The 13 Virtues of Life: Benjamin Franklin’s Guide to Building Character

The 13 Virtues of Life: Benjamin Franklin’s Guide to Building Character

There’s not much to love about a daily commute, but I certainly enjoy listening to a good audio book.

It makes the intermittent fits of road rage far more tolerable. I’m currently listening to Benjamin Franklin: An America Life, which recounts the rich life of Benjamin Franklin.

It’s filled with interesting details about the enigmatic Franklin and how he lived his life. He was a printer, publisher, writer, scientist, inventor, and activist to name a few of his many roles.

One of the more surprising realizations was just how much importance he placed on the idea of self-improvement. In fact, it would be easy to name Franklin as the father of many self-improvement ideas we still use today.

You don’t need to go any further than some of his most famous maxims to realize the mark he made:

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. 

Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today.

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.

Even his daily routine has been celebrated as a good approach for optimal productivity.ben-franklin-scheduleThere’s one undertaking that is most impressive and ambitious, his active effort in building his own character.

At the age of just 20, Franklin worked towards creating a set of rules that would allow him to essentially be a better person.

“It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.”

The outcome was 13 Virtues that would guide his daily life. The following are those virtues, which are as relevant today as they were in the 1700’s.

1. Temperance

Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

An individual should not overindulge in food or drink. The first virtue essentially set the tone for the rest. Franklin believed that temperance allowed the mind and body to work at an optimal level, making the other virtues possible.

2. Silence

Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

Franklin learned the importance of listening at his self organized junto (club) meetings. He could easily talk for hours, but it offered little in the way of learning. Rather, he realized that to acquire knowledge he must instead listen, which often meant silence.

3. Order

Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

Franklin was ambitious and had many interests. He believed that order would allow him to pursue all things, as long as they were done efficiently.

While Franklin struggled with this virtue, he appreciated the idea behind it and worked to improve it.

4. Resolution

Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

Simply put, you must do what you set out to. This was as much relevant to his mastery of the virtues as the rest of his life. He believed that resolve and discipline made the man.

5. Frugality

Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e. waste nothing.

Spend less than you earn. Sounds simple enough, yet typically we do the exact opposite. Living frugally not only keeps you humble, but it teaches you the value of money.

6. Industry

Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

Time is money. Related to frugality, Franklin believed that being ever useful was the key to success. Being deliberate in how you spend your time can define the outlook of your life.

7. Sincerity

Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

Don’t gossip, spread rumors, or be deceitful. This no doubt was born from his role as a printer, but an essential virtue all the same. Think before you speak and speak the truth.

8. Justice

Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

Live life by doing what is right. While we often focus too much on ourselves, it is important to also see how your actions impact others. Try not to do harm to anyone in life.

9. Moderation

Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

Everything should be balanced and engaged in moderately. Extremes are rarely the answer. Our culture may guide us to the opposite, but seeking moderation in all parts of life, keeps things in balance.

10. Cleanliness

Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

A person should be well kept. Having cleanliness of body and home is a representation of your attention to detail and discipline. Take the time to take care of yourself and your environment.

11. Tranquility

Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

Don’t get upset about the little things, as it does more harm than good. Learn to be tranquil and at peace with issues that are clearly out of your control. Don’t let them control you.

12. Chastity

Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

Times have certainly changed, yet the premise is still relevant. Being aware of your actions when it comes to sex and the perception that it carries is as important as ever. Be smart and be careful.

13. Humility

Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Last but not least is humility. We need to keep our pride in check and not be over-confident in ourselves or our actions. Practice humility and you will be well-liked, but also well-equipped to face any challenges.

Humility was a late addition to the list of virtues. A friend pointed out Franklin’s weakness when it came to pride. In truth, Franklin struggled with humility throughout his life, but was always mindful of it.

Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.Benjamin Franklin

It’s quite the list of virtues and certainly nothing easy to live up to. Even so, Franklin worked at these virtues throughout his life, but how he did so is just as interesting.

He realized that taking on all 13 of these virtues at once was a recipe for disaster. He wouldn’t make any progress and fail repeatedly.

Instead, he devised a simple system that would allow him to focus on a single virtue every week over 13 weeks. After the 13 weeks finished, he would begin again, completing the routine 4 times every year.

The hope was that the work of previous weeks would trickle forward as he went through the cycle. He kept track of his progress in a notebook, where he marked his success or failure on every day of every week.13-virtues-chartIf the above didn’t impress you, his approach for forming habits should. The wisdom Franklin used here shows how well he understood the world of self-improvement. Let’s look at the techniques he employed.

1. Single Focus

Rather than attacking all 13 habits at once, Franklin took them on, one at a time, week by week. This is essential to any habit development. How often do we try to change our entire routine at a moments notice? It never works.

Instead, we need to make small changes, one at a time, until they transform from forced tasks into effortless behaviors.

2. Track Progress

Just as important was his method of tracking his progress. He didn’t just say he would live by these rules and then do his best to do so. He diligently kept track of how well he did, everyday.

Actually measuring progress is invaluable, not only because it helps us change, but because it shows us our strengths and weaknesses.

3. Repetition

Franklin made this idea of achieving perfection a lifelong goal. He did it every day, every week, every year. More importantly, he realized that practice was the key to progress.

By repeating the cycle four times a year on an endless loop, he ensured that he would always be improving and striving for his goal.

While Franklin never achieved perfection, he still believed that the effort had changed his life for the better. He said the following in his autobiography:

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

It’s easy to see how Franklin could be regarded as one of the fathers of self-improvement. His ideas, methods, and techniques are used everywhere today.

Moreover, his ambition of achieving moral perfection is something that we often overlook in our daily lives. We focus more on careers and personal gains than we do personal enrichment and being good people.

Maybe we could all benefit from a list of virtues to build our character. Maybe Franklin was on to something.

Sign up now to get a weekly digest of my latest articles, as well as the best of the web every Sunday morning!