Ben Franklin's Plan for Self-Improvement

by Al Siebert, PhD

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - August 1995

When Ben Franklin was in his twenties, he set out to achieve "moral perfection." He sat down and listed virtues that he felt, if he could manage to acquire them, would help him achieve excellence of character. His first efforts at self-improvement, however, taught him that good intentions were not enough. "Habits take advantage of inattention," he found. "While my attention was taken up and care employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another. . . . I concluded at length that the mere speculative conviction that it was in our interest to be completely virtuous was not sufficient to prevent our slipping, and that the contrary habit must be broken and the good ones acquired and established before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct."

To acquire the virtues he desired and to make them habits of character, Franklin devised a plan for working on one virtue at a time for one week at a time. He states:

My list of virtues contained at first but twelve. But a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud, that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation, that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing and rather insolent--of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances--I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice of falling among the rest, and I added humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.

Franklin goes on to say:

I made it a rule to forebear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others and all possible assertion of my own. . .when another asserted something that I thought in error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case "there appeared" or "seemed to me" some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manners: The conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly; the modest way in which I proposed my opinion procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and more easily prevailed with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

Franklin checked his virtue for the week each evening. He continued the program for over two years before he discontinued doing his nightly reflections. With thirteen virtues, he went through the cycle 4 times each year. In his autobiography he states that this self-improvement plan had a very beneficial effect throughout his life even though he didn't feel he had been entirely successful at achieving all the virtues he intended to. He admits that pride was the one most difficult for him to subdue, and that his failure was probably "for the better" since, had he "completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility."

* quotes taken from Autobiography and Other Writings, by Benjamin Franklin, Russel B. Nye, Editor, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1958, pp. 75, 84-85.