Be like Ben, examine your life | Rich Elfers

Do you know what your life thesis is? You have one whether you realize it or not. We all do. It’s the spectacles we use to interpret everything that happens to us. That life thesis comes as a result of major life events that shaped our thinking when we were young.

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  • Wednesday, May 15, 2013 9:21pm
  • Life

Do you know what your life thesis is? You have one whether you realize it or not. We all do. It’s the spectacles we use to interpret everything that happens to us. That life thesis comes as a result of major life events that shaped our thinking when we were young.

Benjamin Franklin had just such a life thesis that deeply shaped his life. It was revealed to me in an excellent biography called “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” by Walter Isaacson.

According to Isaacson, Franklin’s life thesis came out of his experience of a Calvinist/Puritan background living in Boston in the early 1700s. He belonged to what Isaacson calls the “leather-apron” class – the middle class of his day.

Franklin’s life thesis was to emphasize the virtues: diligence, frugality, and honesty. In practicing these virtues, one’s life should consist in serving the community and, in doing so, one could gain salvation through good works – a belief in direct opposition to his Puritan upbringing.

Benjamin Franklin was the product of 18th century Enlightenment thinking, called the Age of Reason. He practiced the Protestant work ethic, believing one should work hard. But Franklin divorced dogma from his religious roots. He was one of the foremost teachers of religious tolerance. For most of his life he was a deist, one who believed God had created the universe like a great clock maker who then walks away, letting us humans determine how we will deal with God’s creation.

Franklin started his life in the printing business, chafing in an apprenticeship under his older brother. At 17, Ben fled to Philadelphia where he eventually opened his own print shop. Through intelligence, diligence, frugality, honesty, and natural charm he became independently wealthy by the time he was 25. He spent the rest of his long life serving society by organizing lending libraries, volunteer fire departments and the colonial post office. Because he valued education, he helped to create what became the University of Pennsylvania.

Eventually he got involved in politics, helping to write the Declaration of Independence. As U.S. ambassador to France during the revolution he convinced the French to become an American ally. Without French assistance we would not have won the revolution. He also helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris ending the war. In his 80s he helped birth the U.S. Constitution and became governor of Pennsylvania.

Franklin also was the most famous American scientist of his time with his experiments on electricity, invention of the lightning rod and mapping of the Gulf Stream, which shortened travel time to and from Europe. He also invented bifocals and studied the properties of light. He never patented any of his inventions,believing they would serve society better by being available to all. Toward the end of his life he became an abolitionist, working to end slavery in the nation.

If you look at Franklin’s life thesis, he did a fairly good job of attaining his goals. But his service to the nation meant that he left his wife in America to serve the colonies in Britain for a total of 15 years. He also fathered an illegitimate child as a young man. That son, William Franklin, eventually became the royal governor of New Jersey.

Because William was a loyalist during the revolution, Ben Franklin severed relations. Father and son never reconciled after the war. Franklin could never forgive him for supporting the British, but he raised William’s own illegitimate son, Temple, for a good deal of his childhood.

My hope in this article is that you would begin to think about what your life thesis is by understanding Franklin’s life. Just like Franklin, we all have created a value system, colored glasses through which we evaluate everything that happens to us. The sooner we examine and focus on our life theses, the more effective we will be in accomplishing them.


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