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Benjamin Franklin On How To Develop Your Moral Character

Benjamin Franklin had a passion for self-improvement. The Founding Father, drafter of the Declaration of Independence, inventor, and scientist – perhaps best known for his experiment with a key on a kite string – decided to embark on what he called, in his autobiography, a “bold and arduous project” with a goal of nothing less than “moral perfection.”

That turned out not to be as easy as he had hoped. While he was guarding against one fault, another bad habit would pop up. He needed to come up with a plan to turn the virtues he desired into habits.

He made a list of 13 virtues he wanted to acquire. Then he came up with the key to his method. He realized that if he tried to focus on all of the 13 at once, he would just get distracted. So he created a plan where he would focus mostly on one virtue at a time.

He put them in an order where mastering one would make it easier to master the next. Every week he focused on a single virtue. With 13 virtues on his list, he spent a week on each of them four times a year.

His chosen virtues were:

  • Temperance (not eating or drinking too much)
  • Silence (saying only what will benefit himself or others)
  • Order (for objects and for time)
  • Resolution (to do what he should)
  • Frugality (don’t waste)
  • Industry (always be doing something useful, and don’t waste time)
  • Sincerity (act, think, and speak without deceit)
  • Justice (do his duty to avoid harm and provide benefits to others)
  • Moderation (avoid extremes and resentments)
  • Cleanliness (of body, clothing, and home)
  • Tranquility (don’t get upset about trivial or unavoidable things)
  • Chastity (don’t overdo sex, and use it mostly for health and offspring)
  • Humility (be like Jesus and Socrates)

To keep track of how well he was doing in his self-improvement project, he made graphs in a notebook. On each page, he drew lines to make seven columns, one for each day of the week. Then he made 13 rows, one for each virtue.

Every page had a single virtue that he was focusing on the most. For example, the first week, he would focus on temperance. He would leave the others to their natural course.

Every evening, he would think back on his faults of the day. He would place a mark in the box on his graph for the day and virtue for every one of the virtues that he had failed to uphold. His goal was to have a line clear of marks for the virtue he was focusing on for the week. If he could keep it up for a week, he would progress to the next virtue and try to keep both lines clear. After 13 weeks, he would start again.

Franklin’s self-improvement project still appeals to people today. If this resonates, consider choosing 13 virtues that have personal meaning to you. 

In the end, Franklin did not achieve the perfection of moral character that he had sought. But he said he was a better and happier person for having tried. And that’s the best outcome of all.