Benjamin Franklin and deliberate practice

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 10, 2010
Filed in Anecdotes, Communication

Thomas Jefferson was a great believer in luck, and he found that the harder he worked the luckier he got. His friend and fellow signatory of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin, shared this belief in hard work and self development. From a remarkably young age Franklin understood the importance of practice. Not the kind you get knocking a tennis ball around with friends. But that drilled, repetitive practice of hitting the same shot over and over again. Benjamin, however, didn’t have his eye on Wimbledon (actually it’s kind of a temporal impossibility), rather his ambition was to be a man of letters.

When most young teenagers were skiving off with friends, Ben was enjoying debates with his dear and similarly bookish friend John Collins. Around the age of 14 one of their debates spilled over into a flurry of letters they sent back and forth to each other on the topic of whether women should be educated. Ben’s father found the letters and read them. He didn’t comment on the content but critiqued Ben’s style. He felt his son was a first class logician. His arguments were well reasoned and his spelling was top notch. But he lacked elegance in expression and could improve his method and clarity. Ben accepted his father’s assessment and set about improving himself.

As it happened Ben stumbled across a volume of The Spectator, a daily publication produced from 1711-12. Ben loved it and thought the writing was excellent. It was the perfect model to learn with to improve his writing.

He started by taking one of the essays and jotting down a note for each sentence indicating the sentiment it contained. He then put his notes aside for a few days and then by using his notes recreated the essay in his own words. Then he compared his version to the original and made corrections. Essay by essay he could see his approach improving his skills and in some small ways he felt his expression might even be better than the original. These glimmers of erudition gave him hope.

Despite the progress Ben felt he needed more. He wanted to expand his vocabulary. What better way then than to rewrite an essay’s prose in verse. Again he would start with notes expressing the sentiment of each sentence but this time he wrote his version in verse. It forced him to add variety and creativity. After a few days he’d forget the original prose and so would then take his verse and use it to rewrite the essay. Again he made a comparison, made corrections and learned by doing.

The Anecdote blog is all about how leaders can return humanity to the workplace and the vital role stories play. I get a little tired of leaders who hear about the value of storytelling and then tell me they don’t have the time to learn how to do it. The fact is it takes practice to be good at anything. Some estimate 10,000 hours of practice. But it is not just any type of practice. You need to engage in deliberate practice just like Ben Franklin did to be world the renowned writer and communicator he became.

Terrence Gargiulo and I and going to share some of our ideas about storytelling deliberate practice in a webinar next week. Please feel free to come along and join our conversation.

We’re doing this webinar twice, one timed for Asia Pacific and the other for the Americas. Just click on the link of the webinar you want to attend and fill in your details.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM Aust. EST

Tuesday, August 17, 2010 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM USA PDT

The story about Ben Franklin comes from his autobiography. You can read the whole thing on Google Books.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Margaret Rutaquio says:

    Hi. I just read this blog today, August 19th, and therefore missed the webinar. Would you still have another one in the future by any chance? Thank you.

  2. We recorded the webinar and you can find is here: Terrence and I run occasional webinars so I’m guessing we will run another one this year on another topic. Nothing planned yet. If you want to make sure you hear about them I recommend you sign up for our newsletter:

  3. Vernon says:

    It’s an interesting approach to improving writing. I think so often I often take the skill development part of writing for granted – you think “If I just do this or that I’ll write great stuff”.

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