Ben Franklin's '13 Virtues' path to personal perfection

Story highlights

  • Ben Franklin considered various virtues that, if mastered, would lead him to perfection
  • After 10 years of following Franklin's example, I am more industrious, patient, mindful and healthy

This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one's life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don't miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.

(CNN)Of the many inventions (bifocals, odometer), accomplishments (US postal system, Constitution) and experiments (that kite in a lightning storm) credited to Benjamin Franklin, none of his contributions to humanity, in my opinion, outshines his brilliantly simple method for self-improvement.

"A bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection" is how America's least controversial and most industrious statesman described his method of personal betterment in his autobiography. I'll call his big life hack "13 Virtues," and for about 10 years, I performed Franklin's experiment on myself.
He devised it so anyone could become their best possible self. And although I have fallen short of that lofty goal many times, the enjoyable years I have spent working on 13 Virtues has led to demonstrative progress toward a more virtuous life.

    How it works

    Franklin started by taking a critical look at his behavior, and he found that too often he traveled down unvirtuous roads that "natural inclination, custom or company might lead me into," as he put it.
    He fell short of his ideal in more than a dozen areas of his life, he concluded. He ate and drank too much. He talked too much, especially about himself. He spent more money than he should. He didn't finish all his goals. And so on. In other words, he wrestled with the very same human urges, flaws and proclivities that now fuel our New Year's resolutions and the ever-booming market of self-help books.
    Then he considered various virtues that, if mastered, would counteract his unwanted behavior. His list of 13: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility.
    Thirteen wasn't a nod to the original colonies, nor was it random. He chose 13 because that number fits neatly into a calendar. Multiply it by four, and you get 52, the number of weeks in a year.
    Franklin would take a single virtue at a time, work on it for a week and then move on to the next. Trying to fix everything that's wrong with you all at once is overwhelming, he decided. The virtuous path needs to be broken down to give each area some concentrated time of intention and effort. Every 13 weeks, the cycle repeats itself.
    He accounted for his progress on a chart and shared his scheme with others. Modern social science has since proved that tracking and accountability are two key components of successful habit formation. He was also hundreds of years ahead of the curve for the fun and addictive trend of gamification.
    I came across 13 Virtues in college. It was mentioned in a couple of paragraphs in the middle of a magazine article about Franklin, but reading it was like that key tied to the end of Franklin's kite in the storm: It charged a sudden desire to try the method myself.

    Adopting and adapting

    In his autobiography, Franklin recommends that all his readers take the 13 Virtues challenge if they seek moral perfection. He defines each virtue, explains how they build upon one another and outlines how to chart one's progress.
    As excited as I was to try it out, I hacked the experiment slightly in a way that I hope Franklin would have approved.
    First, I didn't adopt his list of virtues wholesale, although it was a good starting place. I took my own long, honest look in the mirror and chose virtues that better countered my personal shortcomings. I even asked my friends about my faults, because we're easily blind to them. Franklin explained how Humility was added to his list after a friend told him he needed to work on it. "To be aware of a single shortcoming within oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in someone else," His Holiness the Dalai Lama has since pointed out.
    Secondly, I didn't simply track how well I thought I exemplified a given virtue, as Franklin did. Instead, I gave myself specific tasks to complete each week. For me, these were more measurable and helped me take a step closer to that virtue. I volunteered for a charity, stopped procrastinating over a project, meditated, wrote poetry, wrote letters to friends, read interesting books, tried new ways to save money and started new workout routines.
    And I tracked my progress in a notebook. I first wrote down the definitions for my own 13 virtues, kept a list of ideas for weekly goals for each virtue and then made entries stating my goal and my self-assessment at the end. I kept this up over five marble notebooks for a decade.
    I also reassessed my list every year or two, swapping out virtues over time. My final list, 10 years in, was Morality, Industry, Friendliness, Erudition, Frugality, Flexibility, Civic Duty, Introspection, Patience, Spirituality, Creativity, Mindfulness and Healthfulness. Two were lifted from Franklin's list.
    The weekly tasks were often fun. One week, for Friendliness, I'd call a friend every day. Another week, I'd attempt going vegan for Morality. Erudition sent me looking up every word I came across and didn't know. Sometimes, I just learned something -- or something about myself -- and other times, 13 Virtues became a reason to do something enjoyable or interesting, especially in categories such as Creativity or Erudition. Other weeks weren't as enjoyable, but they all felt like self-improvement. Because 13 weeks is a predictable schedule, I could plan ahead and incorporate vacations and holidays.
    Self-improvement experiments can be gratifying even while they're self-improving. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has famously given himself interesting annual goals such as meeting a new person every day, learning Mandarin, writing thank-you notes and reading a book every fortnight.
    The road to perfection can take many routes and is worth the journey, even if you never arrive at the destination.
    Although I've taken a break from 13 Virtues, there are some experiments and projects I still do today that were forged in its fire. I started writing letters to myself in the future during a week of Introspection and kept it up ever since. I've drawn the spines of every book I've read for more than 20 years, which started as a single sketch during a week of Creativity.
    Other long-lasting effects are less tangible but no less real. After all that time thinking about these virtues and trying to embody then, the net effect is that I am, for example, more industrious, patient, mindful and healthy than before I started.

    Virtues and vices

    The experiment also sparked a new interest in the subject of virtues. What they are, and how did human progress reach the notion of personal ideals? Philosophically, I found it interesting to consider how fine a line there could be between a virtue and a vice. For example, frugality is a virtue, yet being stingy is a vice. Self-confidence is a virtue but egotism a vice. There are some virtues, it seems, where too much of a good thing falls back into the category of shortcoming, such as being "too nice" or "too busy."
    My 13 Virtue notebooks contain lists of them as defined elsewhere, including the Puritan Cardinal Virtues, Socratic virtues, Gandhian ones, Islamic, Buddhist, journalistic, Girl Scouts and bushido (the seven virtues of the samurai warrior), to name a few.
    The notion that there are guideposts pointing us in the direction of our better selves is as old as religion, and yet it doesn't need religion to perpetuate them. 13 Virtues is secular dogma anyone can easily adopt.

    Mission accomplished

    After 10 years, I stopped tracking 13 Virtues. I'm perfect now -- except for Humility, I suppose.
    No, the real reason is that I decided to move on to other self-improvement experiments, and I did this one long enough to prove to myself its effectiveness. I can always pick it back up again, as I did before writing this column to see whether it held up. I concluded that it's as solid now as when I first took the plunge back in college.
    Franklin didn't reach the peak of the virtue mountain, either.
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    "On the whole, tho' I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell short of it," he wrote. "Yet as I was, by the Endeavor, a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it."
    I couldn't agree more. I am a better and happier person for my years of enjoyable labor in the virtue labor camp. And like Franklin, I can't recommend the experiment enough, no matter how long you endeavor at it.