Founding father Benjamin Franklin sought to live his life based on 13 virtues. He even kept a chart to record which virtues he was actually living by on a weekly basis. Tracking and reflecting on these traits could help you lead a more virtuous life.
For a large portion of his life, he carried around a card in his pocket with seven columns (for the days of the week) and 13 rows on it for the virtues, trying to keep them front of mind in his actions.
Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues:
- Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation, as he put it.
- Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
- Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
- Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself.
- Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
- Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting benefits that are your duty.
- Moderation: Avoid extremes.
- Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes or habitation.
- Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
- Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Benjamin Franklin was born in 1706 into a family of very modest means. Today, they’d probably be called lower middle class at best. His parents had just enough money to send him to school for a couple of years in hope that he could eventually join the clergy, but by the age of 10, he was done with school. He was a print shop apprentice by the age of 12, climbing around on printing presses, sorting letters, mixing ink, and all of the other tasks needed to keep a printing press running.
From that humble background, Franklin became a highly successful printer, a well known writer, a scientist, a politician, and a diplomat, among the many other hats he wore. During those efforts, he accumulated enough wealth to effectively retire independently wealthy in his forties, and he largely devoted the rest of his life to public service (and his individual interests). He was such a towering figure in the American Revolution that he was deservedly called the “first American,” and his light shines brightly even today.
Even to this day, Franklin’s “Autobiography” is a splendid read. You can get a nice pocket edition of it for just a few dollars, check it out at your library for free, or download it and read it electronically for free. No matter how you read it, I highly recommend you do so, as it’s an insightful book about an amazing person.
One of the things that has really stood out to me each time I’ve read his autobiography is the fact that he attributed most of his success (beyond that of luck) to practicing 13 core life virtues, to the best of his ability. He believed that by living those virtues, he had done everything he could to put himself in a position to be on the good side of the unexpected events of life.
He actually had an incredible system for working on those virtues, which I want to talk about today.
Ben Franklin’s ‘virtue cards’
For a large portion of Franklin’s life, he carried around a card in his pocket that depicted a simple table with seven columns and 13 rows on it.
During the day, he might glance at these virtues a time or two to keep them fresh in his mind. At the end of each day, however, he’d pull out a pen and go through those virtues, asking himself if he’d actually practiced them during the day and marking the box if he had done so. His goal was to fill in as many boxes as possible, and each week, he would start anew with a fresh blank chart.
That wasn’t all. Not all of the charts were identical. In fact, he had 13 variations of the charts, which he cycled through every 13 weeks. On the top of each variation of the card was listed one virtue, which was the main one he wanted to practice that week, along with a brief description of that virtue.
For example, one week, he might really focus on frugality, while the next week might particularly focus on temperance. He’d reflect on and record his success with all 13 virtues each day, but he would intentionally focus on just one virtue each week.
You can download a generic duplicate of his virtue card (without the specific focus for the week) here.
A final key part of his practice is that he’d review the cards as a whole at the end of each week, evaluating which virtues were successful that week, which ones were not, and which areas really needed focus and improvement in his life. He’d also review them as a set, and thus with 13 cards to review, that roughly covers three months of living. A larger review like this — a “quarterly review” if you will — can point you to some larger patterns along your path to becoming a better person.
Over time, these virtues became more and more ingrained in his character. He found himself naturally practicing them more than he once did, which made him into a more well-rounded and successful person and a better participant in society, which he attributed to being a healthy part of the success that he found in almost every attribute of life.
So what were these 13 virtues?
Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues
Here are the virtues that Franklin tracked and reflected upon each day. His goal was to improve himself with regard to each virtue so that over time he was a better person in that regard, and by being a better overall person, he was more open to life’s opportunities.
Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
This one’s pretty simple. Eat until you’re not hungry any more rather than stuffing yourself, don’t eat just for entertainment’s sake or for boredom’s sake, and stop drinking when it begins to impair your judgment and sensibilities. It’s about self-regulating what you put into your body and making the conscious choice to put in only enough for good living.
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.