The Secret of Ben Franklin’s Virtues

Well done is better than well said. ~ Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin FranklinBen Franklin was a man who was serious about self-improvement. I’ve always admired his self-discipline. It’s said that he sat down one day, and, looking frankly within himself, decided on the virtues that if practiced, would bring him the most benefit in the long run. 

This is his list.

  1. Temperance: Eat not to Dullness. Drink not to Elevation.
  2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation
  3. Order. Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time
  4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality. Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing
  6. Industry: Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice: Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
  9. Moderation: Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes, or Habitation
  11. Tranquility.  Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity. Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

What’s So Special About This List?

He tried several ways to implement it. At first he started by scoring himself nightly on his practice of these virtues. Then he tried using each one as a monthly “theme”. Towards the end he just tried to be mindful of them. I think this makes sense, as a kind of continuum. First you identify your baseline, then you focus on implementing, then once the habit is entrenched you just maintain it.

The noteworthy thing about these habits is that they’re all positive. They’re not bad habits to break (it’s said that Franklin very much approved of wine and women) but by framing the habits instead as Temperence and Chastity, he allowed his mind to rest upon the benefits of the habits, instead of what he was giving up.

It’s hard for our lizard brains to give anything up. We’ll only drop the toy we have if the treat we stand to gain is far better. By first thinking about the habits that would most benefit him and then framing them positively instead of negatively Ben Franklin set up the best possible environment for success.

Making My Own List of Virtues

So I decided I was going to figure out what my Virtues would be. Instead of thirteen, I aimed for 8, but in the end I thought they were awfully sober and earnest and decided add a 9th.

  1. Preparation: Save assiduously for a rainy day, and remember the Ant and the Grasshopper
  2. Resourcefulness: Embrace constraints as a chance to think creatively.
  3. Fruitfulness: Eschew activity for activity’s sake— work towards achievable ends.
  4. Thirst for Knowledge: Always Be Questioning. Seek understanding. Test assumptions.
  5. Attention to Experience: Be in my body and explore my senses.
  6. Perspective: Insight comes from shifting your vantage point
  7. Fellowship: Be generous in time and attention to others. Listen and learn from their experience
  8. Stewardship: Take good care of your assets, Mind, Body, Relationships, etc
  9. Joie de Vivre: Choose to believe that the Universe is conspiring on your behalf.

There are still several of Franklin’s virtues that I like; Silence, for instance, and Resolution. But when I look inside myself, they’re clearly not something I feel the need to really work on.

What about you? Would you like to try this exercise? Feel free to share in the comments.


24 thoughts on “The Secret of Ben Franklin’s Virtues”

  1. Your list is from an exercise in Your Next Six Months (Forever), right? I remember doing this a couple weeks ago in YN6MF and it was helpful.
    I don’t have the list of my highest values in front of me, but this was extremely difficult to do. There are so many virtues that everyone wants to embody, yet we can only do so many fully. I feel really grounded and comfortable in my values right now and I’m excited to see how they evolve over time. Now that your exercise has given me a baseline (which is kind of important I hear), I can compare my evolution over different periods of time. I love doing that!

    1. @joeyjoejoe Actually, I did it from scratch. Figured out “what habits, if practiced would bring [me] the most benefit in the long run”. There is some overlap with my values, of course, but I found it was a really refreshing way to look at it.

      1. @Shanna Mann  @joeyjoejoe Love that words “habits” even though it is so common. It’s like virtues distilled. Like taking all the talk and turning it into a daily walk.

  2. Oh, Shanna.  I think that when I am feeling better, we shall attempt to make our own lists.  Perhaps we can add it to our Year in Review we do every year on New Year’s Eve.  I thank you for sharing yours as several may make it to my list.

  3. Both lists are stellar, but I’d use yours, Shanna, since it has fewer items and because of your #2. Love that one. Our whole book/blog thing I think grew outta making similar virtue lists. When we encounter difficult decisions, or any for that matter, we waste little time deliberating and get on with it because we have virtues. I’d love to shrink ours down to 3 or 4 so I can remember them all, but that may be too limiting. By golly! It’s nearly time for a drink!

    1. @cjrenzi I thought the fewer the better, but I think there needs to be a little variety. I’m putting them into a weekly calendar, because I think they’ll work better if reinforced on an intermittent basis. If you want to memorize them all, I’d recommend that you combine all your virtues into a couple of sentences and make them into a kind of a mission statement. Then you can use it as a bit of a mantra!

      1. @Shanna Mann Yes! An excellent suggestion. Otherwise I feel like a fraud in that I have all these really cool virtues that I worked so hard on, but I cannot remember them when they are most needed because they are all jumbled up with my other virtues and thoughts. I am so basic that I need something akin to a large stick and a grape leaf as I wander the jungle.

  4. I like the idea of declaring virtues/values – it puts thing into perspective. I think because I have a poor memory and am easily distracted it would be helpful to have a top 3 to focus on – the ones that matter most and I never forget – but, still a longer list stored somewhere that I look to periodically, and reflect on. When I get my list going, I’ll come back and share it! Thanks for the idea 🙂

  5. Franklin was way ahead of his time… I think he predates the self-help industry by a good 200 years.  As for my own values, learning, adventure, and empathy are some big ones for me.

  6. Awesome list, Shanna. Yours definitely resonate with me more than Ben’s do, but I like the concept overall. I’m particularly attached to your #9 – Joie de vivre. I generally live by the belief that the universe is looking out for my best interests, and it serves me very well, even if only because it keeps my focus on the good stuff.

  7. I don’t know that I can put together a full list off the top of my head, but fellowship and simplicity are key ingredients to my 2013. I think that I’m only now beginning to truly understand the value of relationships, and I want to spend a great deal more time encouraging and helping others this year.

  8. I am slowing working my way through a stack of “Virtue cards” about as big as a deck of cards that were a gift a couple years ago. The idea behind them is that they are virtues common to all the religions that could resonate even with non-religious people, which I appreciate. I’m almost halfway, because I’m taking time to consider and reflect on each one, holding it in my mind for as long as it needs to sort of ‘accept’ it. It’s quite interesting. I could see myself playing tarot at the end and picking 10 to be my guides for the next year… but not sure when I’ll make it through the deck! Timely post.

      1. @cjrenzi  @MargaretTLT Her website is, CJ. Or did you mean a website for the cards? I’m kind of interested in those as well, although I need another deck like I need a hole in the head. 🙂

        1. @MargaretTLT  Your livefyre profile says “bio not provided”. but– you shouldn’t have to input anything if you have a livefyre account– it keeps you logged in, doesn’t it?

        2. @MargaretTLT  @Shanna Mann Oh cool! That worked out great. Now I have both sites, but just was asking for which I may have stumbled on before but somehow lost track of. And yes, too many cards, but at least several decks can be stacked neatly into a closet or drawer. Thank you both and Happy New Year!!!

    1. @MargaretTLT That’s a good point. I never thought virtues being polarizable, but they certainly can be. I put my virtues on a weekly calendar. This week is preparation, which seems both timely and fitting.

  9. The more I learn about Ben Franklin, the more I like the guy. I especially like what you point out, about paying attention to the benefits instead of “giving up” or “not doing” something “bad.” I’ve found that about myself as well — I’d rather strive for something positive than distance myself from something negative.
    I’ve actually been pondering my own thoughts on goals and the like. Which, I realize, isn’t exactly what you’re talking about here. But for me, an approach like this would, I think, be more effective than traditional goal setting, at least in terms of more personal stuff. My list only has two words on it — balance and lagom — and those words needs a LOT of explanation for me to get clear on what I mean by them, but this approach already feels good to me.
    Now, how to keep them in mind?? Maybe I’ll follow in Franklin’s footsteps!

    1. @remadebyhand He was pretty cool. I can’t believe they never made him president! 
      I think something like this is useful when you don’t have any particular goals in mind– goals for the sake of goals are horrible, but on the whole I think working towards something is quite healthy.

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