Thriving in Disruptive Times: How Benjamin Franklin Nailed it.

Benjamin Franklin, University of Pennsylvania, Whartona

Benjamin Franklin’s example shows how self-cultivation can be a smart strategy for leaders determined to survive and thrive in disruptive times.

Looking back on a recent trip to Philadelphia (费城), the city where the USA was born, two things made a long lasting impression:

–  Walking around in Independence Hall and realizing that the men who declared independence from the British did so at big personal risk. Success was nowhere near guaranteed, prompting Benjamin Franklin to utter his famous words: “We must all hang together or, most assuredly we shall all hang separately”;

– Seeing how Benjamin Franklin, who arrived in Philadelphia aged 17 and signed the Independence Declaration aged 70, left his footprints all over the city (from the printshop where he built his fortune and the University (Penn) he founded to the Franklin Institute displaying his scientific discoveries) and is admired and respected to this day.

Here was someone who survived what must have been disruptive times – arguably at least as disruptive as the period ahead of us today.  More than that, he thrived. How did he do it? What was survival skill? Intrigued, I read his both his biography (Edmund S. Morgan, Benjamin Franklin, 2002) and autobiography (Benjamin Franklin, 1793) on the plane back home (Why sleep when you can read)

I found surprisingly topical Franklin quotes that sound like good advice today:

  • “You may delay but time will not.”
  • “Well done is better than well said.”
  • “Reading makes a full man, meditating a profound one.”

I found Franklin’s work schedule that I had come across before, including the first question he asked himself each morning (“What good shall I do this day?”) and the last question he asked before he went to sleep (“What good have I done today?”)

But it was Franklin’s list of 13 character traits (“virtues”) he set out to cultivate that made me sit up in my chair:

  1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation
  2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself
  3. Order: Let all your things have their place, let each part of your business have its time
  4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve
  5. Frugality: Waste nothing
  6. Industry: Lose no time, be always employed in something useful
  7. Sincerity: Think innocently and justly and, if you speak, speak accordingly
  8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty
  9. Moderation: Avoid extremes
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes or habitation
  11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable
  12. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring
  13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates

I quote:

“I judged it would be well not do distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at the time; and, when I should be master of that, then proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone through the thirteen, and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arranged them with that view. Temperance first, as it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head, which is so necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up, and guard maintained against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits (…) “

Here was a man determined to improve himself in a smart way:  step by step, and main things first.

Franklin goes on:

“Conceiving that daily examination would be necessary, I contrived the following method for conducting that examination. I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues, and ruled each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I crossed each column with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day (…)”

Franklin upgraded himself by practicing the habits and skills he wanted to acquire and examining his progress every single day.

Let every new year find you a better man. – Benjamin Franklin

I left the plane reminded of the value of discipline (not my strongest point) and inspired by the fact that, no matter how turbulent your work environment gets, there is always something you can do: keep learning and improve yourself (also read our article ‘Leadership Introspection: The Only Person You can Actually Change is Yourself’).


Hanneke Siebelink is Research Partner and Writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS servicesIf you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.

This article is part of our Skills for the Future Expert Series in which we share valuable lessons from a list of experts, researchers and role models.

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