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Biography recommendation

by Michael Nielsen on September 23, 2003

Walter Isaacson’s “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life”. One of the best biographies I’ve ever read; the only biography I can think of that I enjoyed as much or more was James Gleick’s “Genius”, a biography of Richard Feynman. (I count myself an afficianado of biographies, too.)

Probably the most striking characteristic of Franklin evident in Isaacson’s biography is how consciously and skillfully Franklin created social roles that encouraged self-development.

It’s a common enough observation that one of the most effective ways of changing your own behaviour is to change your social role. Franklin took this one step further, consciously creating social roles for himself that reinforced behaviours he wanted to encourage in himself.

Perhaps most famously, at the age of 21 Franklin created the “Junto”, a small group of men who formed a society dedicated to their own self-improvement. At each meeting the Junto members were asked questions like “Have you lately heard of any citizen’s thriving well, and by what means?” or “Have you lately observed any encroachments on the just liberties of the people?” The questions were chosen by Franklin specifically with the goal of promoting his own self-development, and the development of others.

Of course, Franklin could have addressed these questions himself each week, in his own time. Or he could have discussed it among friends on a regular basis. But how much more powerful it must have been to create an institution dedicated to addressing these questions on a regular basis!

Later in life, while living in England and France, Franklin was a constant participant in various intellectual salons that seem to have filled a similar role for him.

If Franklin were alive today, I wonder whether he would have a blog? (Maybe he’d be writing blogging software.) If so, what the heck would he be doing with it?

From → General

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