10 Lessons from Benjamin Franklin on Wisdom


The investor Mohnish Pabrai was having lunch with Warren Buffett, and he asked him, “if you could have lunch with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?”

Buffett replied with a smile, “I’d love to have lunch with Sophia Loren.” But then he got serious and he said, “scratch that answer. I’d really like to have lunch with Isaac Newton.”

Mohnish probed Buffett further and asked him “why Isaac Newton?”

Buffett replied, “Isaac newton is probably the smartest guy who ever walked this earth. It would just be fascinating for me to sit down with a person like that and talk with him.”

Warren paused, and then added, almost as an aside; “Newton was the smartest, but Franklin was the wisest. “

Mohnish reflected on this answer, noting that both Warren Buffet and his business partner, Charlie Munger are very intelligent, but what has most contributed to their success is their wisdom. If you look at the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, it is common sense after you read it, but it is not obviously common sense before you encounter it. And the same can be said of Buffett and Munger’s approach to investing and life.

Mohnish summed it up by saying, “Yes, these guys are smart. But there are lots of people who are very smart. It is not about IQ. This is not a game about IQ. This is a game about wisdom. And a game about making less mistakes than others. And if you take the error rate down, then it works out very well.”

So what is wisdom and how do we cultivate it? By studying the life of people like Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger and Benjamin Franklin, and internalizing the principles and values that guide their approach to life, we can begin to cultivate wisdom in ourselves. It is not about copying or hero-worship, rather it’s about understanding and applying the deepest lessons in life and making them our own.

Benjamin Franklin was a great writer, inventor, scientist, diplomat, media investor, business strategist and political theorist. How was he able to achieve mastery across so many different domains? Here are 10 Lessons for Cultivating Wisdom as demonstrating by the remarkable life of Benjamin Franklin.

1. Life-long Learning. From an early age, Franklin was fascinated by reading and learning. One of his favorite books was Plutarch’s Lives, a series of short biographies of famous Greek and Roman leaders, which he read abundantly. Franklin said, “From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.” Franklin understood that one of the best investments you can make is an investment in yourself. And from an early age, books became a formative influence in his life. He began borrowing books from whoever he could. “Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning, lest it should be missed or wanted.” He began acquiring knowledge early and he kept up that pace of learning his entire life, so that the knowledge compounded overtime.

2. Self-Improvement. At the age of 12, Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed to his brother James who was 21 and just setting up shop as a printer in Boston. Being around other writers, Franklin desperately wanted to become a writer himself, so he embarked on a self-improvement plan. He would study the essays and arguments from other great writers, taking brief notes and then setting them aside. After a few days, he would revisit the notes and attempt to recreate the essay from scratch using his own words and style. Then he would compare his own version to the original, and whenever he found his own essay to be defective he would correct it. “But I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that in certain particulars of small import I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think that I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.” Franklin had imposed a discipline of deliberate practice, pushing himself every day to stretch his writing skills. And like the knowledge from books, his writing skills also compounded so that, overtime he became the most popular writer in Colonial America.

3. Social Charm. Franklin could talk with anyone, whether a rich businessman, tradesman or apprentice. He delighted in conversation and used his charm to make friends. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin, he writes “His most notable trait was a personal magnetism; he attracted people who wanted to help him. Never shy and always eager to win friends and patrons, he gregariously exploited this charm.” When he was younger, Franklin was more argumentative, and would use his intellect to prove to others he was right. However, he realized this approach was “a very bad habit,” and it tended to alienate people and create enemies. So he adapted what he called the “humble enquirer,” where he used his listening skills and questions to persuade and charm people. When he ran away to Philadelphia at age 17, he used these skills to develop friendships and secure patrons who would later help him launch a successful printing shop and newspaper.

4. Work Hard. Franklin was a self-made man, and he credits his success to industriousness. His first foray into business was a small print shop he started with a partner. One of the advantages Franklin had over his more established competitors was the fact that he was willing to work longer, harder and smarter than anyone else. Reflecting on that early success, Franklin said, “this industry, visible to our neighbors, began to give us character and credit.” A neighbor observed “the industry of that Franklin is superior to anything I ever saw of the kind; I see him still at work when I go home from club, and he is at work again before his neighbors are out of bed.”

5. Find Your Junto. Franklin recognized the importance of establishing a wide, close-knit network of friends. He organized a group of enterprising tradesmen and artisans who, like Franklin, were interested in improving both themselves and their community. The club met regularly to debate political issues, discuss philosophy, share self-improvement ideas and further their careers. It was a way to build relationships and strengthen the bonds of civic duty. Franklin realized he couldn’t do it all on his own; to improve personally and professionally, he needed the help and support of like-minded friends. And he found he enjoyed helping others as well.

6. Listen First, Talk Second. Franklin was both highly intelligent and eloquent, and he recognized early on that he was prone to “prattling, punning and joking, which only made me amenable to trifling company.” To develop deeper friendships he had to learn to stop talking and listen. Knowledge, he realized, “was obtained rather by the use of the ear than the tongue.” He encouraged his fellow Junto members to employ his “humble enquirer” methodology when discussing topics, and to avoid direct arguments. All conversations were to be conducted “without fondness for dispute or desire of victory.” Around the time that Franklin formed the Junto he wrote a newspaper article titled On Conversation, offering the following advice: “Would you win the hearts of others, you must not seem to vie with them, but to admire them. Give them every opportunity of displaying their own qualifications, and when you have indulged their vanity, they will praise you in turn and prefer you above others…such is the vanity of mankind that minding what others say is a much surer way of pleasing them than talking well ourselves.”

7. Pursue Virtue & Integrity. Franklin wasn’t perfect. He fathered a son out of wedlock and was viewed as arrogant and conniving by a small minority of mostly jealous contemporaries. Given the Franklin didn’t care for organized religion, he created a home-grown system to steadily improve his virtue and strengthen his integrity. First, he defined thirteen virtues and set a goal to improve in each one; Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity & Humility. He addressed the virtues using a systematic grading system. He made a chart in his notebook, with seven columns representing the days of the week, and thirteen rows representing the virtues. At the end of each day he graded himself on each virtue. Each week he would focus on a different virtue, making a special effort to strengthen that virtue before moving on to the next. Franklin remarked, that to improve across all thirteen virtues was “a task of more difficulty than I imagined.” After putting his system to work, he said, “I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined.” Like many things in Franklin’s life, this was a pragmatic system that motivated small, incremental improvements which compounded over a lifetime.

8. Frugality. One of Franklin’s more famous aphorism’s; “A penny saved is a penny earned.” And he practiced what he preached. As a young man he established four rules which comprised what he called his Plan for Moral Conduct. The first rule was “It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.” Franklin believed the way to wealth was through diligence, virtue and frugality. Basically, live modestly and within your means, save your money, invest it wisely and overtime wealth will accumulate. However, he was very much against the idea of pursuing wealth as the purpose for life. “The general foible of mankind,” he told a friend, “is in the pursuit of wealth to no end.” Given his excellent business acumen and writing skills, Franklin thrived as a printer and was able to retire a wealthy man at age 42. He could have continued working and piling up wealth, but he wrote “I would rather have it said, ‘he lived usefully’ than ‘he died rich.’ “

9. Tolerance. In a time when most people found it difficult to tolerate people, cultures and ideas that differed from their own, Franklin was a champion of tolerance. Indians often faced discrimination or violence. If a group of Indians attacked a frontier town, the men of the town sometimes took revenge on peaceful Indians living in the town, many of them women and children who had converted to Christianity. Franklin was appalled. “if an Indian injures me does it follow that I may revenge that injury on all Indians? The only crime of these poor wretches is that they had reddish brown skin and black hair.” It was immoral, he argued, to take revenge on an individual for what others of his group or race may have done. “Should any man with a freckled face and red hair kill a wife or child of mine, [by this reasoning] it would be right for me to revenge it by killing all the freckled red-haired men, women and children I could afterward anywhere meet.”

10. Community. Franklin had a life-long commitment to building community. It started with his Junto group, to help his fellow tradesmen become virtuous, industrious and wise. Then he branched out to establishing a fire department, police force and library. He went on to found the University of Pennsylvania. He established the first Postal System in the United States, to connect people among the thirteen original colonies. He founded the American Philosophical Society to connect scholars and men of letters. And finally, he devoted considerable time in his old age to constructing the documents and political framework upon which our Republic is established. He is the only founding Father to sign all four founding documents; The Declaration of Independence, the Treaty with France, the Peace with Britain and the Constitution. Through his thoughts and actions he strengthened and protected the emergence of the United States of American and it’s radical promise of democracy and government by the people and for the people.


Interview of Mohnish Pabrai (Part II) on The Investors Podcast 

Interview of Mohnish Pabrai (Part I) on The Investors Podcast

About the Author

Sean P. Murray is an author, speaker and consultant in the areas of leadership development and talent management. Learn more at RealTime Performance.

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