Among his many famed publications was the serialized Poor Richard's Almanack, where he dispensed advice like:
- "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."
- "Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults."
- "There cannot be good living where there is not good drinking."
Amusingly, Franklin also joins the list of highly successful people who dropped out of school.
While Franklin was a strong believer in the Puritan work ethic, it didn't prevent him from leaving traditional school young. Franklin preferred apprenticeship; as a teenager, he apprenticed at his brother's printing shop, and also worked for his father, who was a blacksmith. Yet by 17 years old, he had departed those jobs, too, to live by himself in Philadelphia.
While he didn't resonate with formal schooling (or perhaps because of this), his creativity led to a number of contributions, including his prolific inventions. Among other things, he provided the world with illuminating new contraptions such as bifocals, swim fins (flippers), and, of course, the lightning rod.
But he is perhaps best known for his role as a politician and statesman in the early days of the United States of America. And it was in large part through that work that he came up with what he called the "noblest question in the world."
In Benjamin Franklin's words:
"The noblest question in the world is, 'What good may I do in it?'"
Not, "How can I get to a point where I'm the keynote speaker at CES?"
Not, "What's the fastest way for me to make $1B?"
Not, "How do I figure out which cryptocurrency to invest in, so I can buy a mega-yacht?"
No, according to one of the Founding Fathers of the U.S., the noblest question in the world has to do with giving back.
Interestingly, while we often associate giving back as something separate from work, a study by Wharton researcher Adam Grant shows that people are actually far more motivated by the positive impact they can have than money.
The study in question focused on call center workers who were raising money for students. The call center workers ended up bringing in 171 percent more revenue after one of the impacted students came in and shared how a scholarship had changed his life.
Another example: When assembling surgical kits, nurses who met health care practitioners who would actually be using the kits worked 64 percent more minutes. They also made 15 percent fewer errors than a control group.
In other words, when they were told about the good they were doing in the world, it significantly impacted their future work.
We often think of contribution in terms of what we can give in terms of our finances. But it's also a genuine contribution to let others know how they positively affect us. That student made a contribution to those call center workers, who went on to contribute even more in their jobs. The nurses who grasped their impact did more work, more accurately.
You matter. Your words matter. You don't need to have a lot of money to make a big contribution.
You contribute when you let your co-worker know that their support made your life easier yesterday.
You contribute when you tell your manager you felt protected when they went to bat for you.
You contribute when you text your friend about how much laughing with them over the weekend helped you get through the week.
The brilliance of Benjamin Franklin's quote is that it reframes the question from life being solely about you, to about how you can serve.
You can focus tremendous time, effort, energy, money, and resources into figuring out you can make it. How you can get enough, get ahead, get famous. But you can make the most significant contributions when you take the attention off yourself and put it on those around you.
And that is a noble thing indeed.