorous style of writing made Franklin just as popular with the working class as he was with the world’s elites.
Benjamin Franklin was a great founder in every conceivable sense of the phrase. He founded businesses, clubs, non-profit organizations, schools, political parties, militias, and eventually, a nation.
The world still benefits from his legacy today, and we as entrepreneurs can learn a great deal from his example. His most timeless lesson:
Great founders write.