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Simple Rules from a Founding Father?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, May 29, 2015

When Benjamin Franklin was in his 20s, he began what he called “the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He created a catalogue of 13 virtues. He made a chart to record his daily performance on each one by itself for one week. The plan was to cycle through the list four times each year and persevere for as long as it took to make all the virtues habitual.

In his Autobiography, Franklin explains he devised the plan after first finding behavior change much harder than he’d expected. “In guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another;” he wrote. “habit took the advantage of inattention.” He decided good intentions weren’t enough to prevent “slipping” and that bad habits needed to be broken and good ones established before one could depend on “uniform rectitude of conduct.”

The virtues he pursued were temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. That last was added because a Quaker friend suggested Franklin needed to counter his tendency to be argumentative, overbearing and too proud of his own assertions.  Franklin describes maintaining simplicity in his definitions and the steps for achievement.  For example, to achieve temperance, he would  “Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”  Confining the goal to food and drink, he didn’t have to moderate all other appetites and passions while working on temperance. For the virtue of moderation, his meaning was “Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”  He made an ink dot on the chart for each slip, and his goal was unmarked pages.

He describes his trouble with order. Putting things neatly in place and a keeping a strictly scheduled day  didn’t come naturally to him. But the hardest job was humility. His simple strategy was enormously complex: “Imitate Jesus and Socrates. “

“I cannot boast much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it,” he wrote after years of experimenting. He noted wryly that if he had actually suppressed his pride, he would have become proud of his humility. A black mark generator!  But the project was more than a check list. He learned to eliminate aggressive contradictions and dogmatic language and to pleasantly concede some value in opinions he opposed. He reported conversations and relationships improved. He credited his new skills with enhancing his influence with fellow citizens and others in the councils he joined and the diplomacy he negotiated.  When proposing new institutions or alterations to old ones, he wrote, “I generally carried my points.”

Does Franklin’s project exemplify simple rules?

In addition to extraordinary leadership as a Founding Father who helped draft the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Franklin was a diplomat, scientist and social innovator. He was also a pioneer or continual self improvement and behavior plans.  Franklin made a conscious choice to change old patterns in his behavior, create new ones and align his actions with his objectives.  He had profound impact on those around him.

Much of the scholarship on simple rules deals with how people function in organizations and businesses. A thoughtful Harvard Business Review article “Simple Rules for a Complex World” by Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt discusses research on some of the simple rules that have helped decision making and problem solving in business environments where fast pace, competition and change are the norm. The authors even suggests rules for developing simple rules:

Identify bottlenecks that pose barriers to organizational goals

Let data trump opinion.

Let users make the rules.

Rules should be concrete and easily understood  

Rules should evolve as circumstances change.


Two books that explore this topic and the science behind it are Simple Rules: A Radical Inquiry into Self, by Malary Tytel and Royce Holladay, and Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by Donald Sull and Katheen M. Eisenhardt.

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