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Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

by Benjamin Franklin

Date finished: 14 Nov 2022

A charming and witty narration of various events from Franklin's life, with nuggets of wisdom often hidden among light-hearted puns and jokes.

All Book Notes | Amazon page


Context: Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of United States. A true polymath, he made significant contributions in politics, science, engineering, and the printing press among other things. He was one of the least controversial Founding Fathers, and maintained amicable relationships with almost everyone.

My Notes

If you want to be improved from the knowledge of others, don’t present your opinions strongly and in a fixed manner. Wise people, who usually dislike disputing, will let you being wrong and undisturbed.

Don’t promise to return favors. Instead, just return the favor. When someone lends you money, pay back as soon as you can, pay back in full, and ideally with interest.

Certain actions may be bad not because they’re forbidden by the Bible, but they were forbidden by the Bible because they were bad. Likewise, some actions are good not because they are commanded, but might be commanded because they’re good.

There are always some people who foresee doom and failure everywhere. They’re usually wrong.

When undertaking a collaborative project, avoid presenting yourself as the owner of ideas. It will make people reluctant to cooperate. Put yourself as much as you can out of sight and present it as a project of friends, who asked you to go and propose it to XYZ people because of this and that reason. This will make people less disputing and more agreeable to your cause.

Franklin spent no time in amusement (taverns, games, etc.) apart from reading, which he did for two hours every single evening since he was young.

“He that would thrive, must ask his wife”, says an old English proverb. You need an agreeable and collaborative significant other. Someone who assists you in your business, is frugal and does not take up your energy, time, and money.

Trying to improve yourself over multiple things at once is hard. While your attention is at avoiding one fault, you might do another. Habit might take advantage of inattention, or desire might overpower reason. You need to focus on one small piece every time, making it a habit so that you don’t rely on motivation, willpower, and mental strength. When you have mastered one habit, go on and fix others, while still trying to preserve the one you worked on.

In addition, merely knowing what is right and virtuous is not enough to ensure one is acting virtuously. Bad habits must be broken in order to have a steady and uniformly good character.

Never directly contradict what others are saying, nor try to assert your own opinions. Avoid using language expressions that imply a fixed opinion such as “certainly”, “undoubtedly”, etc. Say instead “I imagine something to be so and so”, or “So it seems to me currently”. When someone states something you think flat out wrong, deny yourself the pleasure of abruptly contradicting them and pointing the absurdity in their proposition. In answering, begin by observing how in certain cases or circumstances their opinion would be right, but in the current case there appears to be some difference.

In this way, you will find that your conversations will be more pleasant. Your opinions will be received with more ease, and with less contradiction. When you’re wrong, it will be less scary. And finally, it’s easier for other people to give up their mistakes, and agree with you, if you don’t fight them.

The hardest passion to subdue is pride. Even if one manages to overcome it, they would probably be proud of their humility.

When trying to earn a person’s favor, don’t pay them servitude and respect. Find something they are passionate about, and ask them a favor regarding that subject (e.g. if they would be so kind as to lend you that fascinating rare book they have in their collection). They will be excited to show-off and help you, and they will want to do you more favors.

On the contrary, when you help people, they might feel indebted to you, which can make them resentful.

Removing potential adversaries by making them friends is much more useful, and pleasant, than to resent or be hostile.

Franklin always prepared an idea in the minds of people several months or even years ahead of its possible execution. In this way, he prepared people for change, making them more agreeable to it, and more likely to vote such a proposal. He also usually tried to diffuse the idea through his intellectual circle of friends, who then diffused the idea further in their own circles.

After getting the first hundred pounds, it is more easy to get the second.

Partnerships often finish in quarrels. Make sure to be proactive and cautious at the early stages of a deal. Explicitly agree everything such that there is nothing to be disputed in the unfortunate event of a cease of cooperation. No matter how much you may trust and highly esteem the other person at the start of a contract, over time little jealousies and quarrels may arise, which can lead to breach of both partnership and friendship.

When someone comes to you with a request, avoid answering in a rush, nor in the presence of the person who made the request. Their presence will cloud your judgement, and they might be able to talk you into decisions you wouldn’t have made on your own. Think about it in isolation, and deliver your reply in a hard to negotiate method like a letter, rather than a meeting.

If asked to perform a duty you believe you’re inadequate for, and want to excuse yourself, you don’t need to proclaim inadequacy as the reason. You can mention other duties that keep you from being able to do this.

Asked for advice on how to raise funds for an endeavor, Franklin epically replied:

Firstly, ask from all those who you know will give something. Then from those who you are uncertain whether they will give anything or not, and show them the list of those who have given. Lastly, do not neglect those who you are sure will give nothing, because for some of them you may be mistaken.

People often complain about things they can easily change. Londoners wake up three hours later than sunrise, but complain that candlelight is expensive.

Happiness is not produced by strokes of great fortune that rarely happen, but by little advantages that occur every day.

Disputing, contradicting and confuting people are generally unfortunate in their affairs. They might get victory sometimes, but they never get good will, which is much more useful.

When people keep themselves busy with work, they are content and cheerful. When they are idle all day, they start complaining about their food, and finding faults among each other.

A priest once complained that soldiers did not attend his prayers. They were, however, very punctual in attending to receive their daily ration of rum. So Franklin advised the priest to act as steward of the rum, dealing it out only after the prayers.

Big part of people’s misery, comes from them giving up too much for something they value, whose value they falsely estimated. They give too much for their whistles:

When I was a child of seven year old, my friends filled my pocket with coppers. I went directly to a shop where they sold toys for children, and being charmed with the sound of a whistle, that I met by the way in the hands of another boy, I voluntarily offered and gave all my money for one.

I then came home, and went whistling all over the house, much pleased with my whistle, but disturbing all the family. My brothers, and sisters, and cousins, understanding the bargain I had made, told me I had given four times as much for it as it was worth. They put me in mind what good things I might have bought with the rest of the money, and laughed at me so much for my folly, that I cried with vexation. The reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.

This, however, was afterwards of use to me, the impression continuing on my mind. Often, when I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, “Don’t give too much for the whistle” and I saved my money.

As I grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, I thought I met with many, very many, who gave too much for their whistle.

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