America’s First Self-Made Man: Ben Franklin

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January 17 is the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin. While Franklin lived to the advanced age of 84, he has not survived three centuries. His wisdom, however, has. Today, he stands as a shining example of what it means to be an American business man or woman.

Franklin was a citizen of the world, well-traveled, well-read, multi-lingual and always striving to improve himself. He learned his trade, printing, by working for someone else but eventually went out on his own. His famous work ethic, “early to bed and early to rise” helped him succeed to the point of driving his competition out of business. Probably his greatest success was Poor Richard's Almanack, from which many of his most well-known quotes, witticisms and advice are taken. He was so successful as a printer, in fact, that he retired after only 20 years in business, bringing in a partner to run his printing business while he devoted himself to public service and the study of philosophy, which, in those days, included scientific experiments and inquiries.

“He was actually 42 when he retired, and he retired because he thought he had better things to do with his time than make money. Franklin is often cited as the prototype of the American capitalist. And it is true that he was very successful in business. His Pennsylvania Gazette was essentially The New York Times of his day. The Poor Richard's Almanac, which ran for 25 years, was a great commercial success,” Professor Brands told National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation. “His printing business made him a wealthy man. But by the age of 42, he had as much money as he needed. He found an able managing partner in whose hands he put the business, and he retired to study philosophy. And philosophy in those days, of course, encompassed science and the general study of the natural world. He thought that was a better use of his time at that point. And so he had had enough of business.”

Dr. Blaine McCormick, a professor of business at Baylor University, has distilled and updated Franklin's prolific writings into 12 rules of management including:

  • Finish better than your beginnings.
  • All education is self-education.
  • Seek first to manage yourself, then to manage others.
  • Influence is more important than victory.
  • Work hard and watch your costs.
  • Everybody wants to appear reasonable.
  • Create your own set of values to guide your actions.
  • Incentive is everything.
  • Create solutions for seemingly impossible problems.
  • Sometimes it's better to do 1,001 small things right than only one large thing right.
  • Deliberately cultivate your reputation and legacy.

These rules are explained in greater detail in McCormick's book Ben Franklin's 12 Rules of Management: The Founding Father of American Business Solves Your Toughest Business Problems.

In recent months, several new books about Franklin have been published, giving the impression that he the clear favorite of the Founding Fathers. There are several reasons for this. His long life, open mind and extensive writings have left a wealth of material for us to study, covering many topics still facing us today, often from different perspectives. For accountants, however, in the wake of scandals and increased scrutiny, his best advice may be: “Think of these things, whence you came, where you are going, and to whom you must account.”

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