May 14, 2012

Benjamin Franklin Learned How To Teach Himself to Master Subjects Starting with Writing...

I just finished reading a book called "Talents are Overrated" that describes the way great people became great.  In it, I learned that developing abilities usually starts with talent, but then hard work and determination hone those abilities into spectacular traits.  Several examples of famous successful people are cited to show this progression.  I learned about how Benjamin Franklin became a great writer and I thought it would be a great story for you today.
Ben was born into a huge blended family, one of 17 children!  His dad had planned to make him a minister, so he sent him to school.  Ben did well but the family ran out of money for his schooling after just two years.  Ben's dad had him work in the family soap and candle business.  At age 12, he sent Ben to live with Ben's older brother to learn the printing trade.  Ben apprenticed with his brother with the goal of eventually becoming a printer himself. 
Learning to read made a big impact on Ben.  He once read a book about swimming and using the book as a guide, he taught himself how to swim.  He even built paddles that he strapped to his hands that helped him swim faster.  He learned how to educate himself using books.
While working in the print shop, Ben decided that he wanted to be more than a printer, he wanted to be a writer.  Perhaps he could teach people how to do things.  One day, his dad read something he had written and evaluated it.  Ben had used good spelling and punctuation, but his writing was 'inferior in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity.'   (Perspicuity means clarity of meaning.  Funny how he used a word that I had to look up to express clarity for the reader…)
Using this feedback, Ben set up a plan to teach himself how to be an excellent writer.  He found the best writings he could, choosing a book called The Spectator by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.  Then he read the book one article at a time, making notes about the sentence structure of each sentence.  After doing this for several days, he'd go back to the first notes he'd made, rewrite the sentences in his own words and compare them with what was in the book.  He'd see his faults and improve them until they were the same as the books.  He did this over and over again, trying to learn how to compose sentences like these polished writers did.
He realized that he was really lacking in vocabulary.  So he thought of poetry, which usually is composed of vivid vocabulary.  He decided to take the same sentences he was studying in the book and write them as poetry using descriptive words freely.  Then he'd come back to them after progressing with other exercises and write these poems into prose, like it would have appeared in the book.  He'd then compare what he had written with the original book to see how close he got to the original.  That helped him write with better vocabulary. 
Then he attacked his other weak spot—organization.  He took apart good sentences in an essay in the book, writing the content onto slips of paper.  Then he'd mix up the notes and set them aside while he worked on another exercise.  When he came back to them, after he forgot the original essay, he'd rewrite the sentences and try to put them in order.  He'd then compare what he'd written with the original essay.  Doing this reinforced what he was learning about sentence structure, vivid vocabulary and now, ordering sentences in an essay. 
Ben did this instead of playing with friends, attending church (and his family was devout) and doing the many other things a young man would want to do with his free time.  This was after working hard all day at his brothers' print shop.  He awoke early and went to bed late to fill his spare time with this effort.    
What he couldn't get from the books was consistent feedback.  So Ben came up with another strategy to fill this need:  he started writing letters to the editor secretly using the pen name "Silence Dogood."  He'd slide them under the door of his brother's office.  Ben's brother loved them, printing each one in his newspaper, some on the front page, all the while wondering who Silence Dogood really was.  Ben satisfied that curiosity by creating a persona behind the letters, saying in them that he was a female older widow left with many children.  'Silence' wrote letters every two weeks and discussed a variety of topics, offering opinions and observations of local life.  It was an ingenious way of getting his work published so he could get the feedback on his writing that he needed.  Ben's brother vocally assessed the writings in front of Ben as he read them.  And he heard the buzz in the print shop from the readers about what 'Silence' had recently written.    
Using this system, Ben effectively taught himself to be a great writer by the age of 16 with hours and hours of diligent work.  Many consider Benjamin Franklin 'America's first great man of letters.'  He earned that title!  He went on to succeed in many other fields besides being an author like invention, science, democracy, and politics.  He likely used the same system to become familiar with and master these endeavors.
We can learn how to be excellent in any field by employing these same techniques.  We can do the hard practice needed to master any skill or trade.  We can do the hard things we need to do to conquer our obstacles and reach our goals.

For more, see:
Colvin, Geoff.  Talent is Overrated—What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.  Penguin Group, 2008, pgs. 105-109.

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