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Ben Franklin: Keeper of his own 'Permanent Record'

Detail of a page from Franklin's notebookTurns out Thomas Jefferson wasn’t the only one who was way ahead of us.

In his autobiography, Ben Franklin discusses the time when he’d first committed himself to following the 13 virtues he considered necessary for “moral perfection.”

I propos’d to myself, for the sake of clearness, to use rather more names, with fewer ideas annex’d to each, than a few names with more ideas; and I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express’d the extent I gave to its meaning.

These include several of the values typically associated with Franklin, including “Industry” and “Frugality” (remember, he’s the original “healthy, wealthy, and wise” guy).

This kind of bold and squirrely plan—reportedly followed “pretty faithfully” until late in his life—illustrates nicely why Franklin is regarded as the spiritual father of life hacks, but it’s his novel record-keeping that exposes him as a true geek.

From this Flamebright.com page on Franklin:

He tracked his progress by using a little book of 13 charts. At the top of each chart was one of the virtues. The charts had a column for each day of the week and thirteen rows marked with the first letter of each of the 13 virtues. Every evening he would review the day and put a mark (dot) next to each virtue for each fault committed with respect to that virtue for that day.

Naturally, his goal was to live his days and weeks without having to put any marks on his chart. Initially he found himself putting more marks on these pages than he ever imagined, but in time he enjoyed seeing them diminish. After awhile he went through the series only once per year and then only once in several years until finally omitting them entirely. But he always carried the little book with him as a reminder.

[Scroll down the page for a small photo illustrating a page from the book, as shown above, right.]

As wikipedia notes, “He eventually realizes that perfection is not to be attained, but feels himself better and happier because of his attempt.”

Sounds like a successful project to me. He had a plan, he checked his progress, and, then, despite falling short of “perfection,” he ended up a little better than when he started off. Plus, he certainly must have developed a more mindful outlook along the way. And, of course, he did invent that cool little book—a surprisingly Excel-like tracking app—and that you just gotta admire for pure nerdery.

More on The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin



  • Full text of Franklin’s autobiography (Bartleby)
  • Reference to section quoted above (Bartleby)
  • Wikipedia article on the autobiography
  • Retail copy: (Amazon US | UK | CA | FR | DE | JP | ISBN.nu)
  • Technorati Tags: , , , ,

    About Merlin

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    Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

    Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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