Benjamin Franklin

Head like a kite in a thunderstorm by Will Ringland

“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor,’ avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god- fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work.” - Marcus Aurelius

What do you do when you succeed at something? Does it get to your head of do put your head down and get back to work?

I recently presented about this Virtue Project at Nerd Nite Madison and it went really well. I typically have a low opinion and high expectation for public speaking and I feel like I absolutely nailed it despite spending the hours leading up to it feeling woefully, terribly, very obviously underprepared. But the stars aligned and I had the audience rapt - no one went to the bar to get a drink, it got quiet and intense, I got strong applause at the end.

Magic. Head high in the clouds like a kite in a thunderstorm.

I was feeling pretty powerful and awesome. So I started working on this piece, a piece to discuss how humility keeps us hungry.
 Hubris, conceit, pride are all the perverting of humility by great success that leads us down the path of self-destruction1.

That may a little dramatic2. The moment that we let success stand between us and understanding the world, we calcify. Hardened to the outside world, we lose our curiosity, we lose focus, we lose sight of what it is *to be a person*. Curiosity of our environment is what brought us out of the trees, out of the savannah, out of darkness, and into the modern world3.

Epictetus, one of the best known stoic philosophers, said it like this,
“It is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

The best remedy to pride is approaching the world with humility, with the understanding that you only know what you know, not everything. As I started writing the talk, I pulled out so many things. All the great things. I went back to the book that started all this for me - Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin - I went back to the most *comprehensive* biography by Leo Lemay and even reread from the collected works of Franklin published online at

It was as if I was a neophyte. It reminded me that there are others who have studied longer and harder than I who knew more, will likely always know more. And it puts into perspective the way of understanding and knowledge. No person can ever, should ever, believe they are the sole bearer of knowledge and truth. There are always others to whom we can aspire.

So, I spoke well and I knew my topic. And I *got there* despite having been reading and researching and practicing Franklin and his virtue project for *years* by approaching it like I had no idea what I was doing and that I was going to fail.

Here’s an exercise for then next time you have a thing you’re working on you feel you know well. And,likely, is a good set of precepts for Humility if you have a knowledge focus in your own Virtues.

    Ask yourself these questions:
  1. What *don’t* I know about this topic?
  2. Who out there knows *more* than I do?
  3. How can be more like them and their expertise?

If you otherwise think naught but of your own expertise, all the things you do, know, and understand already, what could you possibly care about outside of that?

  1. (Ominous music).

  2. It is....

  3. Also, thumbs thumbs aren’t a virtue.

  Virtuous Cycles by Will Ringland

Virtuous cycles

I cannot stress enough Franklin's own finding regarding maintaining virtues.

Well, I mean I can but I think he summarizes it pretty well.

" While my care was employ'd in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; > > habit took the advantage of inattention> > ; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest > > to be completely virtuous> > , was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the > > contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established> > ."

In other words, going whole hog on your virtues isn't going to work because trying to do all of them, even if "all" is less than his his and my thirteen, is too hard to maintain. Since this is all about habit creation, consider how disirganized you'd be of you were trying to mind 13 virtues constantly. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great said it best.

"If you have more than three priorities, you have > > no> > priorities."

Frankly, I think I have more than 1 you're working on at any given time, you're still working fracturing your attention too much. You can probably effectively work on three priorties in a day but more than that and you're unlikely to make meanigful progress at all.

What we are ultimately doing here is establishing a habit for each virtue. And over time, we wnt to establish a habit for all the virtues which we accomplish one by one, little step by little step.

##First Step's First There are two parts to building any habit. Focus and Review.

(This is part 4 in a multipart series. See the  other posts here! )

(This is part 4 in a multipart series. See the other posts here!)

Focus Virtue

We'll discuss Franklin's method for Focus. Each virtue is taken as the Focus Virtue for any given Virtue Cycle. Now, we'll discuss a Virtue Cycle in a minute but you'll likely be able to see where this is heading pretty quickly.

This Focus Virtue becomes where you put your attention for a selected period of time. Franklin selected a week for his Focus Virtue period so each Sunday he selected his Focus and spent the rest of the week trying to be perfect at it.

Now, spending a whole week (or "only" a week, depending on your temperment) is harder than it sounds. It allows for you to get enough of a grip on the virtue without becoming too bored or too frustrated. If it is an easy week, you get through it quicker and move on. If it's a harder week, you power through. 7 days is a convenient time frame for contemporary culture.

Virtue Cycle

You, of course, needn't limit your self to a week per virtue. You could take multiple weeks or a full month in order to focus. Extending the focal period both increases the challenge while increasing opportunity for success. If, say, you have 4 precepts for a virtue and take a full month for your Focus Virtue, you could focus on one precpt for a week.

As you finish each period, you move through each virtue until you have spent that full period on each as a Focus. The benefit of Franklin's method is that a single Cycle fits tidily into a quarter of a year allowing for a nice and even four Virtue Cycles in a calendar year.

It is not enough, though, to just Focus on these virtues. You have to measure how you're doing. And that's what the grids we talked about before are for.

Review and Preview

I'm not writing it down to remember it later; I'm ewriting it down to remember it now."

  • Field Notes Brand motto

The structure of the virtue cycle matters less than you actually doing it and both REviewing and PREviewing what you've done.


At the end of every day, sit down and assess how it went. For each of your virtues, ask yourself if you were successful sticking to it. This is where having the precepts can be beneficial, especially early in the process. When I first started, I didn't have the best grasp of what "silence" meant to me and having the precepts reduced the ambiguity of success.

Get out your tracking system and find your grid for that week. Did I drink too much? No? Great, next. Did I talk over someone this day? Yes? Mark it. What's next.

This is critical for your overall success. You have to think about it and go over each day's successes and failures.

Look, just get comfortable with the idea that this is going to suck for a while. It will. Sitting down every day and taking an accounting of your personal failures is kind of a crappy way to end the day. But it will really help you in the long run. First, having the habot for it makes future introspection easier and it will help you understand your inner self better.

It is as good as therapy because it is theraputic.

You just have to get past that initial dread.

Keep the following in mind when you're marling up your grid.

Breaking A virtue does not break YOUR virtue

You are more than a single instance of failure just as you are not a single instance of success. Hold that in mind, especially when it's been a shitty week.

I've been doing this for a few years now and I still have weeks like this one from October of last year:

Screenshot 2016-10-30 19.41.51.png

Ending a Virtue Cycle

At the beginning of each new cycle - be it the next precept or a new virtue for that cycle - take the time to review where you've been. Look at your grid. Do you remember thse instances of broken virtues? I bet you will. This is where having a journal of some sort becomes invaluable. Here's what you need to do:

  1. Write down what you think went wrong.
  2. Write down where you think you could improve.
  3. Write down how you feel about both.
  4. Preview your next Virtue
  5. Review the last cycle.
    You get bonus points for reviewing more than just the last.

As you get further into it, reviewing the last cycle can show you patterns and progress even if you're just writing a few words for each of those things above.

The genius of Franklin's grids is ease with which you can see this and last cycle's progress (or lack thereof).


What is tomorrow's virtue? Tomorrow's precept? Tomorrow's goal? Looking thrugh these will keep you focused on What's Next. And even if you're in the middle of a cycle, it's useful to review your Virtue and Precepts regularly. Keeps it fresh.

Answering the questions above is only as complicated as you want to make it. For my structure, I knew what each week block was going to look like with the one Focus Virtue. I just needed to jot it down the night before somewhere that I would see it the next morning. You'd probably be un-surprised to know how easy it is to forget you're doing a thing if you don't remind yourself of that thing frequently.

The place you jot it down should be the same place you're tracking your virtue grids as discussed earlier. I cannot stress enough how important it is that all of this stuff be in one place. Remember: removing friction from your project increases your chances for success.

For me that meant in my morning work prep, I would create a task due the that day for my virtue. Since I refer to my task managment application throughout the day, I would see it right there, at the top of my list, waiting to be checked off.

If your precepts are the core of your virtue project, then that needs to go right atop your tracker too. Maybe in bold letters. Or fancy ink. Just make it easy to see.


Again, this is going to be tough at first. Before you get feeling all guilty and inadequate at the prospect of cataloguing your failures, consider a few things.

  1. No one has to see this but you.
  2. You don't have to keep every week (but I bet you'll want to)
  3. How will you know when you succeed if you don't write it down?

And again:

Breaking A virtue does not break YOUR virtue

Good people make mistakes. And look, you're already trying to get better. THat gives you quite the advantage, now doesn't it?

Next time, we'll talk more about the Review process which is easily the ardest but most important part about getting started with your own Virtue Project.

You gotta choose - part 2 by Will Ringland

I'm sure that you have agonizing over the Giant List of Virtues. It is, in fact, Giant and a List but it doesn't need to be daunting. As noted before, there are canned options you can select to avoid the brain power expense. And having a point off which to build can get you going faster.

This is part 2 of a multi part series. See part 1 here.


The Easy Path

In a number of ways the faster path is the virtuous one. Having choices made before you start means more time to think about maintaining your virtues. And a faster start means faster to virtue and faster to failure.

Hold up? Failure is good?


Heck yeah, failure is great. Failure means you tried something and it didn't work. And if you eliminate one way to fail, that makes it more likely you'll find the successful thing. No successful anything was successful on the first try. And anyone saying that they never failed is selling you snake oil.

So using pre-fab Virtue Lists means a faster chance to run headlong into a wall.

Sounds great....

Yes! Walls are great! Knowing what won't work gets you closer to what will but this is not to say a Virtue Project should be easy.

If you find yourself having little trouble achieving your virtues, maybe you need to take a long hard look at them? Are you really trying?

Difficult Virtues

There's a difference between challenging yourself and changing who you are. The former is what we are aiming for here - growth, improvement, effort. What we are not aiming for is a total overhaul of who you are as a person, at least not in total straight out of the gate.

Say that the virtue you're seeking is Gregariousness - the quality of being social, out going, talkative in groups - and you're an introvert. You've always been the quiet one at parties, it is mentally or emotionally exhausting to interact with strangers, maybe attempting to become gregarious is not the best option? Or limit the degree to which you are gregarious?

This is a good example for me, though this was not on my list. It was a sort of challenge goal related to it.

A Long Time Ago in a Career Far, Far Away

About a year in to my job, I was promoted to managment over a small team (just me and another guy, eventuallly a third person a year later). I am absolutely an introvert. I'll take couches, cats, and a book most nights over parties. But I do very much enjoy the company of people I hold dear. Even if we aren't interacting consistently, just being in each other's presence, is very satisfying and comforting - my friend C calls it "people-non-people" time.

I did not have the social skills to lead another person let alone direct the developers on the team where to head with their projects. I had to, very quickly, learn how to embrace conversation of many types. Small talk, motivational talk, arguments, descriptive or informative or critical talk. And I had to learn fast. Plus, as a manager I had to talk in front of dozens, hundreds, and (eventually) thousands of people.

Statisticians laugh when they see the number two fear is death and the number one fear is public speaking. Given the option between death and speaking to a room of 3000 people and I may have thought longer than is healthy about that....

So, two things I did to build gregariousness in myself: I read like crazy, one month reading eight books on public speaking and management, and I practiced. I practiced with my girlfriend, I practiced with my boss, I practiced with my cats. And my cats, by the way, don't respond well to critical feedback. I literally, at one point, set a goal to say Yes to every single opportunity to speak in front of other people.

Dial it in

If I had attempted to make Gregariousness a virtue and immediately jumped into any speaking assignment, it would have fallen apart. It takes time to work up to certain expressions of a virtue. In these cases, cases where sticking to the virtue is so hard that you're constantly falling off the wagon, step back and decide if it is the right thing or if you're doing too much.

Gregariousness with a precept of "speak in front of the whole company evety time asked" may be easier said than done. Whereas gregariousness with the precept "accept and attend more party invitations" may be just right. You can, potentially, work your way up to the top of that speaker list.

  1. Variety keeps things fresh

    Similar to #2 above, taking Franklin's thirteen virtues offers enough variety that you're doing enough, different things in a given cycle to keep you engaged. But it isn't too much that you forget your focus or what is coming next.

  2. It worked for Ben Franklin and he was a badass

    I mean really. He founded newspapers, created the post office, built the first library, negotiated the Fench alliance that would the revolutionary war.... The man was diligent and well respected and some part of that came from early attempts at virtue. It is hard to say anything you may choose to adopt from his life would steer you wrong.

Choose your own adventure

Other prebaked options include the cardinal virtues defined in antiquity by Plato, the expanded or adapted virtues writen by Cicero, or the three paired down theliological virtues. You'll see overlasp here with Frasnklin's virtues as noted before becauser he chose from the above for his own virtue project.

Or, I suppose, you could roll a few dice and see what comes up?

Cardinal Virtues

Prudence This is similar to Wisdom as a virtue. Prudence is choosing the rightmost, correct, beneficient thing to do in the current situation.

Justice Fairness, equality or equity in thought and deed.

Temperance Restraint. Classically, this is less about alcohol and more about all indulgence or action - physical, mental, emotional, sexual, or spiritual. Franklin broke his temperance into two: specific physical Temperance with alcohol, and mental Temperance with choice and judgment.

Courage Strength or fortitude, confronting fear and persevering despite it.

Theleological virtue

Faith Belief in a higher power, that there are things outside yourself that created and nurture the universe. Obedience to them.

Love Caring for others as you do yourself. Charity. Assuming for the best in those around you.

Hope Refraining from despair, maintaining a positive attitide and spreading that into the world around you.

Extended theleological virtues

This includes the above three and adds: Humility Being humble, not bragging or having pride about yourself or your works.

Hospitality Accepting others as they are and in the state they are. Helping people.

Mercy Compassion. Caring for others, not just family and friends.

Fidelity Faithfulness to yourself and your family. Holding others before you. Dedication.

Forgiveness Holding no grudges. Forgiving others transgressions, intentional or otherwise, against us or others. Avoiding retribution or revenge.

Vigilance Attentiveness to self, our actions. Holding awareness of the repercussions of our choices. Staying true to goals and purity of intent.

Reliability Keeping promises. Being a resource of others in anything. Steadfastness.

Admittedly 13 virtues is an awful large number to consider day in and day out. It may behoove you to choose a smaller set.

The goal for choosing virtue is not to take as many as you think you can possibly do; rather, pick the ones you believe you will do. Choose a virtue that you area already sort of OK at and become extraordinary at it. Then, as you get better, you can expand the set of virtues you follow.

By the same token, if trying to follow as many as you have chosen ends in self-loathing or regular failure, stop following so many. It is absolutely OK to pare back, reassess, and begin anew.

In a future article, we'll talk rules. Everyone likes rules, no?

That's it for now. Lots to consider, so off with you. Next we'll talk about precepts.

Mm.. everyone likes rules.