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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Benjamin Franklin, Kelly Ripa, and Me

So, I’m not going to pussyfoot: Since the election, one of my sphincters has relaxed. I'm not going to say which one. There are several, and none of them bears too much scrutiny. And anyway, I am still vigilant. Uptight, even. But, a smidge less than I was. Of course, life has brought other challenges, as it is wont to do, and they are not helpful in the relaxation arena. Things are precarious, as they always are, but a little less discouraging than they were.

When there’s so much news, personal and political, to occupy my brain, and when this news seems to require constant vigilance, it’s hard to get anything done but worry, perseverate, and mull. Usually at three a.m.

It’s important, this mulling, perseverating, and worrying. It’s apparently essential, according to my psyche, to aid in holding up the world and the people in it whom I love. If I were to relax, the whole thing might implode.

This is called magical thinking. FYI.

In times like these, thinking about Benjamin Franklin may be instructive. I recently spent a whole day on Benj F with my college students. An entire eighty minutes to cover his career.

Ample time, don’t you think?

Oh, you don’t? Well, neither do I. But that was all the time I had to point out some of the ways and reasons Benjamin Franklin’s legacy lives two hundred twenty-eight years after his death.
To that end, my students watched an hour biography of BF and read selections from his writings and we talked about how many different things he did and accomplished. The lesson being that  I am truly inadequate. That is my takeaway. IF Ben Franklin was successful because of his rigorous discipline, habits of mind, and efficient use of every fruggin moment of his day, then, then.

Well, I don’t exactly know what my point is, except that then I ought to understand exactly why it is that Benj F is known over centuries and across borders and I


Oh, sure, it’s too soon to tell. Kind of you to say, Readers, but based on output alone, I am well behind on benchmarks for sustainable, world-wide, century-spanning success. I don’t think I even want that. The good news is that I, secular Jewish denizen of New York State, a woman with Buddhist tendencies and low-self-esteem, along with millions of others, am happy to look to his life for tips on achieving success.

So, once again, life lessons from Ben Franklin. He exemplifies using the scaffolding of success very nicely.

One, permission—Ben Franklin permitted himself to try new things. From the get-go, he gave himself permission. He permitted himself to pull out of his apprenticeship with his brother the printer, to move to a different city (Philadelphia from Boston), to impregnate a woman and then to take on his child born out of wedlock; to experiment with oil and water, with electricity, with stoves, with ocean currents; to take on various posts, found a university, a library, a fire department, to write anonymous letters and publish an almanack— the list goes on. The man did so much. From inventing a flexible urinary catheter to editing Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the declaration of independence (and making it more pithy). Permission.

Two, goals. The guy was goal-oriented. And his goals were always growing and changing, challenging and yet not impossible, ranging from personal development, such as his plan to achieve moral perfection, to trying to convince the British parliament to allow the Colonies to have a voting representative, he set goals.

Three, help from others. From inspiration for his project for self-improvement, which he took from Cotton Mather, who apparently was all for that sort of self-work, to sharing ideas with the gentlemen in his regular mastermind group he called the Junto, to serendipitous connections with government officials who wrote letters for him, BF relied on help from others to accomplish his goals and succeed. He helped others, too. Indeed, he wrote that asking others for favors endears you to them, probably because it allows them to feel that they are beneficent and also powerful, at least powerful enough to help you.

Four, centering activity. He spent time in contemplation, sometimes at religious services, focusing his attention on what he intended to do.

Five, managing the mind by various strategies. First of all, he was an auto-didact. Second of all, he believed in continual self-improvement by developing the virtues he thought most essential to being a good person in the world. He set intentions to focus his mind and work —every morning he asked himself, “What good shall I do today?” and every evening he asked, “What good did I do today?” which speaks to the final, and also perhaps the fundamental plank in the scaffolding of success

Six, basing his work on deep values and purpose. BF believed his role in society was to be of service. Public service was a deep value he held, and that value fueled his sense of purpose and buoyed his energy when he might have retired, but instead worked on the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Lasting success depends on knowing your deep values and purpose and aligning your life with them. They may change over time, but keying action to purpose and values keeps motivation strong.

Here’s a phrase I hate: At the end of the day. Everyone says it. At the end of the day. At the end of the day, I am not Ben Franklin. My motivation is shot. I’m not using every moment to express my intellectual curiosity. I’m eating almonds and watching TV, scrolling Twitter and Facebook and sometimes Instagram. Correcting essays and fielding emails from students who didn’t plan far enough ahead to get the reading material due for the next class and who think they have reasonable excuses.

I don’t even have gout.
Off to teach, gout-free. For now.

Here’s more good news, though. My guilty pleasure, watching “Live with Kelly and Ryan” came through. Just this morning, I leaped up from reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (any students who may read this, yes, you will be assigned chapter one very, very soon), when I realized Kelly and Ryan were on. Kelly was wearing a lovely dress, a print—prints are in, people. I turned it on a little late, thanks to Annie Dillard, but just in time to hear Kelly offer some wisdom, which I now offer to you. If you’re feeling bad about not being Benjamin Franklin level great—and I do get down on myself about that, from time to time—remember that, as Kelly put it, “Greatness at any level isn’t probable, which is why we should be fine, just fine, with the way we are.”

Perhaps the most I can get done during sphincter-tightening times is the minimum requirements: the teaching, which is engrossing and demanding; the perseverating, which comes unbidden; and the relaxing and thinking about print dresses, which comes naturally.


  1. You did a world of good today: you introduced me to Kelly the Great Philosopher and taught me many things about BF. Keep on mulling!

    Another, lesser, BF, less goal-oriented, who discovered you through the Directrice's blog.

    1. Thanks for your kind comment! I missed it in the deluge of spambot comments I have to sift through!