Ben Franklin is one of the most influential people of American History. Hundreds of years after his death, he’s still seen as a role model by many, including the billionaire, Charlie Munger.
He was a successful inventor and businessman. He helped build the great American government and economy. His foresight into the power of compound interest helped turn his $2,000 donation to the country at his death into $6.5 million.
Ben’s philosophies in life are still influencing many people today. His concepts of pursuing health, wealth, and happiness even impacted Tim Ferriss to structure his best-selling book Tools of Titans around these concepts.
Here’s a busy man’s book summary of Ben’s autobiography, a book I’ve been wanting to read for year that I finally got to:
Ben’s secret to being a master at many skills
Ben was a renaissance man, inventor, entrepreneur, and scientist government official who helped start the University of Pennsylvania, discovered useful insights about electricity, and made a fortune by commercializing his inventions for mass market, like the lightning rod.
Jacks-of-all-trades, like Ben or Leonardo Da Vinci, who are renowned at multiple gifts seem to be a once-in-a-millennia occurrence. It seems like it’s much easier and common to succeed by focusing on one skill, like Warren Buffett or Mozart. When you spread your time and energy thin, it’s harder to become world class. So how did Ben do it?
He didn’t do it all at the same time. It seems like the same trick Arnold Schwarzenegger used to become seven-time Mr. Olympia, a real estate millionaire, the #1 highest paid actor in the world, and then Governor of California.
He focused on one area until he reached his desired level of success and moved onto another, betting on the longevity of life to get it all done.
He was naive and made mistake too when he was young
I had heard tales of Ben Franklin’s social intelligence. In particular from the book Mastery, I heard about Ben’s ability as an adult to win over the French in a time of need in the war by courting them in a socially intelligent way.
Contrary to what I assumed, he wasn’t naturally gifted socially or in all virtues. He ruined his relationship with his brother unintentionally over the years with acts like showing up to his brother’s company and showing off his job and all the money he made to him and his employees. He wasn’t trying to offend him but was often unaware that his actions were offending until it was too late.
As he grew up, he started to learn from his mistakes. His older brother often held Ben back and prevented him from succeeding and pursuing his passions and growing his skills partially because he wanted Ben to continue to work for him.
Ben got street smart and published articles (the Poor Richard Almanack series) under a fake name to evade his brother’s detection.
Another time, his coworkers started to sabotage his work because he wouldn’t contribute to the weekly alcohol jar even though he didn’t drink alcohol. He could never trace who it was that was doing it but he saw his tools magically disappear and the machines he use start to break more. Ben was savvy enough to start contributing to the jar rather than stir the pot and magically, all his issues disappeared.
This is one of Ben Franklin’s most admirable qualities. He’s able to analyze the situation without letting his emotions cause him to make stupid decisions. He was also cool and collected enough to realize that people in power aren’t always fair and if you try to argue with them logically about how it isn’t fair, you may just end up abused, hurt, alienated, or dead. Instead, he leverages their desires to navigate other people and tries to make the world a better, fairer place once he himself is in a position of power.
Social intelligence is an area that I didn’t realize the importance of until very recently in my life. It’s a vital area for success and charisma. Yet for most of my life, I was the analytical guy who would dig himself into a bigger hole of trouble by trying to logically argue why something wasn’t fair.
Test and try out new methods before the world has
He tried new things as an early adopter before anyone else did. Being vegetarian at the time was seen as weird and no one practiced it. It didn’t even have a name back then, it was just called a “plant-based diet.” But Ben found out about it in his research and tried it out for a while despite his peers making fun of him.
Be resourceful and frugal
Ben bargained with his brother when he was young to do work himself that his brother would have paid someone else for. His brother got a better deal on the price since he was paying Ben and Ben got to make money.
Ben was frugal. He only bought what was necessary and lived like a minimalist. Having said that, he did admit that he let his wife have occasional slip ups. She would try to “keep up with the Jones” by buying unnecessary china for the dinner table. He forgave sis wife was and admits that she was also frugal most of the time.
Let your fans fight for you instead of fueling the fire yourself
In his later years, Ben published many scientific papers documenting his experiments. They started getting attention from an international crowd and he got one French scientist who kept sounding the horn about how wrong one of his experiments was and the mistakes Ben made when conducting it.
When Ben investigated, he found that all the accusations came from misunderstandings caused by inaccurate translations. Back then, traveling to another country and finding a translator were not affordable or easy. He realized it would have been time-consuming and that the language barrier would have produced even more misunderstandings.
Instead of addressing the negativity, he ignored it and continued to pursue his passions and pursuits. Eventually, his supporters stood up for him and addressed the misunderstanding and accusations.
Don’t repeat Ben’s biggest regret…
“Most of our mistakes have been matters of omission rather than commission.” -Warren Buffett
Ben Franklin’s biggest regret is not inoculating one of his children with polio. At the time inoculating people with tiny strains of a disease through a shot for immunity wasn’t as commonly accepted or proven as it is now.
It was still a controversial topic and people were scared that you could die from the inoculation so many refrained from getting the shot. Ben’s fear of this prevented him from inoculating his son. Sure enough, his son died from the disease and he regrets not taking that small risk for prevention.
Other lessons from the book
He cherished reading. He read in his free time after work, at night, and before work.
Deadlines and limited resources breed urgency and get things done. Since he had limited access to books and had to return them to their owners by a deadline, he was pushed to make sure he read his books in time.
He wasn’t scared to test out new ideas. He tested out a plant-based diet after he read about it in a book in an era when it wasn’t popular at all. He got made fun of for it but he kept doing it.
He was resourceful; he bargained and made deals, like offering to do work himself to save money on rent.
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