I recently read Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Aside from providing interesting insights into the life of one of the Founding Fathers, this book was an unexpectedly interesting set of thoughts on what makes someone successful. Franklin, more than most famous people, feels remarkably very human-scaled. He was not born with unique, unapproachable gifts, though he was a talented writer. He was born to a moderately prosperous middle-class family, and was never brought up with the intention or ambition of rising to great office or weighty responsibilities. Rather, throughout his life his highest principles were simply to improve himself, be useful in society, and be somewhat well-liked and locally influential. It’s clear that even if he hadn’t happened to live during interesting times, he was destined to succeed at those goals, and it’s worth figuring out why.
One of Franklin’s gifts, and arguably the key to his success, was his rare combination of gregariousness and unquenchable intellectual curiosity. On one hand, he was a consummate networker. He made friends easily with people from every walk of life, and was particularly adept at creating sizable groups of like-minded friends. On the other hand, he combined this with what we would now regard as a nerdy interest in meticulous self-improvement and scientific curiosity. At one point in his life, he decided to cultivate a set of 13 virtues in himself. The way he went about this was to pick one virtue to work on every day, and record on an ivory board how many times he failed to exercise that virtue on that day. He was basically doing self-tracking over 200 years before the Quantified Self movement got off the ground.
This combination of charisma and eagerness to play with new ideas contributed to a lot of his successes. By the time he started his own printing shop in Philadelphia, he’d already gathered together a large network of talented young tradesmen. But instead of making this a mere social club, a place to blow off steam, Franklin was able to organize these people around his intellectual endeavors. This group helped him found the first lending library in America, as well as the first firefighting cooperative. It was also a base that helped him create a university (UPenn) as well as the Pennsylvania militia.
By dint of these skills and his diligence, he was able to retire at age 40, a testament both to his own abilities and the amount of upward mobility possible in colonial America. He spent some time following scientific pursuits, including his famous electricity experiments. But after a while he felt drawn towards politics, which he’d often flirted with in his pamphleteering but which he’d never made a full time profession.
What struck me most reading about this aspect of his life is the extent to which Franklin’s entry into politics could be seen as a terrible personal mistake. History textbooks mention Franklin almost exclusively as a statesman playing a starring role in the drafting of the Declaration, while throwing in a few anecdotes around Poor Richard and flying kites unsafely. But his presence at the Continental Congress was at the twilight of his political career, which had by then consumed almost half his life – and his role at that point in his life was more like a mascot than as a power broker. During his first 25 years in politics, his energies were instead spent representing middle-class tradesmen in a futile fight against the ruling Penn family, first in the Pennsylvania legislature and then in London. This zero-sum battle consumed much of his efforts and emotional energies, and is now but a footnote in history. Although he did continue to network and experiment as before, it’s hard not to think of what he could have accomplished if he turned his energies in a direction other than direct politics. And on a personal level, his political years were those in which he strayed farthest from his normal equanimity and let his ties to his family fray.
As for his role in the history books, his prominence in the events of the Revolution were largely preordained by his being a prominent citizen, as well as by his being in London at the beginnings of the crisis and thus being the rebels’ natural representative. Being sent as an emissary to France was a natural posting for cosmopolitan with his gregarious nature. He performed each of these roles well, particularly in performing some tricky diplomacy in negotiating a favorable peace treaty in Paris, but this work was a logical extension of his previous achievements and talents, not an independent high point.
Some takeaways from all this:
- Being the most talented user of a new technology can bring huge rewards even if you don’t try to become Google. By the time he was setting up his own printing shop, Franklin was, Isaacson says, “undoubtedly the best writer in America.” In an age where printing was still a relatively new technology, his ability to both write well and own the infrastructure for mass distribution pushed him to great success both as a publisher and a writer. His talents as a writer were later to prove instrumental in his political endeavors as well. Whether this observation should lead you to learn blogging, programming, or gene sequencing is left as an exercise for the reader.
- Cool ideas and social effectiveness is a winning formula. Franklin’s ideas led to his social circles becoming much more than social clubs; his leadership skills enabled him to put his ideas into action. Having a balance of both is ideal; alternatively associating with someone who complements your thought/social action balance also seems useful.
- Politics really is the mind-killer. Even for someone of Franklin’s stature, going into politics was arguably a mistake; it certainly would have been a mistake if not for the events of the Revolution. Both in terms of creating global good, and in terms of enhancing his prominence, he would have been just as well served, and much happier to boot, had he continued to follow his scientific or popular-press pursuits instead of investing his time in politics. But both his principled beliefs and his personal friends and enemies encouraged him to engage further in politics, and so even a man of his even temper and ironic detachment became obsessed with politics, to his detriment.
One of the projects I’ve taken on this year has been to read biographies of impressive people-so far I’ve covered Benjamin Franklin, Richard Feynman, and Otto von Bismarck. I’ll share some impressions in future posts before we delve into that it’s a reasonable question to ask, what good is reading biographies?
It is certainly true that famous people became famous for many factors. Some of them are innate, like being born with great mathematical genius or into a reasonably prosperous family. Others are entirely out of the person’s control – like being alive at the right place and time to make a historic contribution. If that’s all there is to it, then reading biographies nothing more than an enjoyable hobby – a combination of very local history and a little hero worship or wish fulfillment.
But what I hope to get out of the project is a few things. One is to get a better sense of what a successful life trajectory looks like. We often have the impression that successful people became successful through a path that is as obvious as hindsight. But in fact, successful people’s lives are as unpredictable to them as anyone else’s, with many reversals of fortune as well as triumphs. Reading a detailed account of someone’s life – instead of a streamlined version that one might find on Wikipedia – might help better understand just how much randomness is in everyone’s lives.
In addition, I hope to get a better understanding of the kinds of habits, and especially the kinds of mental habits or internal narratives, that these successful people held. The psych literature has shown that many measures of personality traits, such as the OCEAN pentad, are fairly stable over a lifetime and indeed significantly genetically influenced. But habits of thought are a powerful way to determine how these predilections are translated into real-life actions. We may not be able to change the hand of cards were dealt, but we can play that hand more effectively.
In the next few posts, I’ll go through these biographies one by one, pointing out some interesting facts and potential take away points.
A 1970s Italian parody of American pop songs, featuring pretty convincingly English-sounding gibberish.
And then, the reverse, from Who’s Line.
As of today, I have officially graduated without ever having pulled an all-nighter – for me, a minimal night’s rest is the way to go if productivity is the goal. But I’ve seen enough of the beginning and ends of them to appreciate how they could be fun, in a mildly manic/deranged way.
Ancient cosmology, like Aristotelian physics, has become a modern archetype for ‘wrong’ science, primarily because in our present-day arrogance we have applied Occam’s razor retrospectively and concluded that those old astronomers were idiots. (Funnily, Occam himself never applied his razor to astronomy, so there we are: we’re better at being Occam than Occam was.) But this is tremendously unfair, because actually the ancients weren’t wrong, at least not in the sense we usually mean.
You can’t exactly blame [them], can you? To the naked-eye observer, it really does look as if the Earth stands still and everything else circles around it. We, who are so big on Occam’s razor, can hardly criticise the ancients for assuming this simplest of theories was the correct one. They saw what appeared to be the skies circling round the Earth. There was no good reason, at the time, to question this simple and elegant explanation of observed conditions.
Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, the two American biologists who unravelled the first DNA sequence of a living organism (a bacterium) in 1995, have made a bacterium that has an artificial genome—creating a living creature with no ancestor (see article). Pedants may quibble that only the DNA of the new beast was actually manufactured in a laboratory; the researchers had to use the shell of an existing bug to get that DNA to do its stuff. Nevertheless, a Rubicon has been crossed. It is now possible to conceive of a world in which new bacteria (and eventually, new animals and plants) are designed on a computer and then grown to order.
More here. Yes it’s only bacteria, and yes it was merely a reconstituted, already existing genome – the argument over whether this act constitutes creating life will be one for the philosophers. But what is important is the development of a platform for creating organisms with custom-made genomes. Instead of laboriously inserting genes one by one via plasmid recombination, we can now create a bacterium with any combination of genes we choose – provided of course that they can survive. Genomics research will get a big boost, potentially followed by a lower barrier to entry for DIY genomics hobbyists. This is a Big Deal.
In a world where arbitrary norms are derided, the rules can be written and rewritten as often as is convenient to keep the walls as erected as possible between acceptable people doing acceptable things and unacceptable people doing unacceptable things. Dressing correctly shifts away from standards that can be adhered to and [is] defined entirely by who is and is not engaging in them. By the time people far down the social pole get word, you can change it all over again. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as communication has increased, fashion not-quite-norms shift faster and faster to the point that it’s impossible to keep up.
More here. This echoes a core intuition of mine: that many forms of ostensible egalitarianism in practice merely lead to an equally steep hierarchy that is just less transparent. Thus my position on the eating club task force was that hobbling the clubs would be a bad thing. Exclusive cliques would remain, but rather than having a neon sign pointing to where the status-seekers should queue up, we’d have less democratic institutions like The Tribe, which would make things even more difficult for those not already well connected.