What Would Ben Franklin Do? 5 Life Skills of This Great Thinker
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What Would Ben Franklin Do? 5 Life Skills of This Great Thinker

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What Would Ben Franklin Do? 5 Life Skills of This Great Thinker

Eric Weiner is a New York Times bestselling author and journalist. A former international correspondent for NPR, his work has appeared in The Atlantic, National Geographic, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the anthology Best American Travel Writing.

Below, Eric shares five key insights from his new book, Ben & Me: In Search of a Founder’s Formula for a Long and Useful Life. Listen to the audio version—read by Eric himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

Ben and Me Eric Weiner Next Big Idea Club

1. Bracket your day with two essential questions.

Ever since he was a young printer’s apprentice, Ben Franklin began and ended his day with two vital questions. In the morning, he’d ask, “What good shall I do this day?” and in the evening, “What good have I done today?” Simple questions, yet few of us bother asking them.

The truth is we’re ambivalent about leading useful lives. We claim it’s what we strive toward, yet grumble that so-and-so is “just using us.” Being the kind of person whom others regularly use is seen as a character flaw. But maybe, Franklin suggests, it is the highest compliment. Rather than avoiding being used, why not invite it? Yes, please. Use me.

While we take an inside-out approach to self-improvement, Franklin preferred outside-in. He emphasized actions, not motives. Not what good thoughts or feelings did he have today but what good did he do? Results, not intentions, mattered to him. Usefulness was his religion. Might it be ours too?

2. Be a genuine fake.

Authenticity. We’re told it is the highest ideal, that our essential task is to live an authentic life, to find our real self, as if it has gone missing like our car keys or a wayward sock. To call someone “inauthentic” is to accuse them of acting in “bad faith,” as the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, and suggests they are somehow immoral. So seemingly self-evident is the primacy of authenticity that we rarely question it. But what if it is not true? What if there is no authentic self to find, only a collection of masks in various shapes and sizes?

“What matters is not the kind of masks we wear but how well they fit, and to what use we put them.”

This was the way of Ben Franklin. He wrote under dozens of pseudonyms or anonymously. This tactic helped him launch his many projects, from hospitals to schools. Only later, when the proposal had garnered support, would Franklin come forward and remove his mask. Franklin was what the philosopher Alan Watts called a “genuine fake.” Genuine fakes are not con artists and they are not deluded. Genuine fakes so fully inhabit their role, their roles, there is no distance between part and person, mask and face. What matters is not the kind of masks we wear but how well they fit, and to what use we put them.

3. Redirect your anger.

Everyone experiences anger, and Ben Franklin was no exception. Rarely, though, did his adversaries feel his wrath. He knew it wouldn’t be useful. He didn’t deny or ignore his anger, but he worked hard to master it, lest it master him. That was a luxury he could not afford. His power lay in his ability to persuade, and raw anger never persuaded anyone of anything.

One technique Franklin deployed was the placebo letter. He would write an irate letter then wait 24 hours before mailing it. More often than not, he wouldn’t send it or would dispatch a revised, softer version once the thunderstorm of anger had passed. Franklin discharged anger the way his lightning rod discharged electricity, through deflection. Patience was the key. He waited for the storm of fury to pass so he could see more clearly.

Franklin’s mastery of anger enlarged his range of motion. Anger-proof, he could engage in heated debates without fear of fire breaking out. He could dine amicably with political rivals and maybe find common ground. Franklin knew what many of us have forgotten: our capacity to tolerate anger—to feel it without acting on it—broadens our world and opens doors previously shut.

4. Flip the power dynamic.

While still a young man, Franklin stumbled on a fascinating quirk of human nature. He was serving as clerk to the Pennsylvania Assembly, and a powerful new member of the assembly threatened to make life miserable for him. What to do? Franklin could have kowtowed to the man and attempted to win him over with flattery. He took a different approach. Having heard that the man owned a rare and valuable book, Franklin asked if he could borrow it for a few days. The man agreed, and Ben returned it dutifully with a nice note. The two became fast friends. Franklin’s conclusion: The best way to endear yourself to someone is not to do them a favor but to induce them to do a favor for you.

“We don’t like people who are nice to us. We like people to whom we are nice.”

It sounds counterintuitive, even a little loopy. Wouldn’t we prefer those who do us favors? Not necessarily. As Franklin discovered, and recent studies confirm, the opposite is true. We don’t like people who are nice to us. We like people to whom we are nice. Why? One explanation is cognitive dissonance. It’s difficult to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. It makes us uncomfortable. We resolve this tension by changing our mind. I don’t like Joe, but I am doing a favor for Joe, so maybe I do like him after all. There is a simpler explanation: We like being useful, so we like those who give us the opportunity to do so.

5. Lighten up.

When the delegates at the Second Continental Congress were casting about for someone to draft the Declaration of Independence, they considered Benjamin Franklin. It made sense. He was an accomplished writer and a highly respected statesman and philosopher. But the delegates nixed the idea. They were afraid he would insert a joke.

It was not a baseless fear. Inserting a joke into America’s founding document is just the sort of thing Franklin would do—not out of disrespect, but to lighten a perilous, historic moment and to encourage ordinary Americans to read the document. Humor makes us pay attention.

Franklin also knew that humor softens hard truths and lubricates relationships. He used humor as a billboard, an entrée, a shield, a diversion, a balm, and a weapon. He used humor to conceal his shyness. He used humor to make a point without offending and to air serious differences without losing a friend. He used humor to expose injustices and, perhaps most of all, to relieve unbearable tension. It is impossible to laugh without exhaling.

To listen to the audio version read by author Eric Weiner, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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