Much can – and has been – said about Benjamin Franklin.
It was one productivity icon, keeping a strict schedule which enabled him to accomplish a remarkable amount of work. He was a former statesman when the United States was founded, although he lived a rich and fulfilling life before signing his name on the Declaration of Independence. This story, described and analyzed in Ken Burns’ new two-part documentary, benjamin franklindemonstrates Franklin’s dedication to continuous learning, reinvention, and curiosity for curiosity’s sake.
The world has changed dramatically since Franklin’s time – imagine trying to explain the metaverse to a founding father, but his life and legacy have endured, inspiring generations of business leaders, philanthropists and the gifted. Here are four ways Franklin influenced modern work culture.
1. The original “multi-hyphen”
Much of Franklin’s professional life, before politics, involved printing. He signed up with his older brother at the age of 12 as an apprentice printer, a job that required hyper-literacy. Seeking to escape the “tyrannical” authority of his brother, he fled from his contract in Philadelphia. There he continued to work in the printing business, eventually opening his own printing business and publishing his own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. He also wrote prolifically, with works like the infinitely quotable Almanac of poor Richard, with advice such as “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, rich and wise” and “He who goes to bed with dogs will rise with fleas”.
Franklin’s curiosity led him to explore many careers, including diplomat (for more on Franklin’s work on the Franco-American alliance of 1778, see Stacy Schiff’s A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America). It’s a trend we see flourishing today. Consider the likes of Janelle Monáe, who pushed the boundaries of music and delivered powerful performances in movies like Moonlight, hidden numbers and more. John and Hank Green have written bestselling novels, provided accessible educational support on CrashCourse, and revolutionized the global relationship with online creators through VidCon. No innovator today is limited to one area – a course set by Franklin.
2. A philanthropist is born
Franklin stopped going to school at the age of 10, but already knew how to read and taught himself to write thanks to his printing works. He spent his free time reading and interacting with other intellectuals in various social clubs, including the Leather apron club, the predecessor of the American Philosophical Society.
Beyond his own quest for learning, he also made knowledge more accessible to others. He created the first subscription library open to the public – the Philadelphia Library Company – as a resource to be shared beyond the elite class. Franklin was also chairman of the board of the Public Academy of Philadelphia, which would become the University of Pennsylvania.
Today, there is no shortage of college dropouts who have gone on to fund educational initiatives and more, including Bill Gates and Michael Dell, whose foundations have worked to close achievement gaps and ensure a quality learning environment for students, in the United States and around the world. There are more college graduates these days, but they’re still channeling Franklin’s philanthropic spirit for future generations of learners. Take businessman Robert Smith, who paid off Morehouse College’s Class of 2019 debt. But few of those executives — who have attended top high schools and been accepted to top universities — can follow the trajectory of Franklin’s story from poverty to wealth.
3. An open mind
For most of his life, Franklin loved England. He saw the American Colony as the future of the British Empire, a future he sought to help build, and spent a lot of time in London. During times of tension, such as the Stamp Act and the increase in British troops, his goal was to hold the empire together, emphasizing mutual respect between the colonies and England.
After the Boston Massacre and the resulting Boston Tea Party, his position became more difficult to maintain. London officials began to view Franklin as a traitor for advocating against violence in the colonies. He returned to the colonies, as the documentary says, as an American. His new role as a revolutionary would destroy his relationship with his son, William, who was a Loyalist and then Governor of New Jersey. Franklin was one of the earliest founders of the United States, but his age testified to his determination to keep learning and his willingness to change his mind over time.
Today there is much criticism of public figures who change their position, but in politics and business there is merit in changing views over time and admitting past wrongdoings. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming said she was wrong oppose same-sex marriage. Amazon has discovered that physical storefronts may not be the right path for his business.
4. Everything else
Even while working, traveling, and engaging in politics, Franklin always made time for his own research and experiences. His best known scientific work is probably his experiments on electricity, carried out with a kite, a wire and a metal key. He was fascinated by the circulatory system and invented a more comfortable catheter. He studied how darker clothes absorbed more heat. He invented the harmonica and bifocals. He often refused to patent these inventions, believing that this was enough to serve others.
Despite his many accomplishments, the documentary also highlights Franklin’s flaws. He owned slaves and worked on treaties that disenfranchised natives. He was an abolitionist at the time of his death, but much of his life and success is due to his identity and position in society.
Yet Franklin’s life demonstrates her strong desire to learn and grow, and her faith in the work we can do together as a community of people. In his own words: “We will not be questioned on what we thought, but on what we did.”
To learn more about Ben Franklin as an innovator, subscribe here for a webinar on March 8 at 7 p.m. ET featuring filmmaker Ken Burns and Franklin biographers Walter Isaacson and Stacy Schiff.