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Ninety Days with Ben

VanSlykeBenjamin Franklin – founding father, inventor and wit – is an icon of early American history. One of Franklin’s most interesting endeavors is relatively unknown. In his autobiography, Franklin describes a “… bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” (Franklin was nothing if not ambitious; moral perfection is a tall order.) Franklin set himself on a challenging path. He found that while he was “… guarding against one fault …” other faults surprised him. He experienced the negative power of habit. While he was paying attention to avoiding one fault, others slipped through because of inattention. In typical Franklin style, he devised a clever, effective means for addressing his problem.

Franklin began his project by developing a list of and definitions for 13 moral virtues (temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility). He realized that trying to pay attention to all of these at one time would be overwhelming. So, he developed a systematic way to work on them, one at a time, while guarding against neglecting the others. He created 13 tables, one for each virtue. At the top, he defined the virtue. The rows of the table contained all 13 virtues. The columns represented each day of the week. Each week Franklin would consciously work on one virtue, making a special effort to live according to that virtue. He didn’t put energy and attention into living up to the others, but he would note when he “slipped,” and violated that virtue. For example, if he was working on thrift, he made conscious effort to spend only what was absolutely necessary. At the same time, although he wouldn’t specifically try to maintain his tranquility, he would note any instances of becoming upset at trifles. Each evening Franklin made a mark for every time he violated a virtue. His theory was that if, at the end of the week, he had no marks against a virtue, he would consider that virtue a habit, and move on to the next. The following week, he tried to keep both virtues clear of violations. He would pay special attention to the second virtue, hoping that habit would keep him true to the first virtue. Assuming that he could proceed this way, week by week, at the end of 13 weeks, he completed the entire course of virtues. He would then start over again, allowing him to go through each of the virtues four times a year.

When I discovered Franklin’s method, I was intrigued. The more I learned about the most effective ways to lead ourselves, the more I appreciated Franklin’s device. I believe there are four pillars of self-leadership (the process of influencing oneself), purposefulness, mindfulness, reflection and practice. Franklin’s virtues process covers all of these. Before devising his method, he thought long and hard about what sort of person he wanted to be, then he set his sights on being that person (he had a purpose). Franklin’s method also requires mindfulness, or awareness. We often go through life on autopilot, not really being aware of how we are living up to our purpose. (Coincidentally, I’m writing this on a plane high above Texas. I’ll bet we’re on autopilot right now.)

Franklin’s device requires paying special attention to a virtue each day, but it also encourages awareness of the other virtues. The virtues method also requires reflection; each evening, he would go through his faults for the day, and ponder how to avoid them in the future. Finally, Franklin practiced being a virtuous person. As Aristotle pointed out, we become excellent through practice. Franklin’s method certainly aligns with Aristotle’s thinking.

Given that we’re in the resolution season, I’m going to spend the first three months of 2015 trying to apply Franklin’s virtues method. Over the next few months, we’ll dig deeper into the concept of virtue. I’ll also give you a list of my target virtues, their definitions, and why I think they’re important. We’ll wrap up with a report on how my experiment went. Hopefully, like Franklin, I’ll be that much closer to being the kind of person I want to be. We’ll find out in a few months. FBN


By Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D.

The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to over 3,000 undergraduate and Master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to:, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.



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