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1726
wit and wisdom
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Young Benjamin Franklin borrowing books
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If there was any one theme throughout Ben Franklin's life, it was self-improvement. He was born into a family of seventeen children as the son of a poor candle and soap maker. He had less than two years of formal education and began his young adulthood entirely on his own in Philadelphia. Yet he became a wealthy man by eighteenth century standards and one of the most respected intellects of the Western world.

He was a model for the rags-to-riches story of the self-made man. Franklin's entire life reflected his belief in self-improvement, and from adolescence until his death at eighty-four, he worked constantly to improve his mind, his body, and his behavior.

Mind: Self-education
While apprenticed at his brother James' printing shop, Franklin decided to improve his writing abilities. He created a number of methods designed to make him a better writer. He studied the writings of authors whose style he liked and practiced writing essays in the same style. He would also rewrite essays by famous writers, seeking to improve them. Another method he devised was writing the paragraphs and sentences of an essay on slips of paper, shuffling the slips, and finally attempting to reassemble them in the correct order.

Also during his apprenticeship, Franklin was exposed to a variety of books and read everything that he could get his hands on. Not only was Franklin an avid reader, he loved to discuss what he read. One of the reasons Franklin formed the Junto in 1727 was to have a ready forum in which to explore and discuss intellectual topics. The members of the Junto sought to improve their minds and their world. They helped one another in business and found ways to help others in their community.

Franklin's seemingly endless curiosity helped him maintain a spirit of lifelong learning. He continued his scientific inquiries, he corresponded with some of the greatest minds of the eighteenth century, he met with scholars and scientists in every country he visited, and he even learned French rather late in life.

Body: Physical Activity
When most people think of Ben Franklin, they don't usually think of an athlete. However, Franklin was an early proponent of physical fitness. In an age when few people knew how to swim, Franklin taught himself how to swim. He was an avid swimmer all his life and even contemplated becoming a full-time swim instructor. Benjamin Franklin is the only founding father in the Swimming Hall of Fame.

During his first trip to England, Franklin found work in a print shop where most of the apprentices and journeymen spent much of their time getting drunk. Franklin knew that the mind and body was much more productive when it was not impaired by alcohol. Instead of drinking beer, Franklin decided to drink water and encouraged his co-workers to follow his lead. Although he wasn't successful at convincing all his colleagues to change their ways, Franklin's clear-headed work and productive physical strength (most printers would carry a single tray of heavy lead type; Franklin was known for usually carrying two trays) were recognized, and he was promoted.

Franklin wanted to improve his mind and his health and found a practical way to do both at the same time. Books were very expensive in Franklin's day, and as a youth, he didn't have much extra money. Franklin decided to become a vegetarian. He believed that eating a vegetarian diet was healthier than a diet filled with meat. In addition, meat was much more expensive, so by becoming a vegetarian, Franklin could save money to spend on books.

Behavior: Moral Perfection
As a youth, Franklin didn't always behave responsibly. At the age of 20, he decided to change the direction of his life by embarking on a course of what he called "moral perfection." He created a list of four resolutions to follow. He resolved to become more frugal so that he could save enough money to repay what he owed to others. He decided that he would be very honest and sincere "in every word and action." He promised himself to be industrious "to whatever business I take in hand." Lastly he vowed "to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a manner of truth" and to "speak all the good I know of every body."

Out of these four resolutions, Franklin came up with a set of thirteen virtues, which he practiced methodically. He wrote each of the virtues down in a book and practiced one of the virtues for a week, trying to perfect it. At the end of the week, he would evaluate his performance. At the end of thirteen weeks, he would start back on the first virtue again.

Centuries before it became fashionable, Ben Franklin somehow understood the importance of a holistic approach to the self. His self-styled methods of personal improvement made an important connection between mind, body, and spirit.


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