“The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > History / Biography > Biography

Overall Rating: ★★★★★★ (6/7) (standout for its category)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | 144 pages

Blurb/Description: the (unfinished) autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, written for his son, covering his rise from the fifteenth of seventeen children in a relatively unprosperous family, to a wealthy and esteemed man on a global scale (though the Revolution is not covered.)

Summary: Franklin wasn’t called “the wisest man in America” for nothing – in a fairly short book, he manages to pack in a lot of wisdom, despite some meanderings and plentiful detail within each anecdote.

Highlights: Franklin has a number of well-conveyed, very insightful observations on topics ranging from self-efficacy to interpersonal communication.

Lowlights: This is one of the few books where my chief complaint is that it’s too short rather than too long!  Not only is it unfinished, not covering some of the (likely very interesting) later details regarding the Revolution, but I would’ve loved more detail between Parts 1 and 2 – there seemed to be a multi-decade jump from Franklin as a young adult to Franklin as a middle-aged/old man.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Pointshabitluck vs. skillstructural problem solving, intellectual honesty, growth mindsetrationalityideologymargin of safetynonlinearityutility, accuracy vs. precision, local vs. global optimizationhyperbolic discounting, ego, disaggregationreciprocity bias,empathyconfirmation bias

You should read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (free via Project Gutenberg, or, physical copy available on Amazon for four bucks) if: you enjoy down-to-earth, Richard Feynman style pedagogy via self-reflective anecdotes with gentle lessons weaved in.

Reading Tips: This isn’t a reading tip on the autobiography per se, but steer well away from Walter Isaacson’s actual biography of Benjamin Franklin (BFAAL review + notes), which I found to be tedious and focused on minutiae (see review).  Most of the worthwhile parts of Isaacson’s biography were excerpted straight from the autobiography.

Pairs Well With:

Internal Time by Till Roenneberg ( IntTm review + notes).  For as great as Franklin was, unfortunately, one of his legacies is the (demonstrably false) proverb “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  Franklin himself became a night owl later in his life, and chronobiologist Roenneberg makes a compelling case for why morning superiority is a myth, along with a plethora of mental models like trait adaptivity.  Also see the  sleep / chronotypes and  culture / status quo bias mental models.

Poor Charlie’s Almanack by Charlie Munger (PCA review + notes).  Need I say more?

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (PoH review + notes).  Franklin recognized the power of making virtues into habits; Duhigg provides some of the underlying science behind why that works.

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (ABCD review + notes).  The thought process of another famous thinker.

Reread Value: 3/5 (Medium)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

Benjamin Franklin starts with a brief discussion of his ancestors; it seems they were, generally speaking, fairly intellectual and independent thinkers.  In England, his Protestant uncle taped an illicit Bible to the bottom of the stool, posting a child at the door as a lookout, and reading passages to the family from the overturned stool on his knees.

By the time Benjamin was born, he was the 15th of 17 children (and the youngest son) of a relatively not-so-well-to-do candle maker in Boston.  Much of his early character and inclinations were influenced by his father, who taught him “nothing is useful which is not honest” and often held intellectual conversations with friends in front of his children at the dinner table.  

(Dad Franklin and thus Ben Franklin was not picky about his food, claiming to have an undeveloped palate.) Franklin describes his father as someone whose greatest excellence lay in sound understanding and solid judgments – i.e.  rationality – despite his father’s seemingly low economic status, he apparently was often called upon for advice and arbitration.

Ben Franklin did not have much formal education, spending a little bit of time in a church school and in fact skipping a grade, but returning home to help his father with the business when he was 10 years old.  He started down the path of autodidacticism early, spending all of his spare money as a child on books. One of his early favorites appears to have been John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which Franklin claims (implausibly?  I’ll have to check) to have been the first book to combine narration with dialogue.

At the age of 12, he went to work with one of his older brothers (a printer), as he wasn’t really taking to the candle business and his father was afraid that he would run away to sea.  This seems, on the whole, to have been a mostly positive experience, as Franklin was able to meet bookish people and increase his pace of reading and writing.

He appears to have started down the path of wisdom and prioritizing effective results over personal desires/whims early, embodied by a very Dale Carnegie-esque passage about the developments of his interpersonal communication skills as a young teenager:

“I found (the Socratic method) safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took delight in it, practiced it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved.  

I continued this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced anything that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so-and-so; it appears to me, or I should think it’s so and so, for such and such reason; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I’m not mistaken.  

This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please, or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible man would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to discussed, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure.”  

A function of agency. He followed up with the pithy: “in modest words admits of no defense, for want of modesty is want of sense.”

He began writing anonymously for his brother’s paper, and in fact took over the management of it when his brother was temporarily imprisoned for printing something that the authorities didn’t like too much, and subsequently forbidden from publishing it.  

However, this relationship quickly grew strained, as his brother was a passionate man prone to beating Franklin out of anger; Franklin attributes to this his lifelong aversion to “arbitrary power.”

Franklin went to New York and then Philadelphia in search of work in the printing business; he eventually found some and quickly made a name for himself.  

The governor, in fact, offered to set him up in business, but his father said no as Franklin was young at the time (17 or 19 – I don’t remember), but the governor offered to give him letters of credit to purchase necessary supplies in England anyway.  Unfortunately, the governor whilst on his promise, leaving Franklin in England with little money.

Franklin didn’t manage to save much money in England, and his friends seemed to generally be disappointments who either drank or didn’t pay their bills or both, but he did meet someone who offered to take him on as a clerk in his store, with whom he returned to Philadelphia.  

Unfortunately, this individual died soon, and Franklin went back into printing, eventually buying a newspaper from one of the two printers in Philadelphia and quickly turning it into a success; some friends helped him finance equipment when his business partner was unable to (and in fact left for other pursuits).  

Despite a track record of being burned by people he trusted, Franklin continued to pursue honesty and integrity, even when they weren’t necessarily in his own best interests, and was very industrious and down-to-earth. He also set up a reading club, which morphed into a library, an idea which then spread further (given that books were very expensive and hard to find at the time).

Two fun anecdotes – the first concerns a local doomsayer:

“there are croakers in every country, always boding its ruin.  Such a one then lived in Philadelphia; a person of note, an elderly man, with a wise look.  This gentleman, a stranger to me, stopped one day at my door, and asked me if I was the young man who had lately opened a new printing house.  Being answered in the affirmative, he said he was sorry for me, because it was an expensive undertaking, and the expense would be lost; for Philadelphia was a sinking place, the people already half bankrupt, or near being so; all appearances to the contrary, such as new buildings and the rise of rents, being to his certain knowledge fallacious; for they were, in fact, among the things that would soon ruin us.  

He gave me such a detail of misfortunes that he left me half melancholy. Had I known him before he engaged in this business, probably I never should have done it. This man continued to live in this decaying place, and to declaim in all the same strain, refusing for many years to buy a house there, because it was all going to destruction; and at last I had the pleasure of seeing him give five times as much for one as he might have bought it for when he first began his croaking.”

On ideology, and the  dose-dependency of  margin of safety.

Anecdote two, involves the tendency of some people to get tied up in little details of semantics vs. the broader point of conversation:

 “he knew little out of his way, and was not a pleasing companion; as, like most great mathematicians I have met with, he expected universal precision and everything said, or was forever denying or distinguishing upon trifles, to the disturbance of all conversation.  He soon left us.”

On the utility of  accuracy vs. precision.

From here, the autobiography basically skips ahead several decades to a point wherein Franklin has risen from his humble roots to become wealthy and well-regarded.  He had apparently taken down notes for a autobiography earlier in his life, but had not pursued it until two letters from friends brought the topic back to mind. These letters were actually quite insightful; several passages from the second letter (by one Benjamin Vaughan) which stood out to me:

First, a little discussion of being an autodidact (remember that Franklin had little to no formal education beyond the equivalent of third grade, at least per the information presented here):

“the two works… will in particular give a noble rule and example of self-education.  School and other education constantly proceed upon false principles, and show a clumsy apparatus pointed at a false mark; but your apparatus is simple, and the mark a true one; and while parents and young persons are left destitute of other just means of estimating and coming prepared for a reasonable course in life, your discovery that the thing is in many a man’s private power, will be invaluable!”

Vaughan went on to discuss youth being the important time to make an impression, as well as the inspirational nature of Franklin’s humble origins in demonstrating how little it matters where you came from.  He goes on to note:

“another thing demonstrated will be the propriety of every man’s waiting for his time for appearing upon the stage of the world.  Our sensations being very much fixed to the moment, we are apt to forget that more moments are to follow the first, and consequently that man should arrange his conduct so as to suit the whole of life.  Your attribution appears to have been applied to your life, and the passing moments of it have been enlivened with content and enjoyment, instead of being tormented with foolish impatience or regrets.”

On local vs. global optimization and  hyperbolic discounting.

Franklin notes that he kept “papers” to assist his memory (basically some sort of journal).  He goes on to discuss his efforts to build a lending library, noting that modesty helped him generate subscriptions:

“the objections and reluctances I met with in soliciting the subscriptions made me soon feel the impropriety of presenting oneself as the proposer of any useful project, that might be supposed to raise one’s reputation in the smallest degree above that of one’s neighbors, when one has need of their assistance to accomplish that project.  

I therefore put myself as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a scheme of a number of friends, who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought lovers of reading. In this way, my affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practiced it on such occasions; and, for my frequent successes, can heartily recommend it.  The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid.”

On ego.  He was relatively progressive for his time, opting for Deism over a particular sect of Christianity, as he believed that the sects were too divided by their differences.  He also recounted an anecdote about a widow from Denmark or somewhere who knew accounting and was a very good business partner in one of his endeavors, more so than her former husband – and suggested, as such, that women should be taught accounting rather than music and dancing, as it would be more to their advantage in running their household and raising their children.

Franklin attributes much of his success throughout life to a system of 13 virtues, which were as follows:

  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 employed 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 uncleanliness 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.

Clearly, much of Franklin’s success is also attributable to his natural talents combined with his voracious pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, but this “operating system” for his life made him that much more effective.  

He also had a very simple but effective way of getting from point A to point B – he simply started with the first virtue, temperance, and kept a calendar, noting down which days he failed to meet his virtue, until he was able to keep it up. 

Franklin was a master of habit centuries before neuroscience proved why it’s powerful.  (See, for example, Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” – PoH review + notes.)

 He took one at a time (one per quarter), noting that:

“like him who, having a garden to weed, does not attempt to eradicate all the bad herbs at once, which would exceed his reach and strength, but works on one of the beds at a time, and, having accomplished the first, proceeds to a second.”

On disaggregation.  i.e., the easiest way to make progress is not trying to eat the whole elephant at once.

He did note, much to my amusement and (if I’m being honest) glee, that “order” gave him a lot of trouble, and he never quite accomplished it – even Franklin, wisest man in America, wasn’t perfect! – but he certainly got a lot farther in that direction than did most people.  He reiterated the importance of humility in conversation.

Franklin also appeared to have a grasp of interpersonal psychology without the benefit of all the research we have today, noting an anecdote in which, to gain the favor of a gentleman of great influence in the house who did not like him very much, he requested the favor of borrowing a rare book in that man’s collection for a few days, and after returning it, noted that the man liked him much more:

“He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, then he whom you yourself have obliged.” - Benjamin Franklin Click To Tweet

(Not Franklin’s line; he just quoted it.)  I think Franklin would have enjoyed chatting with Robert Cialdini about  reciprocity bias

Franklin’s business continued to take off, and he noted that “after getting the first hundred pound, it is more easy to get the second.”  

Preferential attachment, a function of nonlinearity.  (This wasn’t an original saying – it was already in circulation – but it is nonetheless reassuring if you are a startup hedge fund manager).  He proceeds to have some interesting adventures, such as setting up what may have been the first firefighting organization, the first organized street sweeping, and so on.

Another little nugget of wisdom:

Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.” - Benjamin Franklin Click To Tweet

Compounding.  I really liked that one, although there’s certainly some confirmation bias at play, because it’s my approach to life – I’m not going for the “big score” (Alexander wept, for he had no more lands to conquer) but rather optimizing for maximizing enjoyment of every day of my life.

He continued to encounter smart men who did not understand the importance of effective communication:

“the practice (of disputing) was not wise; for, in the course of my observation, these disputing, contradicting, and computing people are generally unfortunate in their affairs.  They get victory sometimes, but they never get goodwill, which would be of more use to them.”  

Something I’d do well to take in mind… see also confirmation bias  and  empathy.

Interestingly, while Franklin invented a number of things, he appeared to be generally against the idea of patents.

The remainder of the book covers some interesting anecdotes about Franklin’s time assisting the British military during the French Indian war; one that stood out was that the general could have benefited from over 100 Indians were traveling along with him, but he took no notice of them.  The autobiography cuts off sharply (unfinished), leaving the reader wanting more… there was a lot of wisdom in a very short book.


First Read: summer 2017

Last Read: summer 2017

Number of Times Read: 2


Review Date: summer 2017

Notes Date: summer 2017