Learning From Benjamin Franklin

It is very important to have the right role models in life. It does not matter if they are living or dead. Sometimes it can be a fictional character like Sherlock Holmes. All that matters is to have one. Charlie Munger once told that

I am a biography nut myself, and I think when you’re trying to teach the great concepts that work, it helps to tie them into the lives and personal ties of the people who developed them. I think that you learn economics better if you make Adam Smith your friend. That sounds funny, making friends among the eminent dead, but if you go through life making friends with the eminent dead who had the right ideas, I think it will work better in life and work better in education. It’s way better than just giving the basic concepts.

Human brain is a product of evolution. It learns things deeply if we associate abstract ideas with concrete things like people who developed them. Also our brain is malleable like plastic. With the right set of inputs it is capable of rewiring itself at any age. Role model is one of the key input. Excerpt from The Little Book of Talent

We each live with a “windshield” of people in front of us; one of the keys to igniting your motivation is to fill your windshield with vivid images of your future self, and to stare at them every day. Studies show that even a brief connection with a role model can vastly increase unconscious motivation. For example, being told that you share a birthday with a mathematician can improve the amount of effort you’re willing to put into difficult math tasks by 62 percent.

Many talent hotbeds are fueled by the windshield phenomenon. In 1997, there were no South Korean golfers on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour. Today there are more than forty, winning one-third of all events. What happened? One golfer succeeded (Se-ri Pak, who won two major tournaments in 1998), and, through her, hundreds of South Korean girls were ignited by a new vision of their future selves. As the South Korean golfer Christina Kim put it, “You say to yourself, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?’ “

So far I wrote about what I learnt from some of my role models like Charles Darwin, Jeff Bezos, and Sherlock Holmes. In this post I am writing about things that I learnt from Benjamin Franklin, who was one of the founding fathers of the United States and world-renowned polymath. Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. No wonder why we see him in $100 bill.

On Debt

We all know the advantages of debt. Let us imagine that you bought $100 asset with $5 cash and $95 debt. If the asset doubles in value then you multiply your initial investment 20 times. But your investment gets wiped out if the assets loses 5% of its value. Debt is a double edged sword. But somehow human mind only looks at the upside and forgets about the downside. But we can all heed to the advice of Franklin. Excerpt from The Way to Wealth

Think what you do when you run into debt; you give to another power over your liberty. If you cannot pay on time, you will be ashamed to see your creditor; you will be in fear when you speak to him; you will make poor pitiful sneaking excuses, and by degrees come to lose your veracity, and sink into base downright lying.

Creditors have better memories than debtors; creditors are a superstitious sect, great observes of set days and times. The day comes round before you are aware, and the demand is made before you are able to satisfy it; or, if you bear your debt in mind, the term which at first seemed so long, will, as it lessens, appear extremely short.

Gains may be temporary and uncertain, but ever, while you live, expense is constant and certain; and, ‘It is easier to build two chimneys, than to keep one in fuel,’ as Poor Richard says: So, ‘Rather go to bed supperless, than rise in debt’.

On Deliberate Practice

Albert Einstein once said that, “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts”. Accomplishing something with maximum effort that is slightly beyond one’s reach is called as deliberate practice. One day Benjamin’s father told him that he needed to improve his writing skills as they lacked in elegance and clear expression. What did he do in response? Excerpt from Talent is Overrated

Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would ever have thought of. It began with his reading a Spectator article and making brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.”

One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. Then, after he had forgotten them, he would take his versified essays and rewrite them in prose, again comparing his efforts with the original.

Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”

On Decision Making

We all need to take critical decisions in life. It could be (1) which job offer to take (2) which stock to pick (3) should I buy a house now (4) should I start my own business (5) should I get an MBA. This requires clear thinking but our brain has a lot of biases which impedes it. So what should we do? We need a process for decision making. Franklin came up with a two column pros vs cons approach. Excerpt from Made to Stick

In 1772, Benjamin Franklin was asked for advice by a colleague who’d been offered an unusual job opportunity. Franklin replied in a letter that, given his lack of knowledge of the situation, he couldn’t offer advice on whether or not to take the job. But he did suggest a process the colleague could use to make his own decision. Franklin said that his approach was “to divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns, writing over the one Pro and over the other Con.” During the next three or four days, Franklin said, he’d add factors to the two columns as they occurred to him. Then, he said:

When I have thus got them all together in one view, I endeavor to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a reason Pro equal to some two reasons Con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two reasons Con equal to some three reasons Pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the balance lies; and if after a day or two of farther consideration nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side , I come to a determination accordingly.

On Human Psychology

Whether we like it or not we have to deal with other people on a daily basis. It is very important to know about human nature otherwise life will be a misery. Franklin understood this very well. Excerpt from Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

Benjamin Franklin , a serious student of human nature as well as science and politics. While serving in the Pennsylvania legislature, Franklin was disturbed by the opposition and animosity of a fellow legislator. So he set out to win him over. He didn’t do it, he wrote, by “paying any servile respect to him”— that is, by doing the other man a favor— but by inducing his target to do a favor for him— loaning him a rare book from his library:

He sent it immediately and I returned it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favor. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions , so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.