Benjamin Franklin's Long Road To Becoming A People Person
Benjamin Franklin was one of the greatest statesmen in all of human history, navigating some tumultuous times with tact that few of us can imagine. The man had a rare ability to get insanely difficult people to cooperate and get things done.
But it turns out that Franklin wasn’t born with this natural tendency to work well with others. He was terrible at reading people in his youth and it got him in a ton of trouble.
Robert Greene, in his incredible book Mastery, shares a few examples of Franklin’s early follies in dealing with others. Taken together, they contain tons of practical wisdom for the rest of us:
1. A teenage Benjamin Franklin pisses off his older brother
From a young age, Benjamin Franklin dreamed of becoming a successful writer. Luckily for him, his older brother James was opening a print shop in Boston. He went to work for his brother, aspiring to one day have his own work published. In addition to doing crappy apprentice tasks, Franklin would pitch story ideas to his brother who constantly shot them down, claiming that readers of The Courant would have little taste for Franklin’s writing.
So, Franklin began to submit letters to his brother’s paper under a pseudonym. He invented a young female widow named Silence Dogood who wrote highly opinionated, sometimes absurd, essays about life in Boston. Her letters quickly became one of the most popular section of the newspaper.
One day, smug with the success of Dogood’s letters, Franklin revealed to his brother that Dogood was his creation. Rather than praising Benjamin for his exceptional writing and the attention it had brought to the paper, James was furious. He hated being lied to and needed loyal foot soldiers in the shop, not rebellious, aspiring creatives. Benjamin’s relationship with his brother deteriorated to the point of his brother becoming abusive, and Franklin eventually fled from Boston and moved to Philadelphia.
2. Benjamin Franklin gets swindled by a conman governor
Once in Philly, word of Franklin's publishing expertise got around. The governor, William Keith, was not happy with the only two printing houses in Philadelphia and sought out Franklin to help him start a third; he’d even fund the whole thing himself. Keith told Franklin to travel to London, where machines and material would be waiting for him. Amazed by his good fortune, Franklin abruptly quit the job with the printer he had just landed in Philly and shipped off across The Atlantic.
Once in London, a wealthy merchant told Franklin that the governor of Pennsylvania was a notorious talker, obsessed with projecting an image of power, wealth, and success, but in reality his pet projects rarely lasted more than a week and he didn’t even have the cash to back them up. It dawned on Franklin that he was stuck in a foreign country where no money, no machinery, and no materials were waiting for him.
3. Franklin pisses off his co-workers
With no means to get home, Franklin picked up a job at a printing house in London. His co-workers loved to drink on the job, routinely taking breaks to throw back a pint. Franklin was expected to contribute to the employee beer fund, but he informed his co-workers that he did not like to drink while he worked and, as a man of principles, would not be contributing to the fund.
Over the next few weeks, his co-workers began to sabotage his work. Typos began to pop up in work that Franklin had already edited and he was continually blamed for a never-ending stream of reckless errors. It eventually dawned on Franklin what was going on and he begrudgingly contributed to the beer fund.
So, there you have it. One of history’s greatest statesmen began his life as a clumsy, naive, clueless punk who pissed off or misread tons of the people around him.
"With his brother," Robert Greene writes in Mastery, “[Franklin] wanted to impress him by revealing his authorship of the letters, totally unaware of the envy and malevolence he would unleash; with Keith, he was so wrapped up in his dreams that he paid no attention to obvious signs that the governor was all talk; with the printers, his anger blinded him to the fact that they would obviously resent his attempts at reform.”
After these and a few more incidents, it dawned on Franklin that much of his suffering in life stemmed from an utter and complete failure to consider the motivations of others. When he wrote the Silence Dogood letters, he was able to put himself into the mind of another, obsessing over how she perceived the world. Yet, he failed to make even the most basic effort to do this with the people around him.
Franklin pledged that he would no longer be at the whims of his own insecurities and emotions, and would instead try to understand people for how they actually were, not how he lazily assumed or hoped they would be.
A new, less-dumb man is born
Franklin finally found his way back to Philadelphia and was immediately offered his job back by Samuel Keimer, the printer whom he had previously bailed on just before his trip to London. It didn’t take long for Franklin to detect that something was up; why was Keimer being so hospitable to a guy who had ditched him a couple of years prior?
It dawned on Franklin that Keimer wanted to extract all of Franklin's publishing expertise, teach it to his employees, and then fire him. Realizing that the clock was ticking, Franklin quietly turned the tables and used his relatively high-ranking role at Keimer's shop to begin networking around town. By the time it became obvious that Franklin was about to be canned, he had already built up a network of backers ready to support him in opening up his own shop, which is exactly what he did, ditching Keimer once again and going on to be a successful newspaper publisher and best-selling writer.
In Greene’s words, “In executing this strategy, Franklin noticed how free he was from any feelings of bitterness or anger toward Keimer. It was all maneuvers on a chessboard, and by thinking inside Keimer he was able to play the game to perfection, with a clear and level head.”
If Benjamin Franklin had to work hard to understand other people, you and I probably have some work to do
Franklin's naivety as a young man does not represent some childish state that we naturally outgrow as time goes on; it’s the default human worldview that persists at all ages. For whatever reason, we are convinced that our own little story is the most interesting one on Earth. We have little interest in understanding the motivations and perspectives of others because the most addictive movie on the planet is playing out in our head at all times. Why change the channel?
This tendency blinds us to the fact that people are revealing their intentions, motivations, and worldview to us all the time. Very often, we totally miss this and instead project our own insecurities, biases, naivety, and emotions onto others, assuming them to be something other than what they are.
If we don't strive to consider the perspectives of those we interact with, we end up on some spectrum where the best case is constantly boring those around us with our self-interested ramblings and the worst case is reliably being taken advantage of because of our blindness to the true motivations of others.
Franklin was onto something when he realized the value in shutting the hell up and listening every once in a while.