Benjamin Franklin was the quintessential self-made man and a true renaissance man. From humble beginnings, he rose to be a successful author, printer, diplomat, scientist and Founding Father of the United States of America. He made major discoveries in electricity and invented the bifocals and lightning rod, among other inventions.
Franklin credited much of his success to his constant drive toward self-improvement. At the age of 20, he created a system to develop his moral character. He created a list of 13 virtues and developed a chart on which he could track his progress for each virtue. Every week he would specifically focus on developing one virtue. He found that he was able to make greater progress by focusing on one at a time. Each day that he would fail to live up to that particular virtue he would put a mark on the chart for that day (see the picture below for an example of his chart). At first, he found that he was putting marks down more than he had hoped, but over time, he noticed that they diminished.
When I read this in his autobiography, I was impressed by the idea. I chose to implement his plan in my own life.
Instead of simply mimicking Benjamin Franklin’s weekly virtues, I decided to create my own list, because the aspects of character which I value and need to improve may be different from his. My virtue for last week, for example, was patience and this week it is to live in the moment. Some other virtues I have chosen to focus on are: humility, generosity, persistence, honesty, gratitude, composure/calmness, enthusiasm, confidence, sincerity, impartiality and open-mindedness.
Since I began focusing on one virtue each week, I have noticed significant improvement in my general character (as has my wife). Concentrated focus is much more powerful and effective than multi-tasking, hence one virtue per week. By focusing on one particular virtue, it becomes less overwhelming than just trying to “be a better person”. One week is a nice amount of time because it is long enough to make some change and develop some momentum, while not feeling too drawn out or overwhelming.
How To Follow in Franklin’s Footsteps
So, if you would like to folllow in the footsteps of this great Founding Father, try the following:
1) Sit down and make a list of aspects of your character which could use some improvement.
2) Make a list of your character strengths as well.
3) Choose a few virtues to focus on. I recommend starting with some that you don’t struggle with too much. For example, I consider myself a fairly confident person and, therefore, I began with confidence. This proved to be a good launching pad for this practice because, already feeling confident, I was able to easily expand my confidence in that first week. Seeing progress immediately motivated me in the weeks that followed. Each successful week built upon the previous one and I felt as if I was progressively on a higher and higher platform from which to launch myself on to further successes.
4) As you make progress, begin to focus on virtues which are more of a challenge for you. For example, if you find it difficult to wait in line for five minutes, you may not want to start with “patience”. If you start with the toughest virtues, you may become quickly discouraged.
5) If you want, you can also create a chart on which to track your progress. This is useful for many reasons, expecially if one of the virtues you need to work on is persistence 🙂
When I first made my list of virtues, it was very long and I trimmed the list down with much difficulty. Of course, I would love to improve every aspect of my character, but if I try to tackle everything at once, it becomes overwhelming and I make little progress.
By deciding on those virtues which you most want to develop and focusing on one a week, development of your character becomes much more manageable and, most importantly, improvement is much more noticable. It’s exciting to see progress and this further motivates us to keep going. Once you get some momentum going, you’ll never want to stop!