What does “self-improvement” mean to you?
Perhaps it means losing weight, reducing cholesterol, and eating more nutritious foods. Perhaps it means a new hair style or color, even a tummy tuck or chin lift to improve physical appearance.
But if we liken self-improvement to home improvement, not only the outside but also the inside often needs work. A roof job can only go so far to help a house when the interior needs redecorating.
Well, then, we can go to classes for self-improvement! We can take up tennis, buy books on bonsai, study chess, or learn calligraphy. We can keep ourselves so busy running from lesson to lesson that we have no time to sit, think, and improve ourselves without taking any lessons at all—by giving lessons to ourselves.
Ah, but to improve ourselves all by ourselves sounds so old-fashioned.
As old-fashioned as, say, Benjamin Franklin. He was the one who, in his annual Poor Richard’s Almanac, gave us such old saws as “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
One does have to admit, however, that Franklin made out fairly well on account of self-improvement.
The youngest son of 15 children, Franklin received only a few years of formal education before he was apprenticed his brother, a printer. He ran away to Philadelphia at age 17, taught himself how to write, founded his own printing company, and the rest is, well, history.
In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, he tells us how he strove to acquire good habits and live virtuously. He made a list of virtues and worked on them one at a time, believing that mastery of the first virtues was needed to achieve the latter ones.
It seems Franklin had the most trouble with the last two on his list, chastity and humility; still, the level of personal excellence he did attain has served to inspire generations of Americans.
Following is his list:
1.Temperance. Eat not to dullness. Drink no to elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order. Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself, i.e., waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary action.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes or habitation.
11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring—never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Donna Nielsen Murphy, "Striving to improve oneself," Irondequoit Press, June 9, 1994.