Ben Franklin’s Superpower

I’ve mentioned before that I read a lot, and that I’m trying to read more widely.  To that end, one day I was looking for ideas for stuff to read and I stumbled upon the Harvard bookshelf. It’s a collection of classic literature that spans a few millennia and is comprised of the greatest works of philosophy and scholarly thinking in history. Well… western philosophy and scholarly thinking anyway.  The Bhagavad-Gita, some Buddhist writings, and a few bits of the Koran are in there, but there’s nothing that western culture does better than ignore everyone else, because they assume the rest of the world is filled with backwards heathens, so the other 28 volumes are purely west-is-the-best.

Regardless, at the very beginning of the shelf is the Autobiography of Ben Franklin.  I’ve read my fair share of biographies in the past.  Well… I’ve read a lot of parts of biographies anyway, because quite frankly most of them bore me to tears.

I saw Ben Franklin’s autobiography was first and thought, “Great. Wonder if I’ll even make it half way before this idea goes sailing out the window like so many well-meaning ideas that have gone before.”

Unsurprisingly, I did not make it all the way through the Harvard Bookshelf, however, the fault does not lie with our friend Ben Franklin.  I was somewhere in the middle of either Apology or Phaedo – I don’t remember which, when the next Dresden novel came out.

Socrates versus Harry Dresden
Sorry, Plato and Socrates, the urban-fantasy-detective crime-noir-wizard has you beat hands. down.  You wrote about logic and reasoning in a way that makes everyone involved sound like an insufferable ass hat. Harry Dresden has magical powers, a great sense of humor, a sarcastic talking skull, and reanimated prehistoric creatures, all of which he uses to fight magical bad guys and blow things up.

It’s not even a competition, really.

But back to Ben Franklin.

Surprise! The autobiography was not only interesting, but thought-provoking, well-written, and even entertaining in some parts. I found myself readily agreeing with a lot of his opinions, which appears to be his superpower.  That man could get pretty much anyone to agree to anything.  What? You want me to just leave my extremely expensive books – some of my most prized possessions – here for a bunch of other people that I don’t know to read them?  … Ok.

I already knew about most of his contributions to public life in America like libraries and fire departments, but it’s not his accomplishments that make his biography worth reading. It was his discourses on virtue, argument, and social interaction that really got me. He was not a religious man, but he still believed in virtue as something that should be acquired, not for the sake of a religious figure, but for the sake of self-improvement and profit.
There are a few of his philosophies that are outdated. His views on women weren’t exactly modern, but it was the 18th century – it’s not like he wasn’t in the majority club on that one.  For what it’s worth he does encourage the education of young women in accounting:

…[it is] likely to be of more use to them and their children, in case of widowhood, than either music or dancing, by preserving them from losses by imposition of crafty men, and enabling them to continue, perhaps, a profitable mercantile house, with establish’d correspondence, till a son is grown up fit to undertake and go on with it.

Hey, it was the 18th century – I’ll take what I can get.

Aside from his views on women, kitchens, and sandwich-making, most of his philosophies are startlingly applicable to modern life. He has a great deal to say about convincing people of things. So much, in fact, that I’m convinced that the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, pretty much stole his whole book from our friend Ben.Since we were just talking about Socrates, let me tell you, reading Plato after reading this biography made me desperately wish that Socrates and Franklin would have had a conversation about… just about anything and that someone could have recorded it.

socrates versus benjamin franklin

Between the ass-hole-ish Socratic method of asking leading questions to get to your own opinion and Ben Franklin’s superpower of getting people to listen to him and convince them to do things, I don’t know who would have convinced whom of what, but it would have been vastly entertaining to watch.

But Socrates/Franklin debate aside, Franklin has more than a few things to say about how to get people to listen to you, and the number one way is to not be “that guy”.  We’ve all met people that are overly eager to correct other people and show them how wrong they are.

Perhaps we are those people sometimes…

Perhaps I’ve even done that in this blog...

dramatic chipmunk gif

Franklin notes that this does absolutely nothing to either a) win friends or b) influence people, the only thing it does is further convince ourselves of our own importance and awesomeness.  However, the person that you corrected and most people in the vicinity will probably not be as enamored by you as you are, which is not what you want if you are trying to convince people of something.

There is also scientific evidence to suggest that it may actually stop intelligent dialog altogether by instantly polarizing everyone that came into contact with your comment.  If anyone was leaning one direction or the other, they instantly become more convinced of their own opinion regardless of whether they agreed with you or not.  So people that already agreed with you see your comments as sensible and become more convinced that they are right.  People that disagreed with you, however, will actually also be more convinced that they are correct.

Instead, Franklin suggests presenting your thoughts as your opinion and letting people come to their own conclusions.  You may not ever convince the person who was wrong, but you may very well convince the other people who were watching the exchange, which is more useful anyway.  And over time, that other guy – once he has distanced himself from his previous opinion – may come around.  However, he will never come around if he is constantly defending his opinion from attack.  He will only become more entrenched.

Also, Franklin notes, that by not boldly stating your opinion as fact (or even stating facts as facts) your own self-worth is spared should it come to light that – gasp – you were wrong. (It should be noted that it took a valiant struggle, but I successfully resisted the urge to put the adorably dramatic gopher gif in here again.  I could watch that thing for hours.)

He advises to not waste one’s time, to be frugal – but generous to those in need, to improve oneself, to examine one’s actions to look for areas to improve upon, and also advises not to be mean or disrespectful.

wil wheaton don't be a dick

If both Wil Wheaton and Ben Franklin agree, how can you go wrong?

All of this may sound like it was preachy or full of lectures by your parents, but it is written in such a manner as to lead the reader to believe that these things are all great ideas and should be undertaken as soon as possible.  Like I said.  Convincing people of things was clearly Ben Franklin’s superpower.

Benjamin Franklin's Superpower Is Convincing People To Do Stuff

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