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Ben "The Barbarian" Franklin and the Hard Road to Mastery

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

Despite his lack of education, money, and family support, Ben Franklin would not be denied. He possessed a quality we all possess: Vigor. One more thing. Benjamin Franklin was a Barbarian. Physically strong, mentally titanic, and stirring with the heart of a samurai, he listened to the Barbarian inside.

Benjamin Franklin in 1723" statue on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Photo by Caitlin Martin

“Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

Growing up in early eighteenth-century Boston as the son of a candlemaker, Benjamin Franklin was the youngest son of his dad’s seventeen children. Without much money, he received two years of formal education. By 10-years-old, Franklin began apprenticing at his father’s shop.

A life of tallow and wax, however, never suited the precocious boy and he wanted out. So his good-natured father began walking Ben through Boston’s wharfs, passing by “joiners, bricklayers, turners, [and] braziers,” hoping one of these trades would excite his young son. When nothing sparked Ben’s interest, the elder Franklin handed Ben off to another son, 21-year-old James Franklin who had recently established a printing shop (and a newspaper) in Boston.

And so began Ben’s nine years of indentured servitude – excuse me, “apprenticeship” – at his older brother’s print shop.

The heavy press, spewing ink, tight quarters, and smoky air made James’ shop feel more blacksmith than bookstore. On top of that, James was a serious asshole who beat young Benjamin repeatedly. Also, pressing was brutal work -- especially for a 12-year-old.

Through his long days of toil, a passersby would see Benjamin slathering ink, hammering type, and pulling press boards. Eventually, the teenage Franklin grew into his muscular six-foot frame. Wrapped in a leather apron with his hair pulled back and ink stains along his thick arms and beleaguered face, Franklin knew nothing in life would be easy or free.

There was, however, a sliver-lining to Franklin’s servitude: the written word.

In his autobiography, Franklin recalled, “from a child I was fond of reading” and “all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.” Because of his trade, Ben was close to books. Soon, he befriended other book worms at other print shops and they began exchanging books. With books in his hands, Ben poured through Defoe, Plutarch, Xenophon, and even John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding – no easy read for a teenager!

When he wasn’t pressing print, Ben Franklin was reading it. In doing so, he discovered what he was “drawn to” do in life. Ben decided to become a writer.

Naturally, Franklin thought his brother owning a print shop and newspaper might facilitate his ambitions. Yet, fragile expectations are often shattered by the hammer of reality. Swinging that cruel hammer was his brother (and master), James, who had no time for Benjamin the writer. James wanted Benjamin the servant and did all he could to derail his brother’s literary dreams.

Despite James hostility, however, Benjamin stuck to his dream and hoped (as he later wrote) “to be a tolerable English writer.” To do so, he’d need to (a) gain mastery in writing and (b) escape his tyrannical brother. Here's how he did it.

Every night after work, Franklin bypassed the noisy wharf pubs and retreated to the dark boarding house where he lived. Lighting a candle in his tiny room, Franklin practiced, practiced, practiced. How did he practice? Well, he plagiarized, of course! Well, sort of…

What he did was copy a paragraph he liked from a newspaper or book. Then he’d re-write that paragraph in his own style. By deconstructing another writer’s prose, Franklin climbed inside that writer’s head and began to understand the writer’s intentions and style for the paragraph -- and eventually, for the entire story. In doing so, Ben learned about structure, style, and diction.

Night after night, he lit the candle and got to work – deep work, focused work, intentional work, the type of work that exhausts you. After collapsing in bed each night, he’d waken the next morning, go to work, slather ink, press type, eat “bread and raisins,” return to his room, light the candle, ink the pen, and write like a beast.

Thus became Franklin’s hard road to mastery. He grinded, he gained ground, and one day, he found his voice.

Soon one essay turned into many. After penning those essays, he chose the best ones and asked his older brother, James, to publish them in his newspaper. Of course, James refused. To get around James’ refusal, Ben began publishing sarcastic pieces under various pseudonyms like “Silence Dogood.” The pseudonym worked! His brother published the pieces, and Franklin soon gained a following of readers who loved how Silence mocked the royal government, the clergy, and even Harvard College, which Franklin called a “dancing school” of “Dunces and Blockheads.”

One more thing about Franklin’s road to mastery is important to note. Unlike most of us, he did not succumb to envy or comparing himself to others. As he toiled in servitude, I’m sure he thought about the more privileged boys at Harvard who sailed skiffs on the Charles and attended debutante balls over long summer nights with the Boston elite. But he never let that get him down. The impoverished Ben remained focused and kept his eyes ahead. He accepted that his tough circumstances were temporary and out of his control. What was in his control, however, was his effort, his vigor, his road to mastery. So he stayed on that road every night, working like hell with his pen, books, candles, and paper.

When James finally discovered Benjamin had authored the popular Silence Dogood articles, he again blocked his brother’s progress -- holding him under the legal yoke of his indentured contract.

By 17, Ben had finally had enough. With a few coins in his pocket, he escaped servitude and boarded a ship for Philadelphia. Arriving in his new city, Franklin felt free to pursue his writing without interference.

At this point in our story, we can already see what we now recognize as the “American dream” and the “self-made man.” The meager beginnings, the antagonist holding you back, the hard work, and the escape to opportunity – it’s all there, and it all began with Ben Franklin.

Settling in Philly, Franklin found work at a local printer’s shop and continued to write. Night after night and page after page, Franklin sharpened his prose into a blade of opportunity. Then one day, he cut into his first piece of the American dream. When a letter he wrote landed in the hands of Pennsylvania’s Royal Governor, the governor could not believe such a young man (a teenager) could write like a seasoned pro.

Thanks to the governor, Pennsylvania’s elite also noticed Ben’s writing -- as well as his wit, drive, good nature, and industry. At this point, Franklin was on his way -- gaining patrons who would help support his future enterprises and introduce this candlemaker’s son to high society.

None of this would have happened had Ben never doggedly pursued mastery in his “drawn to” activity. Had he succumbed to envy, self-pity, or his brother’s obstructions, Ben Franklin would have never fulfilled his potential.

Perhaps the great historian Gordon Wood put it best in his biography of Franklin: “Writing competently was such a rare skill that anyone who could do it well immediately acquired importance.” Most of the Founders – Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and of course, Franklin – Wood insists, “gained their reputations by something they wrote.”

Through his years on the hard road to mastery in that tiny boarding room, Ben Franklin became a great writer. Years later he would note, “prose writing [was] of great use to me in the course of my life and was a principal means of my advancement.”

What he calls “advancement,” I call a career like no other American in history. Inventor, Scientist, Diplomat, and founder of our postal system and first public library. A few more things: he edited the Declaration of Independence and helped draft the U.S. Constitution! Oh, he also discovered electricity.

Despite his lack of education, money, and family support, Ben Franklin would not be denied. He possessed a quality we all possess. The dude had Vigor. One more thing. Benjamin Franklin was a Barbarian. Physically strong, mentally titanic, and stirring with the heart of a samurai, he listened to the Barbarian inside.

Just like you or me, there were certain activities he was drawn to do, things he loved to do since childhood. For Franklin it was reading and writing, for you it might be weight training, dancing, coaching, or painting. When we pursue things we’re drawn to do – our “primal inclinations” as Robert Greene calls them -- the Barbarian in You stirs awake in resonation. Deep down you feel, “this feels right” -- that’s the Barbarian in You whispering his approval. He’s telling you, no matter the obstacles or people in your way, to “keep going, to never stop, and to flourish as your truest self.”

When you hear this, be like Franklin and Go, and Go with Vigor.


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