Books that Shaped My Life: Lessons from Ben Franklin’s Autobiography

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Bookshelves groan under the weight of books about people who rose to great heights from humble beginnings. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is one of the first and the best of those books.

I discovered the book because it came in the mail from the Walter J Black Classics Club, as one of that club’s monthly selections. I was 19 then. Today I’m 75. I still go back to the book for wisdom and inspiration. And I still have my original Classics Club edition.

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is one of the books that shaped my life. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from it.

Keep Daily Records of Performance

In the autobiography, Franklin outlines his “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He outlined 13 virtues he wanted to master. They were temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.

He attacked the project by keeping a record of his sins against each of those virtues every day. Each week, he chose one virtue for special attention. That meant that he completed an entire course of the virtues in 90 days.

I was impressed. I began keeping score of how I did on important things. My checklists and scorecards have changed dramatically in 50 plus years. But I owe the inspiration to Ben Franklin.

Plan Your Day

Franklin outlined his plan for an ideal day. He said it was relatively easy to keep to that when you had full control of your own schedule, as he did when he was a journeyman printer. But he also said it was much harder to do if you had to coordinate your work with other people’s schedules.

Franklin’s example taught me to plan my day in time blocks, with specific work assigned to those blocks. I’m still doing that today though the details have changed from time to time.

Always Be Studying

One lesson I took away from Franklin was one he didn’t write about specifically. I noticed that when he outlined his ideal day, there was one item that was part of his morning routine called, “prosecute the present study.”

I took that as a lesson to always have a learning or growth project going on. That’s served me well for half a century. Some of my projects have been to get better at business and writing. But others have been just for fun, like learning about opera or gardening. Years later I mated this lesson with advice from Peter Drucker and Jack Canfield to structure self-improvement projects in 90-day increments

Learn Early

Franklin wrote the section of his autobiography that deals with self-improvement when he was about my age. He wrote about how he’d didn’t develop habits of orderliness when he was young. He said he had a very good memory and so he didn’t “feel the want of it.” But he also wrote that when he was older and his memory was not as good, he wished he had paid more attention to order when he was young.

I was fortunate to develop the discipline of orderliness early. When I was in high school, I had to be organized to manage my studies at Bronx Science, my job, my household chores, and my social life. There were more lessons in orderliness when I joined the Marines after high school.

I only noticed this the last time I dipped into the autobiography, a week or so ago. The lesson I would take to share is to get started early on developing the habits that will serve you for life.

Adapt the Ideas of Others

I admired Benjamin Franklin tremendously. I’ve learned and continue to learn a lot from his autobiography. But I always wound up doing it my way.

The way other people do things can give you ideas for what to try. They can’t tell you exactly how things will work for you. So, experiment. When you see something that works for someone else, try it. You will probably need to adapt it.

As you go through life, your situation will change. Things that worked for you in the past might not work anymore. You’ll master some things which free up time for you to learn other things. Self-improvement is a journey with no final destination. I’m sure that Ben Franklin never imagined that he had achieved “moral perfection.” I’m equally sure that he led a richer and easier life because he was constantly working at doing things better.


Keep daily records of your performance.

Plan your work with daily time slots.

Always be working on a project for your personal growth.

Develop habits that will serve you well for life.

Test the ideas of others to see if they work for you.

Reading Resource

If you want to learn more about Benjamin Franklin, I recommend Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.

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