Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Benjamin Franklin's List of Virtues

 You might think of goal setting and creating personal performance measures as modern developments. However, Benjamin Franklin pioneered these techniques.

In addition to contributing to the United States as one of its founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin was also an author, printer, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, statesman, librarian, and diplomat. Franklin only received two years of formal education, but continued to learn throughout his life by reading voraciously.


When Franklin was near the age of 30, he set a goal of "arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time." As he described in his autobiography, Franklin created a list of values that he observed in the writings of others. His list consisted of 13 items. For each, he noted the virtue and provided a brief description:

  1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolved.
  5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity: Rarely use venery [sexual indulgence] but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
  13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

The Process

Rather than attempting to master all of these virtues concurrently, Franklin decided to focus on conquering one at a time, but still track his transgression of the others. To accomplish this, Franklin created a "little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues." Each page list a virtual with its description at the top with a grid filling the rest of the page. The grid listed the first initial of each virtual in the first column. Franklin used 7 additional columns for the days of the week.

For each virtue, Franklin recorded his faults by placing a small dot in the appropriate row and column. He focused on improving a single virtue for the duration of a week. Thus, he was able to repeat this cycle four times within a year. By tracking his progress, he was able to see his improvements over the course of a year with the goal of "seeing on my pages the progress I made in virtue, by clearing successively my lines of their spots."

As I wrote my memoir, I tracked my progress every day. I used an Excel spreadsheet to record the number of words written, length of writing time, location, and time of day. At the end of the process, I was able to quickly determine when and where I was the most productive. You can read about my experience in my e-book, 60,000 Words in 6 Weeks. I believe that my motivation would have diminished had I not been able to review my progress each day.

I encourage you to track something for 30 days. My post on collecting measurements is a great primer on getting started.

Never Quit Learning

If you learned something from this post, please check out my free e-book, Never Quit Learning: 10 easy ways knowledge can help you stand out.

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