A lot can be—and has been—said of Benjamin Franklin.
He was a productivity icon, keeping a strict schedule that allowed him to get a remarkable amount of work done. He served as an elder statesman during the founding of the United States, even as he lived a rich and fulfilling life before signing his name on the Declaration of Independence. That story, described and analyzed in Ken Burns’s new, two-part documentary, Benjamin Franklin, demonstrates Franklin’s dedication to continuous learning, reinvention, and curiosity for curiosity’s sake.
The world has changed significantly since Franklin’s time—imagine trying to explain the metaverse to a Founding Father—but his life and legacy has lasted, inspiring generations of business leaders, philanthropists, and overachievers. Here are four just ways Franklin has influenced modern work culture.
1. The original “multi-hyphenate”
Much of Franklin’s professional life, prior to politics, involved printing. He indentured himself to his older brother at the age of 12 as a printing apprentice, a job which required hyper-literacy to perform. Looking to escape his brother’s “tyrannical” authority, he ran away from his indenture to Philadelphia. There, he continued working in printing, eventually opening his own print shop and publishing his own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. He also wrote prolifically, with works like the endlessly quotable Poor Richard’s Almanac, with such guidance as, “Early to Bed, early to Rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” and, “He that lies down with Dogs shall rise up with fleas”.
Franklin’s curiosity led him to explore many careers, including diplomat (for more on Franklin’s work on the Franco-American alliance of 1778 check out Stacy Schiff’s A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America). It is a trend that we see thriving today. Consider people like Janelle Monáe, who has pushed the boundaries in music and delivered powerful performances in movies like Moonlight, Hidden Figures and more. John and Hank Green have written best-selling novels, provided accessible education support on CrashCourse, and revolutionized the world’s relationship with online creators through VidCon. No innovator today is limited to one field–a course set by Franklin.
2. A philanthropist is born
Franklin stopped attending school at age 10, but already knew how to read and taught himself to write through his print work. He spent his free time reading and engaging with other intellectuals through different social clubs, including the Leather Apron Club, the predecessor to the American Philosophical Society.
Beyond his own pursuit of learning, he also made knowledge more accessible for others. He created the first subscription library open to the public—the Philadelphia Library Company—as a resource to be shared beyond the elite class. Franklin was also the president of the board of the Public Academy of Philadelphia, which would become the University of Pennsylvania.
Today, there is no shortage of college dropouts who’ve gone on to fund educational initiatives and more, most notably Bill Gates and Michael Dell, whose foundations have worked to close achievement gaps and ensure a quality learning environment for students, both in the U.S. and around the world. There are more college graduates these days, but they still channel Franklin’s philanthropic spirit for future generations of learners. Take businessman Robert Smith, who paid off the debt of the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College. But few of these executives—who attended top secondary schools and gained acceptance to the best universities—can match the trajectory of Franklin’s rags-to-riches story
3. An open mind
For most of his life, Franklin loved England. He saw the American colony as the future of the British empire, a future he sought to help build, and spent a lot of time in London. During instances of tension, such as the Stamp Act and increases in British troops, his focus was keeping the empire together, emphasizing mutual respect between the colonies and England.
After the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party that resulted, his position became more difficult to maintain. Officials in London began to consider Franklin a traitor for advocating against violence in the colonies. He returned to the colonies, as the documentary says, as an American. His new role as a revolutionary would destroy his relationship with his son, William, who was a loyalist and the then-governor of New Jersey. Franklin was one of the oldest founders of the United States, but his age was a testament to his determination to continue to learn and willingness to change his views over time.
Today, there’s plenty of criticism around public figures changing positions, but in politics and business there is merit to changing views with the times and admitting to past faults. Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming has said she was wrong to oppose gay marriage. Amazon has discovered that physical storefronts may not be the right path for its business.
4. Everything in between
Even while working, traveling, and engaging in politics, Franklin still made time for his own research and experiments. His best-known scientific works are probably his experiments with electricity, performed with a kite, a wire, and a metal key. He was fascinated by the circulatory system, and invented a more comfortable catheter. He studied how darker clothes took in more heat. He invented the harmonica and bifocals. He often refused to patent these inventions, believing it to be enough to serve others with them.
Despite his many accomplishments, the documentary also highlights Franklin’s faults. He owned enslaved people and worked on treaties that disenfranchised Native people. He was an abolitionist by the time of his death, but much of his life and successes are by virtue of his identities and position in society.
Still, Franklin’s life demonstrates his keen desire to learn and grow, and a belief in the work we can do together as a community of people. In his own words: “We shall not be examined by what we thought, but what we did.”
To learn more about Ben Franklin as innovator, register here for a webinar on March 8 at 7 p.m. ET featuring filmmaker Ken Burns and Franklin biographers Walter Isaacson and Stacy Schiff.