Just recently, at the age of 36, I realize I can be, quite often, a douchebag. My friends and family might find that revelation a bit harsh but people outside that group, particularly those who I have had some sort of relationship with that has since broke off, would agree with me wholeheartedly. Much of this stems from an inherent selfishness and sense of vanity I’ve had since back in my childhood days. I’ll save you any pontification as to the reasons but my point is that I’m conscious of my douchebaggery and I really don’t like it. So I started asking myself, “How can I be a better person?” Some may scoff at the notion that I haven’t been wondering about this and I guess, maybe, I have but it hasn’t been anything this conscious nor has my desire to find a solution been so strong. The fact is every facet of my life could afford some major improvements. As a father, husband, friend, employee, IT manager, you name it I can improve on it. But how?
Recently I took up reading again and, as a fan of non-fiction, I latched on to a free eBook from Project Guttenberg, which was the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. I then supplemented that book with “Benjamin Franklin” by Walter Isaacson. Together both books made it clear Benjamin Franklin was extraordinary in his accomplishments yet quite normal in his flaws. I found myself trying to draw parallels between his line of thinking and mine and what jumped out at me was that my views on religion were reflected in Franklin’s in nearly every facet. Now before you tune out thinking all this is some ploy to suck you into my line of thinking on religion, just bear with me.
As it turns out, Franklin was conscious of what kind of person he wanted to be at a much younger age than myself. However, seeing a goal and attaining it are two different things and to address this Franklin applied a pragmatic method of self-help that I’d like to share. First Franklin considered some virtues he felt he either lacked or which needed improvement. He finished with thirteen virtues (excerpt here) and while the number and the actual virtues themselves are worth noting, they aren’t the focus here. What was more impressive is what he did next. Recognizing that mastering thirteen virtues couldn’t be done all at once, he set forth a plan to track progress in all thirteen but allowing him to focus on one at a time in succession. To do this, Franklin a used sheet of paper (and later ivory tablets) where he built a table with the thirteen virtues listed vertically on the left hand side and the days of the week listed across the top. Then, starting with the first virtue (in his case temperance), he would attempt to go a full week without an infraction of that virtue while noting infractions on any of the other virtues at the end of each day. He did this by placing a dot on his table where the row of the virtue broken intersected the column representing the day of the week. In this manner he’s progress through each virtue a week at a time. If he failed to complete a week on one virtue he’d start the following week on the same virtue. Additionally, as he progressed from virtue to virtue he made a point not to break any of the already completed virtues. Thus, he built what could be, at best, a 13 week self-help program.
What impressed me most about Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues was the practical simplicity. In fact the only criticism I see in Franklin’s approach is he didn’t think to apply this method to specific areas of his life. So while he applied his virtues from more of a religious stance, if you abstract this just a bit you have a system for improving yourself in any aspect of your life (e.g. marriage, parenting, work, hunting, fishing, health, etc).
In all the exposure I’ve had to organized religion and other systems aimed at self improvement, I have seen few which give you a method this simple and one which can be independently applied (read: no need to pay big bucks for a “kit” from some self-help guru). So my question is do you agree in the utility of this method? Could it be improved? Do you see self-help as too taboo to make this useful to normal people who wish to continue to appear “normal”? More importantly would you ever use this? If not, why?
Please stay tuned as over the coming weeks I will attempt to share my experiences in applying this method, though, I don’t pretend to be able to obtain moral perfection as Benjamin Franklin had hoped.