Although immortalized in statues, Benjamin Franklin was undeniably a human, whose life lessons are still relevant today.
How can we innovate on the American idea? Bring out your BENJAMIN. #BeUncommon
As the haze of fireworks cleared in cities across America, I found myself thinking of the circumstances that led to our nation's founding, and in particular how one man – Benjamin Franklin – helped shape this great experiment we call America. In reflecting on his life, as well as those of countless other Americans who have strove to improve themselves, as well as a lot of their fellow humans, I have to ask myself: How can we do more to live up the opportunity we've been given by those who came before us?
To answer that question, I have a proposition: Bring Out Your BENJAMIN:
Ben Franklin established an unbelievable volume of civic engagement in Philadelphia. He chartered library systems and hospitals, co-founded the first volunteer firefighting company, and, as deputy postmaster-general of British North America, directed the infamous postal system reform, which led to the delivery of weekly mail – just to name a few. Today, community building at this level seems hard to imagine; we live in different times. However, the lesson is the same – no matter which community belong to, are you involved in making the community better?
In our work at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, I see individuals rising to this challenge in so many ways, from grantees to Great Schools Visits participants to commenters on the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building Playbook.
Franklin was consumed with curiosity. He was endlessly observant and experimental. His famous "kite experiment" led to advancements in an understanding of electricity and his invention of the lightning rod. Franklin’s relentless instinct to experiment is a welcome reminder to all who wish to invent or innovate.
Access to, and equity in, this kind of learning will be essential to education if we are to meet the needs of a future transformed by technology. The entrepreneurial mindset, so present in the founding of our country, is just as important now as it was then.
While Franklin had a healthy ego, he recognized others for helping him along the way. He credited a Philadelphia merchant, Thomas Denham, with his start as a clerk and bookkeeper. He credited the German scientist Otto van Guericke for early findings related to electricity.
Makers, doers, and dreamers are the sum total of the people they meet. This ideal was on full display at the third-annual ESHIP Summit.
Among my favorite cuts from Franklin lore is his starting of a "mutual improvement" club called Junto. Upon his return to Philadelphia, at 21-years-young, he pulled together 11 other members with diverse skills, trades, and backgrounds to meet on Friday evenings. In taverns or club members’ homes, Junto members engaged in debates about philosophy and morals, and swapped insights about local business happenings. Franklin individually recruited each member, ensuring their desire for self-improvement, and to do well by each other and the greater community.
As Franklin knew, success is best-bred by connecting with others. However, success cannot meet its full potential if convenings and networks are exclusive.
Purposeful inclusion, seen in Inclusion Open grants, Amplify, and prioritized at every weekly 1 Million Cups event (to name a few), is essential. Whether it’s the entrepreneurs’ voice in policy decisions, or the voice of parents and students in matters of education, there must always be room for another chair, and a diverse perspective, at the table.
Franklin was far from perfect (and he knew it). At 20 years, he created "12 guiding virtues to nurture his character and to live-by." Yet, an enjoyable tidbit uncovered in his self-reflective autobiography calls out the establishment of a 13th and final virtue – humility – after a friend shared, "… that my pride show'd itself frequently in conversation; … I was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinc'd me by mentioning several instances …"
We all receive feedback exposing "blind spots," or areas we are unaware and cannot see. It’s important to give this feedback careful consideration. It’s more important to adjust accordingly with the newfound awareness; humility is key in that.
Franklin’s formal education stopped at age 11. He apprenticed at his older brother’s print shop. The experience brought demanding labor, but it spurred Franklin’s triumph as a colonial printer, publisher, and newspaperman. It was his thirst for truth and knowledge, not formal education credentials, that propelled his greater success. His commitment to self-education was profound.
As young people work through the education system, some of which go off to college to declare a major and "finish" school, do we lose the love of learning? As we dreamers fill our backpack with books and tools for life’s journey to the ambiguous future, we better not forget the intangible value of lifelong learning.
The lightning rod. Bifocals. The Franklin Stove. Each were the inventions or innovations of Ben Franklin. “... As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously,” Franklin said.
Children are great inventors and innovators, but that imagination must be cultivated as we grow. Ben Franklin would have loved Maker Faire. It’s a great example of the countless opportunities in this world to create or to make an existing product or process better.
"Energy and persistence conquer all things." Ben Franklin lived that until his final breath in 1790 – even in his 70s and 80s, he kept the line moving. He was appointed Ambassador to France, traveling across the ocean with his grandson. He was the U.S. Minister to Sweden; conducted a lecture series connecting an Iceland volcano to a harsh European winter; was the sixth governor of Pennsylvania; co-authored the first treaty of friendship with Prussia; and created a trust endowed to Boston and Philadelphia, which accrued interest for more than 200 years. He kept busy.
Now it’s on us – the hustlers – the makers, the doers, and the dreamers, to keep the line moving. To be driven to find uncommon ways to create opportunities.
To connect people to the tools they need to achieve success, to change their futures; so that every person – regardless of background – can take risks, achieve success, and give back to their communities.
This is how we innovate on the American idea.
So, to my fellow makers, doers, and dreamers, and all who empower them, the call-to-action stands: How can you do more? Not only for yourselves, but for your neighbors, for strangers, and for your community. How can we make the risky, innovative, American idea that all are endowed with the natural right to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" ring true?
This article was updated July 3, 2019.