Ordinary habits create extraordinary people.
Just one of my many insights gleaned over Thanksgiving from Walter Isaacson’s biography Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. The original founder was perhaps the most distinguished writer, scientist, diplomat, printer, inventor, and strategist of his age. He rose from humble beginnings in New England, where he “dropped out” of the storied Boston Latin School, before successfully experimenting with demography, oceanography, meteorology, physics, and of course, electricity. It should be no surprise that he pioneered the first personal productivity method and trade-off decision matrix. He also played chess and various musical instruments. Before his statesmen years on the international stage, he took the time to set up the United States Post Office, advocate for the abolition of slavery, and ultimately, direct his considerable talents and energy to the founding of the United States of America.
He was a polymath and a leading collaborator.
How could one man accomplish so much?
n order to surround himself with smart, ambitious, and well-connected contemporaries, Franklin formed The Junto, a young man’s club for mutual improvement, not unlike today’s famous leader cum idea conferences (TED, Renaissance, Davos, Aspen) and selective societies and fellowships of Oxbridge and the Ivy League. His early commercial success no doubt afforded him freedom and access. Many others had those advantages and more, yet few accomplished so much for the common good. Franklin opened all his Junto meetings with Socratic queries, a strategy he would later encourage at the Constitutional Convention, and one he applied in his daily life.
Early every new day, Franklin would ask himself; “What good shall I do this day?” and then also end the day by asking, “What good have I done today?” Could his habit of positive, regular, and honest questioning be at the root of his personal and shared success?
His direct “morning question” defies the anti-earnestness of today’s "hipsters" and could even be considered an early version of the popular Positive Psychology movement. “The Morning Question” is simple and powerful because it primes and prioritizes our behavior for the day, when, as Charles Duhigg notes in The Power of Habit, our store of willpower is greatest. Completing what we would today call the positive feedback loop, he would follow with an honest end-of-day assessment, to ensure integrity of thought and action.
What question do you ask yourself at dusk and dawn every day?
This is one domain in which I am quite content to follow one of the American Founding Fathers.