Benjamin Franklin: America’s First Success Guru

One of the most dramatic trends in business over the course of the last century has been the explosion of publications, seminars, television programs and entrepreneurial endeavors all touting the art and science of “success.” Yet despite the enormity of today’s success industry, few of its greatest stars, including the popular Zig Ziglar and Anthony Robbins, can equal the immense reputation enjoyed by North America’s earliest promoter of success principles. A printer by trade, America’s first success guru was a man of many talents and achievements. And his name remains one of the most widely recognized today.
Born the fifteenth of seventeen children, Benjamin Franklin was nearly penniless when he ran away from home. Yet, he rose to become a leading inventor, philanthropist, publisher, revolutionary, thinker and American statesman. During his lifetime, Franklin made more contributions to American (and, for that matter, European) society than virtually any of his contemporaries. Among his many accomplishments, Franklin started The Philadelphia Gazette, discovered electricity, charted the Gulf Stream, conceived of Daylight Savings Time, invented the catheter and Franklin Stove, founded America’s first member society, started the first fire department, created the first fire insurance company, and published the first political cartoon in America. Ben Franklin was also one of the first people to encourage the eating of citrus fruits and tout the advantages of fruit in maintaining gums and skin. Oh, and he also signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

One of Franklin’s best-known contributions to early America was Poor Richard’s Almanack. First published in 1732, Poor Richard’s Almanack provided both weather forecasts and pithy sayings. Selling more than 10,000 issues a year, Franklin’s work became a hugely popular publication on the principles of success – a forerunner to such modern classics as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Franklin is still known for his wit and wisdom, much of which has survived through the generations to become popular cliches. Phrases such as “A penny saved is a penny earned” are well known. Yet for those who might be tempted to suspect that Franklin’s work is best left in our history, here are three Franklin maxims that, even today, can form the foundation for success in any field or endeavor.

“Plough deep while sluggards sleep.”

“Remember that time is money,” wrote Franklin in Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One. This was, in fact, one of the recurring themes in Franklin’s writings. Franklin understood the critical importance of time management, not only from the standpoint of personal accountability and efficiency, but also with the knowledge that it was the one equalizer on the playing field of life. Some people may enjoy advantages in health, social status, money or fame, but everyone has the same amount of time in a day. To Franklin, the enemies of success were idleness and “sloth.” The key to wealth and happiness, according to Franklin, is to rise early in the morning, not “squander time,” eschew procrastination, and be proactive. “Drive thy business,” writes Franklin. “Let not that drive thee.”

“A little neglect may breed mischief.”

The continuation of this maxim is: “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost; and for want of a horse, the rider was lost.” Attention to detail. It’s one of the most important rules in business, and yet it is astonishing how often we forget its importance. How many resumes have been discarded because of a typographical error? How many letters have been unopened because of a misspelled name on the envelope? How many packages have not been delivered because of one wrong number in the zip code? How many marriages have fallen apart because of one spouse’s neglect of the “little things” in the relationship? How many business meetings have gone awry because of minor glitches in logistics? The questions can go on forever. Franklin’s advice to remember the details is well taken, especially for today.

“Energy and persistence conquer all things.”

Not only did Franklin live out the truth of this maxim in his own life, he would see it with his own eyes years after he had penned it. The American Revolution pitted a rag-tag “army” of farmers, planters, tradesman and students against the largest expeditionary force in the history of the British Empire. Britain’s army was better trained, better equipped and better organized. Yet the colonists persisted in their fight against the English Crown; and, under the tenacious leadership of George Washington, defied the odds. The very existence of the United States of America is a testament to the power of persistence. Just as it fueled the fire of the American War for Independence, it can bring fulfillment of your personal goals and dreams as well.

Sometimes, the best lessons for our future can be found in the pages of our past.

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