“I Think I Like a Speckled Ax Best”

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Have you ever done something so moronic that you’ve found it difficult to believe that any human, much less the human whose conscious experience you happen to occupy, could be so stupid?

For example, I attempted — and failed — to cook four Trader Joe’s chicken nuggets yesterday afternoon. The instructions fit into one sentence:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and place nuggets on center rack for 20 minutes (this is impossible to screw up, you dunce).

Incredibly, I managed to screw it up. I neglected to set a timer, started to work on other things, and about 45 minutes later was notified that lunch was ready as a cloud of smoke and the smell of scorched chicken nugget filled the apartment. Classic.

This sort of thing happens all the time. I am terrible with navigating the minutia of daily life and always have been. I lose keys, burn chicken nuggets, pour myself drinks and forget about them, and email myself reminders only to be surprised that I have a new email after I hit "send." I live inside my own head, caught in whatever idea happens to hold the reigns at that moment, which often diverts my attention from whatever is unfolding right in front of me.

My natural impulse over the years has been to work hard at “fixing” this glaring inadequacy in my character and to become more functional in the elements of life that I consider boring but necessary. But after years of consciously trying to improve this side of myself, I have made essentially zero progress.

"I wished to live without committing any fault at any time"

I felt pretty frustrated until recently reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. One of Franklin’s many pursuits in life was to obtain a perfect moral character. He set a personal goal for himself to essentially emulate a character like Christ and live without any faults whatsoever at any time.

Franklin created a spreadsheet that tracked thirteen virtues, ranging from “Temperance” to “Humility,” which he would review each day and note wherever he fell short or failed. If he drank one mojito too many, for example, he’d write an “x” in that day's Temperance column. The next day, he'd know to keep an eye on his booze consumption.

After doing this exercise for years, he realized that while he became an overall much better person and even obtained near-perfection in certain virtues, he fell terribly short in others. In particular, he never made much progress in the virtue of “Order” which he defined as “let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”

In his words:

Order…I found extremely difficult to acquire….This article, therefore, cost me so much painful attention, and my faults in it vexed me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment, and have such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt and content myself with a faulty character in that respect.

Not one to readily admit defeat, he asked himself if it was worth giving his more stubborn flaws extra attention. After all, isn't the whole point of self-improvement to acknowledge and battle our slothful, fixed nature head-on? Shouldn't we exert ourselves twice as hard in fixing those flaws that seem the least likely to change?

Or should we instead get comfortable with the idea that we are flawed in our own particular way and that each of us may have only so much room to improve in certain areas?

Ultimately, Franklin answers with the story of the man who bought an ax from a blacksmith and requested that its surface be made as bright as the edge:

The smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the wheel; he turned, while the smith pressed the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing.

The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length would take his ax as it was, without farther grinding. "No," said the smith; "turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by and by; as yet, it is only speckled." 

"Yes," says the man, "but I think I like a a speckled ax best."

And I a scorched nugget.