benjamin franklin self-improvement

Franklin and other folks

franklinReader, I don’t know what you were doing when you were twenty, but I was mostly slumped on a sofa, eating toast and Nutella, crying as dogs died on telly, and using my tears to drown the swift-rising dread of next morning’s essay deadline.

Not so young Benjamin Franklin. By the time he left his teenage years, he had drawn up a list of thirteen virtues that he would then fastidiously act upon week after week, year after year.

What were the thirteen? Ta da:

  1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Now, fascinated as I am by his thirteen and his definitions (why thirteen, buddy? feels odd), they would not be how I’d put things. I actually think I could do with more trifling conversations rather than less. And the whole chastity thing, well. Good use of ‘venery’ though. And ‘injury’. High fives.

It’s not that Franklin is alone in trying to drum up a taxonomy of virtues or characteristics/traits/attributes/strengths/whatever-you-wanna-call-them. In fact loads of other people have. It’s a thingArtistotle had a go, a while ago, in a long-winded and nebulous way. In recent years there’s been a new explosion, and a whole new branch of science called, horribly, ‘positive psychology’. Check out Martin Seligman‘s twenty-four, Angela Duckworth‘s seven and, most recent of all, Alain de Boton‘s ten.

There are lots of similarities and overlaps in all of them. A sort of top level consensus that there are a number of things we should focus on to improve our levels of happiness/ability to flourish. But beyond that there’s no real agreement. Nor disagreement. More like a bunch of theoretical ducks bobbing merrily about in the same sea of happy.

To be honest, I can’t exactly remember why, when founding Spark+Mettle, I focused on the nine ‘competencies’ highlighted by Felicia Huppert at Cambridge’s Institute of Wellbeing. But I did.Over the last couple of years we’ve tested them out with young people we’ve been working with, and developed a programme that allows us all to talk about, act upon and reflect on them on a weekly basis. We did a little reshuffle, threw ‘creativity’ into the mix, and squidged ‘optimism’ into ‘positive emotions’, and these are now the Spark+Mettle nine:

  1. SPARK. Engagement or interest in what you do.
  2. METTLE. Resilience, grit or determination; the ability to keep going and work through something even if it’s hard.
  3. PURPOSE. A sense of meaning to your life that can help carry you forward.
  4. CREATIVITY. The ability to make things that are new or original, either with your hands or in your head—including coming up with new ideas or approaches.
  5. POSTIVIE RELATIONSHIPS. Strong and meaningful ties with a range of other people, including family, friends, colleagues etc.
  6. AGENCY. A sense that you have good control over your life, your decisions, your direction.
  7. SELF-ESTEEM. A feeling of confidence and an understanding of who you are and what you are capable of.
  8. POSITIVE EMOTIONS. Feelings of optimism about the future as well as a feeling of contentment, satisfaction or happiness about the present, or even the past.
  9. VITALITY. Energy, alertness.

[Aside: You can take a quick survey and find out your top three on our new Discoverables site.]

Back to Franklin. He didn’t just come up with a list. He then came up with a framework to make sure he was improving. He drew up a weekly chart, making a mark on any day when he did not achieve any of the thirteen virtues.  And each week he had a particular focus on one of the thirteen; temperance, say. And when thirteen weeks were up, he started all over.

benjamin franklin self-improvement


We adapted this idea to Spark+Mettle and it is now at the core of our framework.

Crikey, this is a long post. The point is that I love this format: taking a small(ish) number of strenghts/traits to work on, and doing it again in a cyclical process: gradually improving, constantly mindful. It’s neat. We get to talk and think and do. And track how we’re moving forward towards the best version of ourselves. In and of itself, it makes me really happy.

But my dilemma is how to now throw in this crazy, intensive 40-day super flourish period that I conjured up in a flurry of excitement and a blog post?  How it would actually work? How to make it productive, useful and manageable? And, er, fun? Don’t want to be no killjoy. That would totally defeat the point. I’m now at T-3 days. Is that how you say it? I don’t know even why I tried.

I’m going to go walk the dogs. It’s miserable outside. I may be sometime.

3 good things

The quickest way to improve well-being

There’s a book called Flourish, written by esteemed psychologist Martin Seligman. It’s fascinating, and readable. And long. And contentious. So if you don’t have the time/inclination to read it, let me tell you its quickest solution to helping you flourish:

Once a day, write down three things that went well.

That’s it! And they don’t have to be things that YOU did, they could be things that just happened. And they don’t have to be things that happened directly to YOU, they could be things that affected you indirectly, but in a positive way.

Now—I don’t know about you, but doing that once a day is a bit much. Is that the British in me? Or just the busy in me? Who knows. So I like to adapt Seligman’s recommendation and say instead:

Once a week, write down three things that went well.

I also recommend sharing them with someone: a colleague or teacher or friend. Or me! I’d love to know what’s been going on… :-) Drop me an email or leave a comment below and tell me all about it. Here are my examples for the week…

3 good things