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MFL Book Club: Benjamin Franklin – An American Life by Walter Isaacson

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MFL Book Club: Benjamin Franklin – An American Life by Walter Isaacson

If you want a glimpse into how one of the most interesting, industrious, and innovative people in modern history lived his life, then you want to read this book.

“Can you recommend a book for…?”

“What are you reading right now?”

“What are your favorite books?”

I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.

I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.

On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.

So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club for you.

The idea here is simple: Every week, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.

I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.

If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!

Lastly, if you want to be notified when new recommendations go live, hop on my email list and you’ll get each new installment delivered directly to your inbox.

Okay, let’s get to this week’s book: Benjamin Franklin – An American Life by Walter Isaacson.

benjamin franklin an american life book review

If you look into the reading habits of extremely successful people, you’ll notice that many of them spend a lot of time reading biographies and autobiographies.

For example, top Nike designer and entrepreneur D’Wayne Edwards attributes much of his unlikely professional success to a biography of Jackie Robinson that inspired him to endure great hardship.

Elon Musk has also spoken many times about his love of biographies of brilliant inventors and entrepreneurs, including Howard Hughes, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, and, fittingly, Benjamin Franklin.

There are several reasons why this type of literature is so popular among overachievers.

First, we humans love good stories, and if someone has a book dedicated to his or her life, chances are it’s because they have an unusual and compelling story to tell.

Second, biographies are the ultimate in self-improvement literature because they provide you with wide-ranging, raw, and unfiltered information that as opposed to pre-digested morsels. Unlike most self-help books, biographies aren’t making carefully crafted arguments intended to sell you on particular ideas, strategies, or ideologies—they’re showing you the real-world results of very different paradigms for thinking and living, which you can then assess and analyze to formulate your own highly individual lessons and takeaways.

In this way, a biography is a “choose your own adventure” of sorts, and can resonate in very different ways with each and every reader.

So, with that, let’s talk about this week’s book, which is widely considered to be the definitive biography of Benjamin Franklin, and a book that sits on the “must read” lists of many notable people.

I loved it for several reasons:

First, I’m a bit of an Isaacson fanboy. He’s not only an outstanding researcher, writer, and storyteller, but he has also worked his ass off for decades to hone his craft and establish himself as one of the premier biographers of our times.

Second, I think that Franklin was a man worth modeling in many ways. What spoke most to me was his intense curiosity, diligence, persistence, practicality, lightheartedness, congeniality, and relentless drive to improve both his life and the lives of others. The world could use more Franklins.

Third, I’ve always enjoyed American history and the Revolutionary period in particular, and as Franklin played a pivotal role in both the winning of the war and creation of America, I was already inclined to like the book.

The bottom line is if you’re already into biographies but haven’t read this one yet, I promise it won’t disappoint. Similarly, if you’ve never read a biography before and my pitch has sold you on giving it a go, this is a great place to start.

Would you rather listen to this article? Click the play button below!

If you want to hear more book reviews like this, check out my podcast on iTunes!

My 5 Key Takeaways from Benjamin Franklin – An American Life

1

“To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.”

My Note

Franklin sincerely believed in leading a virtuous life and serving the country he loved, and despite what you might hear from some of the more degenerate members of society, many highly accomplished people have a very similar philosophy in life.

I’ve met many wildly successful people in my life—millionaires, multi-millionaires, and even a couple billionaires—and one of the first things that struck me about almost all of them is how genuinely nice and caring they are, and how much they go out of their way to help others without anything expected in return. The enjoyment they get from being of service is pay enough.

2

“Let this be a caution to you not always to hold your head so high. Stoop, young man, stoop— as you go through this world— and you’ll miss many hard thumps.”

My Note

Many of the overachievers I’ve known (and read about) have also been exceedingly humble. So much so that it has made me uncomfortable more than once because I couldn’t help but feel arrogant in comparison, which is a pathology that I really don’t want to develop. I’m all for cultivating self-confidence, but there’s a big difference between growing as an individual and swelling.

3

“I would rather have it said,” he wrote his mother, “ ‘He lived usefully,’ than, ‘He died rich.’”

My Note

According to research conducted by Nobel-prize winning scientists at Princeton, the happiness derived from making money tends to level off at around $75,000 per year.

In other words, if you’re like most people, as your income rises toward that number, your spirits also rise, but once you reach it, the effects plateau. Thus, going from $35,000 to 75,000 per year can make you markedly more cheerful, while going from $75,000 to 150,000 per year is much less likely to positively impact your happiness.

Why $75,000, you’re wondering? Well, here’s how the researchers explained it:

“More money does not necessarily buy more happiness, but less money is associated with emotional pain. Perhaps 75,000 dollars is a threshold beyond which further increase in income no longer improve individuals’ ability to do what matters most to their emotional well-being, such as spending time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying leisure.”

The research team also found that the wealthy were generally more satisfied with their lives than the middle class, but this wasn’t a function of their wealth per se. Instead, it stemmed more from what they had to do to acquire it—the games they had to play and win at to make the money.

I’ve experienced this personally and seen it in many high net worth people that I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and interacting with. Most of them realized long ago that there’s very little happiness to be found in consumerism, and so many have turned to donating considerable amounts of their time and money to charitable causes that they believe in and finding ways to help who they like.

4

“Those who met with greater economic success in life were responsible to help those in genuine need; but those who from lack of virtue failed to pull their own weight could expect no help from society.”

My Note

I believe that everyone should have equal access to legal justice and educational opportunity, but I fundamentally disagree with the notion that able-bodied people should be able to contribute nothing to society yet receive its many benefits in the form of handouts, suffrage, goodwill, and so on. As Franklin said, people who don’t pull their own weight and offer something of tangible, exchangeable value to the group should expect nothing in return.

5

“As we enjoy great advantages from the invention of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.”

My Note

As you can tell, Franklin felt very strongly about the importance of serving others and viewing it as a privilege, not a burden, and this is something I remind myself of regularly. Our forebears made tremendous sacrifices just so I can sit here and write this and you can sit and read it, and we can pay it forward by doing the same, giving freely and generously of ourselves for the sake of future generations.

Have you read Benjamin Franklin – An American Life? What did you think? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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