Three generations from now, most all of us will be forgotten. Yet a select few of us will build a life where our contributions will last for hundreds of years.
Ben Franklin is one of those Americans whose accomplishments have endured, and will endure, for as long as the United States endures.
Ben Franklin was a Founding Father, author, printer, political theorist, scientist, firefighter, inventor, networker, abolitionist (and slaveholder), statesman, diplomat, entrepreneur, and a renowned philosopher and wit.
Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, called Franklin “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become.”
How did he do this?
In the first place, Franklin was an autodidact…completely self-taught. One of seventeen siblings, his formal schooling ended when he was 10. Yet he had an insatiable curiosity and was a voracious reader. Ben Franklin was a polymath and student of life who learned early on how to create his own success.
How Ben Franklin created new habits of success
In contrast to Franklin’s later achievements in life, his young adulthood was quite turbulent.
At the age of 17 he ran away from home in Boston, estranged from his family because of an argument he had with his brother.
Franklin tried in business and failed—not once, but twice. At the age of 24, he was the father and single parent of a son born out of wedlock, whose mother abandoned the child to Franklin. (William Franklin, who was a steadfast Tory and Royalist and incited a guerilla war against the rebels…which prompted an irreconcilable break with his father.) As a young adult, Franklin was by almost any measure, and especially his own, a dismal failure. His life was confused, difficult and not at all satisfying to himself or anyone else. He decided to change.
A re-evaluation…and a recommitment
Young Ben sat down and drew up a list of 13 characteristics and values that he aspired to personify. These became known as his 13 Virtues, and they are as follows:
A very earnest Ben Franklin described his project this way:
It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.
Franklin resolved to reorder his life. Each day he would read his list and each week he would focus on a different aspect of his list, repeating the process over and over and over again. Below, you can check out the simple daily tracking tool that Franklin used to monitor his own behavior.
Pick just one thing
For the purposes of this article, I’ve taken Franklin’s life-reordering approach and adapted it somewhat into seven simple steps that adhere to the spirit of his process. Here’s the modern update:
- Identify the one behavior that would have the single biggest impact on your success…if you could change or strengthen that behavior.
- Write down how this behavior will look when you have changed it.
- Be really specific. Write down the behavior as if you were giving directions to someone else.
- Focus on the creation of this behavior for one week.
- At the beginning of each day, remind yourself what you want to achieve.
- At the end of the day, track how often you demonstrated that behavior, and when you failed to do so.
- At the end of the week, monitor how you did. If you feel that your new behavior has become an embedded habit, you can move onto your next “one thing.” If you feel that the new habit still needs some work, recommit your attention and intention…and continue for one more week. Repeat, as necessary, until your new mental wiring has taken over.
What is so prescient about Franklin’s method is that it foretells many of the recent discoveries about the brain and how we learn new behaviors.
When you are creating new behaviors, your brain likes to hardwire as much as it can. This allows our brains to move the behaviors off of the “stage of consciousness”…which is really quite small…and into the storage area for non-conscious habits.
Our brains construct brain maps that guide our behaviors. You cannot see these brain maps, but they are as real as the nose on your face. To create new behaviors, our brains create new brain maps. And the more that we attend to these new brain maps, the stronger they become and the more embedded our behaviors come to be as well.
If the topic of brain science as it relates to creating new habits interests you, there are many good books to read. One that I particularly recommend is David Rock’s Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work.
Old dogs can learn new tricks
You’ve heard the proverb, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks…” Here’s the thing: That’s wrong. What we are learning today with the science of neuroplasticity is that old dogs can learn new tricks, habits and behaviors. It is never, ever too late to learn. If you doubt that you can change and learn new habits, read Dr. Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.
What is the key to creating new habits, as Franklin learned to do? It’s all about the focus. A tiny trickle of water can carve a hole in stone, so long as it keeps dripping consistently over time. This is the singular underlying principle of Franklin’s life-altering process. I trust you find this helpful.