I like to think of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography as the first “self-improvement” book. I read it for the first time in my late teens, about the same age as Franklin was when ran away from his apprenticeship to his brother in Boston and wound up in Philadelphia.
His formal schooling had ended when he was ten. Yet Franklin became known as the great polymath of the Revolutionary Era, with achievements as an author, publisher, scientist, inventor, and statesman.
With the internet, books online, and social media, it’s easier today to improve yourself. But you can still use the ways Ben Franklin learned as a guide.
Learn by reading
Reading is at the core of all of Franklin’s learning. His brother paid for food for all of his apprentices, including Ben. Ben offered to pay for his own food, if his brother would give him half the money the brother was spending on him. When James agreed, Ben used half of the allotment to buy food and the other half to buy books. Reading is the key to other learning.
Learn by practicing
Because he was a printer, Franklin had learned quite a bit about spelling and grammar. But he didn’t write very well. He decided that he wanted to write as well as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, whose articles Franklin had read in the Spectator. His basic method was to copy out a piece from the Spectator and then later try to recreate it.
Franklin pursued this project in a variety of ways. Sometimes he simply tried to re-write the original from notes. Sometimes tried to put the key points in the same (or better) order. Sometimes he wrote a poem based on the original and then tried to re-write it later. Diligently practicing a skill is the most powerful way to improve.
Learn by experimenting
Franklin loved to learn and he learned about natural things by experimenting. When I was a boy we heard all about his experiments with electricity, but there was so much more. Franklin did experiments in meteorology, ocean currents, and cooling. He had a lively correspondence with other scientists, like Joseph Priestley. Experimenting beats theorizing most of the time.
Learn by keeping records
I don’t know how it is for you, but if I don’t keep contemporaneous records of things that matter to me, my memory will play tricks on me later. Without keeping records, it’s way too easy to fool yourself. Franklin knew that, too. So, when he set out to achieve “uniform rectitude of conduct” he identified the virtues he wanted to attain and kept daily records of how he did. Keeping records keeps you honest.
Learn from other people
Today we’d call it “social learning.” When he was 21, Franklin set up a group to help the members learn from each other. As he describes it, he
“form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the JUNTO; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.”
Learning from others lets you tap into other people’s passion and expertise.
Discipline is the key to learning like Ben Franklin
Not much of the above learning would have happened without clear goals and discipline. For his entire life. Ben Franklin was ruthlessly disciplined about learning. When he was apprenticed to his brother, he would stay behind while everyone else went to a meal, so that he could read and study. Later in life he set aside time every day and most of Sunday to devote to learning and improvement.