#62 Benjamin Franklin Autobiography

Summary Notes


In this episode of "Founders," host David Senra delves into the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, exploring Franklin's journey from humble beginnings to becoming a prominent figure in society. Franklin, in a letter to his son William, reflects on his life's fortunate experiences, sharing the wisdom he's gained with the intent of guiding others. The podcast emphasizes the value of learning from biographies and autobiographies, as exemplified by Elon Musk's admiration for Franklin's life story. Senra discusses Franklin's entrepreneurial spirit, his early foray into the printing business, and the significant impact of his continuous pursuit of knowledge. This episode highlights the importance of industry, frugality, and the pursuit of self-improvement, as Franklin's disciplined approach to life led to his remarkable achievements in business, science, and politics.

Summary Notes

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

  • Benjamin Franklin's autobiography serves as a letter to his son William, detailing Franklin's own life, his rise from poverty to affluence, and the means by which he achieved happiness (felicity).
  • Franklin believes his experiences and the means he utilized to achieve success may be beneficial for his posterity to imitate.
  • The autobiography is intended to share Franklin's fortunate experiences and the lessons he learned throughout his life.

Imagining it may be equally agreeable to you to know the circumstances of my life, many of which you are yet unacquainted with, I sit down to write them for you.

This quote introduces the purpose of Franklin's autobiography, which is to share his life experiences with his son and potentially guide others through his own narrative.

Felicity means happiness. The conducing means I made use of. My posterity may like to know as they may find some of them suitable to their own situations and therefore fit to be imitated.

Franklin clarifies the term "felicity" and suggests that the methods he used to achieve happiness could be useful for others to emulate.

Goals of the Autobiography and Podcast

  • Franklin explicitly states the goal of his autobiography is to share his learned wisdom with his son so that it may be imitated if found agreeable.
  • The podcast, hosted by David, aims to extract useful ideas from biographies and autobiographies of entrepreneurs that listeners can apply in their own lives.
  • The podcast's concept is to distill actionable insights from the lives of successful individuals.

He's saying, hey, I've had a lot of fortunate experiences in my life. I've learned some things, and I'm going to tell you the things I learned so that if you like them, if you find them agreeable, you can actually imitate and adapt into your own life.

David explains that Franklin's autobiography shares valuable life lessons that can be adapted by others for their own benefit.

Benjamin Franklin as an Entrepreneur

  • Franklin is portrayed as an entrepreneur who started from nothing and became successful in various fields including printing, science, and politics.
  • The podcast emphasizes the value of collecting ideas from various sources and the unexpected benefits they may provide later in life.
  • Elon Musk's appreciation for biographies and autobiographies, including Franklin's, is highlighted as an inspiration for the podcast.

He was an entrepreneur. He started from nothing. He was basically a runaway kid. He created this printing business. He also did science and politics. He's one of the people I most admire.

This quote reflects on Franklin's entrepreneurial spirit and diverse achievements, which serve as an inspiration for listeners and entrepreneurs alike.

Early Life and Education of Benjamin Franklin

  • Franklin was initially intended for the church by his father but later pursued a career in printing due to his fondness for reading.
  • At the age of 10, Franklin was taken out of school to assist his father in his tallow chandler and soap boiler business, which he disliked.
  • Franklin's father exposed him to various trades in hopes of finding one that Benjamin would find agreeable, to prevent him from running away to sea.

I was put to the grammar school at eight years of age, my father intending to devote me to the service of the church. My early readiness in learning to read, which must have been very early, as I do not remember when I could not read.

Franklin's early education was aimed at preparing him for the church, showcasing his father's initial plans for his future and Franklin's early talent for reading.

Franklin's Disposition Towards Vanity

  • Franklin discusses his views on vanity, suggesting that while most people dislike it in others, it can be beneficial for the possessor.
  • He believes that having pride in one's accomplishments can be productive and lead to further successes.

Most people dislike vanity in others whatever share they have of it themselves. But I give it fair quarter whenever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor.

Franklin expresses a counterintuitive point of view, acknowledging the potential positive outcomes of vanity, which he believes can drive people to achieve more.

Franklin's Printing Career and Entrepreneurial Tendencies

  • Franklin's brother, James, had a printing business where Benjamin became a useful hand and had access to better books.
  • Benjamin Franklin's entrepreneurial tendencies were evident from an early age as he started writing and selling his own printed works.
  • Franklin's proficiency in writing and his use of pseudonyms played a significant role in his advancement.

I liked it much better than that of my father, meaning the business. In a little time, I made great proficiency in the business and became a useful hand to my brother.

This quote highlights Franklin's preference for the printing business over his father's trade and his quick mastery of the trade, which made him a valuable asset to his brother's business.

Writing has been of great use to me in the course of my life and was a principal means of my advancement.

Franklin credits his writing ability as a key factor in his personal and professional advancement, underscoring the importance of effective communication skills.

Franklin's Journey to Philadelphia and the Start of His Independence

  • Franklin, dissatisfied with working for his brother, ran away to New York and then Philadelphia in search of employment in the printing trade.
  • His arrival in Philadelphia marked the beginning of his independence and the start of his significant contributions to American society.

In three days, I found myself in New York, nearly 300 miles from home, a boy of but 17, without the knowledge of any person in the place, and with very little money in my pocket.

This quote depicts Franklin's bold decision to leave home in search of better opportunities, demonstrating his adventurous spirit and determination at a young age.

Franklin's Humble Beginnings

  • Benjamin Franklin describes his modest entry into Philadelphia, emphasizing his unassuming appearance and lack of resources.
  • He highlights the contrast between his initial state and his eventual success in the city.
  • Franklin's journey was marked by fatigue, hunger, and minimal financial resources, indicating his determination and work ethic from the start.

"My pockets were stuffed out with shirts and stockings, and I knew no soul nor where to look for lodging. I was fatigued with traveling, rowing, and want of rest. I was very hungry, and my whole stock of cash consisted of a dutch dollar and about a shilling in copper."

This quote illustrates Franklin's challenging circumstances upon his arrival in Philadelphia, setting the stage for his narrative of self-made success.

First Impressions and Fate

  • Franklin encountered his future wife's family by chance, making a memorable first impression due to his disheveled appearance.
  • This anecdote serves as an example of Franklin's belief in the role of fate and serendipity in life's journey.

"I passed by the door of Mr. Reed, my future wife's father, when she, his future wife, standing at the door, saw me and thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward and ridiculous appearance."

The quote captures the moment of Franklin's inadvertent first encounter with his future wife's family, highlighting the theme of unintended beginnings leading to significant relationships.

Analysis of Competition

  • Franklin assesses the qualifications of his future competitors in the printing industry, Bradford and Kimer.
  • His analysis reflects his strategic thinking and foresight, laying the groundwork for his future business ventures.

"Bradford had not been bred to it and was very illiterate. And Kimer, though something of a scholar, was a mere compositor, knowing nothing of press work."

This quote reveals Franklin's critical evaluation of his competitors, which informed his confidence in his ability to succeed in the printing business.

The Virtues of Industry and Frugality

  • Franklin emphasizes the importance of hard work and saving as key to his financial progress.
  • His industrious nature and commitment to continuous learning are noted as factors that attracted the attention of influential individuals.

"He was gaining money by my industry, meaning hard work and frugality."

The quote underscores the significance Franklin places on hard work and saving as the means to financial success.

Encouragement and Deception

  • The governor of the province recognizes Franklin's potential and encourages him to establish his own printing business.
  • Franklin experiences a betrayal when the governor fails to provide the promised support, showcasing the unreliable nature of some individuals.

"He proposed my setting up of my business laid before me the probabilities of success, saying, hey, the printers here kind of suck. You could do better."

This quote reflects the governor's encouragement and the hope he instilled in Franklin, which ultimately led to disappointment.

Wisdom and the Dangers of Vice

  • Franklin receives valuable advice from an elderly woman regarding the dangers posed by two young women on a ship, illustrating the importance of guidance and vigilance.
  • He learns about the destructive impact of vice through the downfall of his childhood friend Collins, who succumbs to alcoholism and gambling.

"Young man, I am concerned for thee, as thou hast no friend with thee and seems not to know much of the world, or of the snares youth is exposed to; depend on it, those are very bad women."

The quote demonstrates the protective advice Franklin received, which saved him from potential harm and highlights the theme of the dangers of vice and the value of wisdom.

Reflection on Age and Discretion

  • Franklin contemplates the relationship between age and wisdom, acknowledging that discretion does not always come with age.
  • This reflection arises from his father's concerns about Franklin's youth in relation to running a business.

"There was great difference in persons and discretion did not always accompany years, nor was youth always without this come."

The quote suggests that Franklin recognizes the variability in maturity and wisdom among individuals, regardless of their age.

Employment in London and the Value of Knowledge

  • Franklin seeks employment in the printing industry in London, where he gains valuable experience despite financial constraints.
  • He benefits greatly from access to books, reinforcing his belief in the importance of continuous learning and self-improvement.

"I made an acquaintance with one Wilcox, a bookseller whose shop was at the next door, and he said, I might take, read, and return any of his books."

This quote illustrates Franklin's commitment to education and the advantage he gains from being able to access and learn from a wide range of books.

Rationalizing Behavior and the Power of Reason

  • Franklin observes the justifications people make for their behavior, particularly regarding the consumption of alcohol among his coworkers.
  • He recognizes humans as rationalizing rather than rational creatures, a theme that underlies his understanding of human nature.

"So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."

The quote encapsulates Franklin's view on the human tendency to rationalize actions to align with personal desires or habits.

Transition from Printing to Merchandising

  • Franklin considers leaving the printing industry to learn the trade of merchandising, indicating his openness to new opportunities and adaptability.
  • His reflection on his time in London emphasizes the value he places on experiences, relationships, and knowledge over financial gain.

"He proposed to take me over as his clerk to keep his books, in which he would instruct me, copy his letters, and attend the store. I now took leave of printing, as I thought forever."

The quote marks a significant turning point in Franklin's career path, as he prepares to embark on a new venture in the world of merchandising, believing at the time that his printing days were behind him.

Early Challenges and Opportunities in Philadelphia

  • Benjamin Franklin's employment ends due to the death of his employer.
  • Franklin considers returning to Boston but is persuaded to stay in Philadelphia by Meredith.
  • Meredith points out the poor business practices of their current employer, Kymer, suggesting an opportunity for Franklin.
  • Meredith's father is willing to provide seed capital to start a new printing business.
  • Franklin and Meredith become partners with the support of Meredith's father.

"And it said the sickness held onto him for a long time and at length carried him off, meaning killed him."

The quote explains the death of Franklin's employer, which resulted in the termination of his employment.

"Meredith is actually helpful of getting Ben to stay in Philadelphia."

Meredith plays a critical role in convincing Franklin to remain in Philadelphia and pursue opportunities there.

"Kyimer doesn't know what he's doing. My father would finance, give us the seed capital we need to start a printing company, and if we become partners."

Meredith and Franklin see a business opportunity due to Kymer's mismanagement, and Meredith's father is willing to invest in their new venture.

Establishing a Printing Business

  • Franklin and Meredith work at Kymer's while preparing to start their own printing business secretly.
  • Kymer is envious of Franklin's popularity and abilities.
  • Franklin's superior knowledge and conversational skills earn him respect and invitations from influential individuals.
  • A prophetic statement by an acquaintance predicts Franklin's success in driving Kymer out of business.

"The proposal was agreeable and I consented. His father was in town and approved of it."

Franklin agrees to the partnership proposal for the new printing business, which is also approved by Meredith's father.

"Kyimer is also a little jealous of Ben because a lot of people come to the printing house and call on Ben."

Kymer's jealousy indicates Franklin's growing influence and reputation in the community.

"I foresee that you will soon work this man out of business and make a fortune in it in Philadelphia."

An acquaintance of Franklin foresees his potential success and the downfall of their competitor, Kyimer.

The Launch and Growth of the Printing Business

  • Franklin and Meredith's first earnings bring immense satisfaction to Franklin, more than any subsequent wealth.
  • Franklin emphasizes the importance of supporting small businesses and entrepreneurship.
  • The business faces a financial challenge when Meredith's father fails to provide the promised funds.
  • Franklin's industry and branding efforts lead to the growth of his business and the acquisition of more customers.

"This countryman's five shillings being our first fruits, meaning the first revenue into the company and coming so seasonably, gave me more pleasure than any crown I have since earned."

The first earnings of the new company bring Franklin great pleasure, highlighting the emotional impact of early success in business.

"We need more small businesses. We need more entrepreneurship, not less."

The quote underscores the importance of small businesses and entrepreneurship for economic growth and personal success.

"But now another difficulty came upon me, which I had never the least reason to expect."

Franklin faces an unexpected financial challenge due to Meredith's father's inability to fulfill his financial commitment.

Dealing with Pessimism and Critics

  • Franklin encounters a pessimist who predicts the failure of Philadelphia and Franklin's business.
  • Despite the negative outlook, Franklin observes the city's growth and prosperity.
  • The pessimist's lack of action based on his predictions is contrasted with Franklin's industry and success.

"There are croakers in every country, always boating its ruin."

Franklin describes pessimists who constantly predict disaster, suggesting their negative impact on others.

"Had I known him before I engaged in this business, probably I never should have done it."

Franklin acknowledges that if he had listened to the pessimist before starting his business, he might have been discouraged from pursuing his venture.

Virtue of Industry and Success of the Newspaper

  • Dr. Baird's high regard for Franklin's industry contributes to a positive reputation.
  • Franklin starts a newspaper and successfully competes against Bradford's poorly managed publication.
  • The quality and engaging content of Franklin's newspaper attract subscribers and government business.

"For the industry of that Franklin says he is superior to anything I ever saw of the kind."

Dr. Baird praises Franklin's exceptional work ethic, which is a key factor in his success.

"Our first papers made quite a different appearance from any before in the province."

Franklin's newspaper stands out for its quality and content, leading to increased popularity and subscribers.

Overcoming Debt and Becoming Sole Proprietor

  • Franklin nearly faces ruin due to debt but is saved by two friends who lend him money.
  • Meredith leaves the business, allowing Franklin to become the sole proprietor.
  • Franklin's branding and visibility in the community further enhance his business's success.

"But now another difficulty came upon me, which I had never the least reason to expect."

Franklin is surprised by a financial crisis but manages to overcome it with the help of supportive friends.

"In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman, I took care not only to be really industrious and frugal."

Franklin strategically maintains his reputation as a hardworking and frugal businessman to build trust and attract more customers.

The Junto and the Philadelphia Public Library

  • Franklin establishes the Junto, a club for mutual improvement and discussion among tradesmen.
  • The success of sharing books within the Junto leads Franklin to create America's first subscription library.
  • Franklin's initiatives contribute to the intellectual and cultural development of Philadelphia.

"I used to establish the Philadelphia Public Library, which from a small beginning has now grown to become considerable."

Franklin's founding of the Philadelphia Public Library marks the beginning of a significant cultural institution.

"I proposed that we should all bring our books to one room where they would not only be ready to consult in our conferences."

The Junto members pool their books together, which becomes the foundation for the public library, democratizing access to knowledge.

Founding of the First American Subscription Library

  • The first American subscription library was started with a small fund by 50 young tradesmen.
  • Each contributed 40 shillings initially and then ten shillings annually.
  • The library was open once a week for lending to subscribers.
  • Promissory notes were used to ensure the return of books.

"So poor, that was not able, without great industry, to get to find more than 50 persons, mostly young tradesmen, willing to pay down for the purpose, 40 shillings each, and then ten shillings each year."

This quote highlights the humble beginnings of the first American subscription library, emphasizing the financial contributions required from the initial 50 subscribers.

"On this little fund we began, the books were imported. The library was open one day in the week for lending to the subscribers."

This quote outlines how the library started operations and the logistics of book lending to subscribers.

Impact of Libraries on Reading and Intelligence

  • The library's utility was quickly recognized and imitated by other towns and provinces.
  • Libraries grew through donations, reading became fashionable, and people became more knowledgeable.
  • The lack of public amusements focused attention on studying and reading.

"The institution soon manifested its utility was imitated by other towns and in other provinces."

This quote indicates the positive impact and rapid spread of the library concept to other regions.

"Our people, having no public amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books, and in a few years were observed by strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent than people of the same rank generally are in other countries."

This quote suggests that the lack of distractions in the form of public amusements contributed to a greater focus on reading and self-education, leading to a more informed and intelligent populace.

Benjamin Franklin's Personal Development and Habits

  • Franklin set aside time for daily study, which compensated for his lack of formal education.
  • He avoided taverns, games, and frivolous activities, focusing on industry and business.
  • His frugal habits and responsible resource management contributed to his increasingly easier circumstances.

"This library afforded me the means of improvement by constant study, for which I set apart an hour or two each day, and thus repaired in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me."

This quote underscores the importance of self-directed learning and how Franklin used the library to educate himself.

"I spent no times in taverns, games, or frolics of any kind, and my industry and my business continued as indefatigable as it was necessary."

Franklin's avoidance of distractions and dedication to his work are highlighted in this quote, revealing his disciplined lifestyle.

"My circumstances, however, grew daily easier, my original habits of frugality continuing."

This quote reflects on the positive outcomes of Franklin's frugal lifestyle and diligent work ethic.

Frugality and Financial Wisdom

  • Franklin's life became easier because of his frugality and responsible use of resources.
  • He avoided compounding costs to enjoy the benefits of compounding returns.
  • The concept of frugality is linked to being responsible with one's resources.

"Keep your expenses low, for the tyranny of compounding costs can devastate the miracle of compounding returns."

This quote, attributed to John Bogle and discussed by Franklin, emphasizes the financial principle of minimizing expenses to maximize the benefits of compound interest.

Franklin's List of Virtues and Moral Improvement

  • Franklin aimed for moral perfection by tracking adherence to a list of 13 virtues.
  • He acknowledged that while he did not achieve perfection, the endeavor made him happier and better.
  • The virtues included temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.

"I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection."

This quote reveals Franklin's ambitious goal of self-improvement through the cultivation of virtues.

"I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it. Yet I was by the endeavor, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it."

Franklin reflects on the value of striving for moral perfection, even if the ultimate goal is not achieved.

Reflections on Aging and the Pursuit of Happiness

  • Franklin attributes his health to temperance and his financial ease to industry and frugality.
  • He believes his cheerful disposition and conversational skills made his company desirable.
  • He hopes his descendants will benefit from following his example.

"To this little artifice, their ancestor owed the constant felicity of his life down to its 79th year in which it was written."

Franklin credits his strategies for a happy life as the reason for his contentment up to the age of 79.

"To temperance, he ascribes his long-continued health; to industry and frugality, the early easiness of his circumstances and acquisition of his fortune."

This quote details the specific virtues Franklin believes contributed to his health and financial well-being.

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