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With less than 10 days left in 2019, most people have begun to focus on the horizon. It will be the start of a new quarter – and a secular new year and decade — in a few days. For those who study the daily portion of the Talmud, January 1, 2020 is also the Celebration of the Completion of the Talmud, the “Siyum Hashas”, which is the culmination of seven and a half years of daily learning. So this is a time of endings, and also a time of new beginnings for many. Such moments lead most people to do some self-assessment and a bit of soul-searching and introspection. They often make a written list of resolutions, create professional plans and set goals. This is a worthwhile exercise; something every person should do periodically.
This kind of internal inventory is invaluable for growth and improvement — both personally and professionally. But, this is something that cannot be achieved through imitation or by outsourcing it for someone to do for you. Just as no one can decide for you what you want to achieve in the next year, no one else can look at the true you – the public you, the private you and the secret you that no one else knows – and assess what changes are needed without judgment or recrimination. Only you can decide what aspects of yourself need improving.
This internal voyage of reflection and discovery should begin by asking and answering fundamental questions:
- Who am I?
- What kind of person do I want to be?
- Where do I want to go?
- What do I need to do to get there?
These are both the simplest and hardest questions to tackle. Cookie-cutter answers just won’t do. No article or career coach or spiritual advisor can provide the answers. However, sometimes it helps to have suggestions to jumpstart the thought process.
Self-Improvement According to Ben Franklin
Seeking to be a better person is nothing new. People have been embarking on strategies for self-assessment and improvement for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Benjamin Franklin did something similar, so you are in good company.
Ben Franklin developed a list of virtues based on his readings that were areas where he wanted to improve. He added a few words about each of the virtues in order to clarify the meaning he gave to each one. Here are many of the virtues on his list:
1. Temperance – Do not eat to dullness nor drink to elevation
Franklin, who was a portly fellow, was talking about consuming food and drink in moderation. He said he put it first on his list because “it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head which is so necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up.” In today’s world, it would makes sense to include anything one might consume that would be harmful. Gluten or dairy. Too much processed food. Too much sugar, salt or fat. Medications that aren’t prescribed. Tobacco. Etc.
2. Silence - Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
Franklin was an excellent communicator. So why put this on his list of virtues to pursue? First, he wanted to gain knowledge, which he noted is acquired by using the ears instead of the tongue. Second, he wanted to “break a habit.” He indicated that “I was getting into of prattling, punning, and joking, which only made me acceptable to trifling company.” So Franklin recognized this as an area where he needed improvement. In the age of Internet, instant communication and social media, this is a virtue few might want to include, and yet there is certainly wisdom in avoiding trivial talk.
3. Order - Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
Franklin wanted to be able to have more time for the pursuit of his studies and other projects. He said that “precept of Order requires that every part of my business should have its allotted time“. Today, we would call this Balance. There is wisdom in seeking all things in moderation and pursuing nothing to excess.
4. Resolution - Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
Franklin believed that “Resolution, once habitual, would keep me firm in my endeavors to obtain all the subsequent virtues”. This can be summed up in one simple statement. Do what you say you’re going to do.
5. Frugality – Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
In a world where some have so much and others so little, there is a value in being more prudent with money.
6. Industry - Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
Franklin saw virtues 5 and 6 as related. He said “Frugality and Industry, freeing me from my remaining debt, and producing affluence and independence, would make more easy the practice of Sincerity and Justice, etc.” Franklin said he owed the acquisition of his fortune to thrift and always being productive with his time. He guarded his time that he could use to be productive and money jealousy.
7. Sincerity - Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
This boiled down to the simple concept of being genuine and honest in communication, not gossiping, bad mouthing or speaking rumors about anyone.
8. Justice - Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
Franklin was referring to being more fair and doing what is right in every situation.
9. Moderation - Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Here Franklin was talking about wanting to be a person who didn’t hold grudges and letting go of transgressions. He was trying to let bygones be bygones and not keep a tally of past wrongs by others.
10. Cleanliness - Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloths, or habitation.
Back in Franklin’s time, when there was no running water, this was an admonition that had great merit. Today, we might replace cleanliness with a broader category of fitness and hygiene, ensuring to take care of body as well as mind and soul.
11. Tranquility – Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
In this virtue, Franklin was telling himself not to sweat the small stuff. Even back then, it was easy to get caught up in silly, petty matters, which consume both time and peace-of-mind.
12. Humility - Imitate Socrates
Ben Franklin said, “A Quaker friend kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud, that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation, that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing and rather insolent. He convinced me by mentioning several instances. I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list.”
What Kind of Person Do I Want to Be?
Having seen what Franklin deemed the kind of person he wanted to be, now consider who you want to be. Keep in mind that you don’t have to be sick to get better. It is a virtue just to want to improve continually. As Aldous Huxley once said, “There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” Ask yourself, what kind of person do I want to be? This applies not only at home but also at work. Here are some qualities that might be worth pursuing.
I want to be the kind of person who…
- has an attitude of gratitude for all that I am and have already.
- invests my appreciation, time, energy, and effort in tasks that create value for others
- sees the best in others.
- becomes a bit better, kinder, and stronger every day.
- makes people feel better about themselves after having a conversation with me.
- says yes more than no in order to fulfill my potential.
- makes bold decisions.
- discerns when it makes sense to say no.
- knows how to set boundaries and say no without feeling guilty.
- faces fears regularly so fear doesn’t keep me from doing what I want or need.
- has a huge goal in life that is bigger than me.
- is respected and has something worthwhile to contribute.
- does not take myself too seriously.
- takes the time to see the beauty in the natural world.
- invests in my own spiritual, intellectual, physical, emotional, and/or financial growth.
- finds my own answers and approaches.
- treats every person with dignity and respect.
- values people for their own individual traits and talents, not just what they can give me or do for me.
These are just mere suggestions. Here is an exercise you can implement to help you craft your own list. To create a character model of the person you want to be, think about the type of professional people with whom you are associating that you admire and respect. They could be friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, or your spouse, for example. Write down those names.
Once you have that list, for each person, write down at least two positive characteristics you admire most. For example, he is the kind of person who is committed to his goals. Or she is the kind of person who is excellent at following through on commitments. Or he is good at managing money. Or she is calm and sensible in a crisis. Look at the full list of personality traits. Are there any common behaviors or qualities? Do some themes emerge, such as generosity, dependability, fairness, or honesty?
Use this to write out a description of the type of person you want to be. How does this person treat others? How does this person behave? How does this person handle the daily stresses of life? The character description that emerges can become part of your goal for the person you want to be.
How to Become That Better You
Once you have analyzed who you want to be, think about what steps to take in order to effectuate that change. Here is where it can get tricky. Wanting to be better is easy, but change is hard. Franklin knew this. Rather than try to tackle improving himself in all 13 virtues at once, Benjamin Franklin chose to focus on emulating one virtue at a time until he had mastered it. Here is what he said about his process:
“I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I ruled each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I crossed these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.
I determined to give a week’s strict attention to each of the virtues successively. Thus, in the first week, my great guard was to avoid every the least offense against Temperance, leaving the other virtues to their ordinary chance, only marking every evening the faults of the day. Thus, if in the first week I could keep my first line, marked T, clear of spots, I supposed the habit of that virtue so much strengthened, and its opposite weakened, that I might venture extending my attention to include the next, and for the following week keep both lines clear of spots. Proceeding thus to the last, I could go thro’ a course complete in thirteen weeks, and four courses in a year.
Breaking the process down into bite-sized steps is a great approach. Once you have a list of who you want to become, post that list in places where you will see them often. On the bathroom mirror. On the refrigerator. On the white board in your office. Read this at the beginning of each day. While you’re at work or with family and friends, look for opportunities to be one aspect of that list. At the end of each day, write down when you displayed these traits. This will reinforce your shift in behavior. Do this with each trait. At the year progresses, you will see how the you that you want to be becomes the new you.
Quote of the Week
“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
© 2019, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.