#115 Ben Franklin An American Life



In Walter Isaacson's biography "Ben Franklin: An American Life," Benjamin Franklin emerges not just as a historical figure, but as America's prototypical entrepreneur, a self-made media mogul, and a master of personal branding. The host delves into Franklin's early life, highlighting his industrious nature, strategic thinking, and the creation of a vertically integrated media empire. Franklin's personality traits—his skepticism, wit, and aversion to authority—shaped his approach to business and politics. His inventions and scientific contributions, like the lightning rod and bifocal glasses, were complemented by his civic initiatives, such as founding libraries and colleges. Franklin's influence extends through history, inspiring figures like Elon Musk and shaping America's ethos of pragmatism and humor. Ultimately, Franklin's life prompts reflection on living virtuously and meaningfully, a theme that resonates with the host's audience of entrepreneurs and thinkers.

Summary Notes

Benjamin Franklin's Persona and Legacy

  • Benjamin Franklin is portrayed as the most relatable and approachable founding father, with a personality that resonates with contemporary sensibilities.
  • Franklin's achievements spanned various domains, including science, invention, diplomacy, writing, and business strategy.
  • His inventions and civic contributions, such as the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and public institutions, showcased his ingenuity.
  • Franklin carefully crafted his public image, from industrious young printer to wise old diplomat, always rooted in his middle-class background.
  • He resisted hereditary aristocracy and maintained an image of a simple, virtuous tradesman throughout his life.
  • Franklin's character reflects the evolving values of America, with his reputation fluctuating through different historical periods.
  • Engaging with Franklin's life is seen as a way to explore living a life that is useful, virtuous, and spiritually meaningful.

"Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us. ... He was, during his 84 years, America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist. ... But the most interesting thing that Franklin invented and continually reinvented was himself, America's first great publicist."

This quote encapsulates Franklin's multifaceted contributions and emphasizes his self-made persona as a foundational aspect of his legacy.

Benjamin Franklin's Personality

  • The Franklin family was known for their dissenting, nonconformist attitudes and love of learning, traits which Benjamin inherited and developed further.
  • Benjamin Franklin was characterized by skepticism, curiosity, irreverence, and a resistance to authority, traits that persisted throughout his life.
  • Franklin's personality traits were integral to his role in the American Revolution and his lifelong ambitions.

"The family produced dissenters and non conformists who were willing to defy authority... Benjamin was skeptical, puckish, curious, irreverent."

This quote describes the environment and family traits from which Franklin's personality emerged, highlighting the influence of his upbringing on his character.

Franklin the Entrepreneur

  • Franklin's global fame was not solely due to his business acumen but also his scientific and political achievements.
  • His approach to science was not driven by financial gain; he freely shared his inventions and findings.
  • Franklin's resistance to establishment authority was a recurring theme in his life, influencing his educational and professional aspirations.

"Unlike in some of his other pursuits, he was not driven by financial motives... as we enjoy great advantages from the invention of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours."

This quote illustrates Franklin's altruistic approach to his scientific work, prioritizing the sharing of knowledge over personal profit.

Franklin's Scientific and Political Achievements

  • Franklin's scientific work focused on practical applications rather than theoretical sophistication.
  • He was pragmatic, valuing actions that benefited the common good and community well-being.
  • Franklin's political contributions were significant, and he admired traits such as vigilance, courage, and the ability to stand one's ground in others and himself.

"Franklin's scientific work was distinguished less for its abstract theoretical sophistication, than for its focus on finding out facts and putting them to use."

This quote reflects Franklin's practical approach to science, emphasizing utility and real-world application.

Abigail Adams on Benjamin Franklin

  • Abigail Adams admired Franklin's ability to impart wisdom and usefulness in his speech.
  • Despite the adversarial relationship between Franklin and John Adams, Abigail Adams recognized Franklin's intellectual contributions.

"When he spoke, something useful dropped from his tongue."

This quote from Abigail Adams captures the essence of Franklin's communicative prowess, highlighting his ability to convey practical wisdom.

Franklin's Influence and Founders Podcast

  • Franklin's life had a profound influence on many historical figures, with his legacy impacting the subjects covered in the Founders podcast.
  • The podcast host draws parallels between Franklin and other influential personalities, noting the direct inspiration many took from Franklin's life and work.

"He might be the single most influential person I have ever covered. On the podcast, you can draw almost a straight line between the people that we've talked about and analyzed together."

This quote acknowledges Franklin's extensive impact on subsequent generations of thinkers and entrepreneurs, underscoring his enduring influence.

Influence of Biographies on Entrepreneurs

  • Biographies, rather than business books, were cited as instrumental learning tools by Elon Musk.
  • Elon Musk expressed admiration for Benjamin Franklin, having read both Franklin's autobiography and Isaacson's biography on him.
  • The stories of successful individuals, like Benjamin Franklin, inspired other entrepreneurs such as Thomas Mellon.
  • Thomas Mellon attributed his decision to leave farming and pursue business to the influence of Franklin’s autobiography.

"I didn't read business books. I read biographies. I thought those were helpful."

This quote from Elon Musk highlights the value he found in learning from the experiences of others, particularly from biographies, rather than traditional business literature.

"I regard the reading of Franklin's autobiography as the turning point of my life."

Thomas Mellon emphasizes the profound impact that reading Benjamin Franklin's autobiography had on his life, inspiring him to change his career path.

Benjamin Franklin's Early Life and Entrepreneurial Journey

  • Franklin began working full-time at the age of ten in his father's shop.
  • Disliking his initial trade led him to discover printing, which he loved.
  • Franklin's apprenticeship under his brother James at age twelve was challenging and instilled in him an aversion to authority.
  • Franklin recognized the advantage of controlling both content and distribution in the media business.
  • His love of reading and writing was central to his development, often borrowing books overnight to read them.
  • Books that taught the importance of knowledge and overcoming adversity influenced Franklin greatly.
  • Franklin believed that individual efforts could change history, a theme reflected in his life and the books he read.

"Books were the most important formative influence in my life."

Franklin's quote underscores the significance of reading in shaping his character and intellect, highlighting his self-education through literature.

"A central theme of Bunyan's book and of Franklin's life was the concept that individuals and humanity in general move forward and improve based on a steady increase of knowledge and the wisdom that comes from conquering adversity."

The speaker draws parallels between the themes in Bunyan's work and Franklin's life philosophy, emphasizing personal growth through knowledge and overcoming challenges.

Franklin's Approach to Interpersonal Relations and Argumentation

  • Franklin learned the importance of not being argumentative to avoid creating enemies.
  • He admired Socrates' method of building arguments through questions, adopting a more inquisitive style of debate.
  • Franklin's journals reveal his introspection and self-improvement efforts in dealing with people.
  • He preferred gentle indirection over confrontation, using innocent questions to subtly assert his points.

"Being argumentative, he concluded, was a very bad habit, because by contradicting people, when you contradict people, you produce disgusts and perhaps enemies."

This quote from Franklin reflects his realization that confrontational behavior is counterproductive and can lead to negative outcomes in relationships.

"Dropped my abrupt contradiction style of argument, and put on the humbler Inquirer of the Socratic method."

Franklin describes his shift from direct contradiction to a more Socratic approach in discussions, aiming for a less confrontational and more effective way to communicate.

Franklin's Rebellion and Search for Self-Made Success

  • Franklin's aversion to arbitrary power stemmed from his oppressive apprenticeship with his brother.
  • He identified with the American rebel archetype but sought success in emerging commercial centers rather than the wilderness.
  • Franklin's move to Philadelphia was driven by his desire for self-improvement and opportunity.
  • Despite limited formal education, Franklin's self-directed learning played a crucial role in his development.

"I fancy his harsh and tyrannical treatment of me might be the means of impressing with me that aversion to arbitrary power that has stuck to me throughout my whole life."

Franklin's quote connects his negative experiences with his brother to a lifelong resistance to undue authority, shaping his rebellious spirit.

"The wilderness did not beckon. Instead, he was enticed by the new commercial centers, New York and Philadelphia, that offered the chance to become a self made success."

The speaker contrasts Franklin's path with that of other rebels of his time, highlighting his ambition to succeed in the burgeoning urban centers rather than the frontier.

Franklin's Self-Education and Business Acumen

  • Franklin's self-education was extensive, despite only two years of formal schooling.
  • He created his own personal curriculum, which contributed to his later success.
  • Franklin's various jobs taught him fundamental business lessons, particularly in marketing.
  • His understanding of marketing was key to building his successful printing business.

"I have since observed, seldom fall into it."

This quote, though incomplete, suggests Franklin's observation that people of good sense rarely engage in fruitless disputes, aligning with his own approach to argumentation.

"American individualists sometimes boast of not worrying about what others"

While this quote is incomplete, it seems to be leading into a discussion of how individualists, like Franklin, focus on their own path and goals rather than conforming to societal expectations.

Franklin's Approach to Reputation

  • Franklin valued his reputation for practical purposes, using it as a marketing tool.
  • He consciously projected an image of industriousness and frugality.
  • Franklin's self-created and self-willed character moved him towards calculated ends.

"I took care not only to be, in reality, industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary."

This quote emphasizes the importance Franklin placed on not only being industrious and frugal but also ensuring that others perceived him as such. It highlights his strategic approach to building a public image that would benefit his career and social standing.

The Utility of Hard Work and Self-Promotion

  • Hard work is essential, but so is letting people know about your efforts.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger's phrase "work like hell and advertise" parallels Franklin's philosophy.
  • Continuous learning makes one more interesting and creates positive externalities.

"Work like hell and advertise."

This quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger encapsulates the idea that success comes from both hard work and effectively communicating one's achievements to others, similar to Franklin's strategy.

Positive Externalities of Continuous Learning

  • Continuous learning and being conversational can lead to beneficial relationships.
  • Franklin's intellectual curiosity and conversational skills helped him befriend influential figures.
  • Self-improvement through learning leads to increased opportunities and visibility.

"My mind having been much more improved by reading than Kymer's, I suppose it was for that reason my conversations seemed more valued."

This quote reflects Franklin's belief that his dedication to self-improvement and learning made him a more valued conversationalist, which in turn opened doors for him socially and professionally.

Franklin's Strategic Networking

  • Franklin used his wit and knowledge to outshine his less competent competitors.
  • His ability to impress powerful individuals with his intellect led to financial support and business opportunities.
  • Franklin's self-confidence and recognition of competitors' weaknesses played a role in his success.

"Mediocrity is always invisible until passion shows up and exposes it."

This quote suggests that passion and dedication can reveal the shortcomings of others, as Franklin's passion for his work highlighted the mediocrity of his competitors.

The Importance of Visible Diligence

  • Franklin's visible industry and character earned him respect and credibility.
  • He continued to demonstrate his work ethic publicly even after becoming successful.
  • Franklin's approach to maintaining a reputation for hard work had long-term benefits for his business and personal brand.

"This industry, meaning his visible to our neighbors, began to give us character and credit."

Franklin explains how his visible hard work contributed to building a positive reputation, which was crucial for gaining trust and credibility in his community.

Franklin's Media Strategy

  • Franklin planned to overcome his competitors by creating a media conglomerate.
  • He focused on production capacity, product development, and content creation.
  • His products, like Poor Richard's Almanac, achieved significant market penetration.

"The industry of that Franklin is superior to anything I ever saw of the kind. I still see him at work when I go home, and he is work again before his neighbors are out of bed."

This quote from a town merchant illustrates the impact of Franklin's visible industry on his reputation and how it contributed to his success in overtaking competitors like Andrew Bradford.

Benjamin Franklin's Media Conglomerate

  • Benjamin Franklin created a vertically integrated media conglomerate in the 1700s.
  • He took over the entire colonial post system after the war with Britain.
  • His conglomerate included production capacity, products, content, and distribution.

Over the next decade, he would succeed by building a media conglomerate that included production capacity, products, content, and distribution.

The quote explains Franklin's success in creating a comprehensive media empire that encompassed every aspect of the industry, from production to distribution.

Franklin's Philosophy on Criticism

  • Franklin believed it was foolish to try to avoid all criticism.
  • He illustrated this with a fable about a father, son, and a donkey, demonstrating that no matter the action, criticism is inevitable.
  • The moral of the fable is a reflection on human nature and the futility of pleasing everyone.

Franklin would tell you that it's foolish to avoid all criticism.

This quote summarizes Franklin's attitude towards criticism, emphasizing that it is an unavoidable part of life and should not be feared.

The Ben Franklin Method for Decision Making

  • Franklin had a method for making difficult decisions involving a pros and cons list.
  • He would weigh the importance of each argument, eliminating them in pairs if they were of equal weight.
  • This method helped him clearly see where the balance of a decision lay.

My way is to divide a paper into two columns, writing over one column pro and the other column con.

The quote describes Franklin's systematic approach to decision-making, which involved a logical and structured comparison of pros and cons.

Personal Tragedy and Self-Improvement

  • Franklin experienced the tragedy of losing his son, Frankie, to smallpox.
  • Despite his success, he faced personal losses and challenges, as noted by Charlie Munger.
  • He focused on self-improvement and personal virtues as a means to improve both his personal and professional life.

In one of the few searing tragedies of Franklin's life, his son Frankie died of smallpox just after his fourth birthday.

This quote highlights one of the personal tragedies in Franklin's life, showing that despite his achievements, he too faced profound loss.

Franklin's List of Virtues

  • Franklin created a list of twelve virtues with descriptions for self-improvement.
  • The virtues include Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, and Chastity.
  • He wrote these virtues for himself, which later became public.

He made a list of twelve virtues that he thought desirable, and then after each virtue that he wanted to have, he gave a short description on it.

The quote outlines Franklin's method for personal development, where he identified key virtues and provided descriptions to guide his behavior.

Poor Richard's Almanac Maxims

  • Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac included maxims that reflected his notions of what was useful and amusing.
  • The maxims were not entirely original but were a collection of wisdom from many ages and nations.
  • Franklin saw himself as a conduit for spreading wisdom, not claiming originality for the maxims.

Most of poor Richard's sayings were not totally original, as Franklin freely admitted.

This quote shows Franklin's acknowledgement that the maxims he included in his almanac were not his own creations but rather a compilation of existing wisdom.

Turning Adversaries into Allies

  • Franklin mastered the art of turning adversaries into allies through understanding human nature.
  • He shared a story of how he won over an opponent by borrowing a book, which led to a lasting friendship.
  • Franklin believed that those who have shown kindness are more likely to do so again than those you have obliged.

He that once has done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.

The quote captures Franklin's insight into human relationships, suggesting that people are more inclined to repeat acts of kindness than to reciprocate favors.

Franklin's Retirement and Legacy

  • At age 42, Franklin retired from his printing business to pursue other interests.
  • He wanted to live usefully rather than die rich, focusing on reading, study, experiments, and friendship.
  • His retirement from business was not an end but a transition to science, politics, diplomacy, and statecraft.

I would rather have it said he lived usefully than he died rich.

This quote reflects Franklin's philosophy on life and success, prioritizing usefulness and personal fulfillment over wealth accumulation.

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