Benjamin Franklin and the Virtuous Road to Success

By Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt is a journalist based in Vancouver.
October 19, 2021 Updated: October 19, 2021

With rates of depression and anxiety steadily increasing in the COVID-19 era, self-help is big business.

Internet gurus promise peace of mind, financial freedom, and happiness if we just click the link, take the course, or watch a video. Most are scams, some have merit, but all come with a catch—mostly financial. A distressed population may be quite willing to fork over hard-earned cash for a quick fix to inner turmoil and existential crises.

But what if there was a simple, free, and highly effective alternative for achieving success? Well, there is: It’s the method Benjamin Franklin used to help draft the Declaration of Independence, invent the lightning rod, become the first postmaster general, and earn his place on the $100 bill. One could add the father of self-improvement to that list of accomplishments. It’s worth noting that he came from poverty and dropped out of school at the age of 10.

Franklin took self-improvement seriously. He organized his time with rigorous discipline, squeezing all he could out of the hours of the day. Part of this practice was keeping a daily journal, which had one unique and important feature.

Elderly Franklin
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), circa 1780. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Instead of journaling on material goals and ambitions Franklin created a virtue journal to track his adherence to 13 cardinal virtues that he believed primary for living a moral life: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.

Franklin chose 13 virtues because they fit neatly into a calendar year. Multiply 13 by 4 and you get 52. He focused on one virtue each week and attributed his great success to this ingenious method of tracking his moral progress.

What makes Franklin’s method so compelling is that it not only enabled him to live an ethical life but created the character and mindset necessary to accomplish so much in so many arenas. Franklin was undoubtedly gifted both creatively and intellectually, but without a firm moral foundation, his achievements would not be held in such high regard today. One could argue that his success was primarily a byproduct of his moral fortitude.

Lightning Rod
A Currier & Ives lithograph illustrates Benjamin Franklin’s 1752 experiment proving that lightning is an electric phenomenon. (MPI/Getty Images)

A Virtuous Cycle

The idea of a virtue journal goes against the current success dogma that puts primary weight on material achievement rather than virtuous living. Men frequently adopt a grind-it-out mentality with singular focus on material success, often at the sacrifice of integrity and ethics. The mid-life crisis so common among high achievers frequently has its roots in this unbalanced approach to life.

What would happen if we abandoned material pursuits and focused solely on walking our paths with utmost integrity and obedience to our own established virtues? Ironically, this radical departure from materialism may actually be the most reliable path to material success—one void of endless and exhausting pursuit.

In essence, a virtue journal is a daily conversation with one’s own conscience. Formulating a list of personal values based on our spiritual or religious inclinations allows us to take stock of our unique circumstances. If we’re honest with ourselves about the virtues that create a life worth living, they will be noble ones.

By setting high standards for ourselves rather than bending the world to our will, a virtuous cycle of opportunity ensues. A man of good character will inevitably attract people of the same moral fiber, and opportunities that require sound ethics will manifest.

Embarking on a noble path is bound to be difficult, as nothing worthwhile comes without some degree of exertion. But struggling in the name of virtue ennobles the spirit, while striving with dishonesty does the opposite. How many times have we been tempted to bend the truth to further our own ends only to have things turn out for the worse and disquiet our conscience? Cunning may further short-term aims, but it prevents us from developing the character needed for sustainable success. That we attract what we are and not what we pursue is a cardinal truth echoed by saints and sages of all traditions.

Attainment of perfection is an impossible goal for even the best of us, but aiming in its direction will lead to fulfillment beyond our imaginings. Franklin certainly recognized this, writing in his autobiography, “Tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”

Ryan Moffatt
Ryan Moffatt is a journalist based in Vancouver.