I have a love-hate relationship with the phrase “self-improvement”.
While I skeptically scoff at the Dr. Phils and miracle weight loss products of daytime TV glory, my Amazon recommended books and library checkout titles tell a different story.
From How to Be Alive to The Happiness Project, Adulting, and yes, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I’m on a quest to consistently improve myself, and the world around me.
Given my varied interests in mindfulness, minimalism, and Pomodoro tomato timers, I thought my repertoire of self-improvement tools and schools of thought proved fairly diverse.
But it turns out that at least one big name is missing from my list of influences.
It isn’t Oprah or Tony Robbins or even the Dalai Lama.
Nope –– it is Ben. Freakin’. Franklin.
Turns out, amidst his other notable historical achievements (and dalliances), Ben committed to bettering himself, and in so doing, improving his community, through a “mutual improvement club” he launched with some pals.
While his idea came to life in the 1700s, it’s been revived, revamped, and restarted for those of us here in the 21st century –– enter, Ben Franklin Circles.
With a little initiative and the desire to become a better person, you can follow in the footsteps of the historical heavyweight who made going to bed early cool again.
To learn more about Ben Franklin Circles, I connected with Julie Mashack –– Senior Producer in 92Y’s Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact. There she oversees the Ben Franklin Circles, helping local hosts start and launch their Circles around the country.
Ben Franklin Circles are a project of 92Y, The Hoover Institution and Citizen University.
In a sentence, what is the mission of Ben Franklin Circles?
Ben Franklin Circles (BFCs) were designed to give people a fun and unique way to bring people together, build connection in an increasingly digital world, find purpose, and discover common goals and shared values.
BFC’s slogan is "Transform your life. Transform your world." What does that mean and why is that the focus?
We chose that slogan because the Circles have the dual goals of self-improvement and community improvement. Benjamin Franklin was –– in many ways –– a pioneer of self-improvement. He was very interested in the idea of how he could better himself.
He identified a list of 13 “virtues” he tried to live throughout his life –– qualities like justice, humility and order. He regularly gathered a group of friends for what he called a club for mutual improvement where they discussed their own goals for living good, productive lives and being better citizens.
We were very drawn to the idea of recreating Franklin’s club for the 21st Century and giving people the tools to hold their own mutual improvement clubs where they could look at their lives and world through the lens of these 13 virtues. The Circles are an opportunity to think about habits and relationships, challenges and goals, and to use the group as a network of support in achieving them.
Where did the 13 virtues originate from?
Franklin wrote about the virtues in his autobiography, saying, “I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He chose these 13 and set out to live them as intently as he could, practicing them every day and keeping track of how well he did on a chart he created.
Of course, he never reached moral perfection. Chastity or temperance might not be what comes to mind when you think of Franklin. But, today, the 13 virtues can be a springboard to thinking about the values in our own lives.
What are the virtues we aspire to? And even though Franklin made his list hundreds of years ago, we find they still resonate in surprising and profound ways.
How many Circles exist now? Who can start a circle? Where do they take place?
We have close to 80 Circles starting around the country. Anyone, anywhere can start a Circle –– we encourage it! Some Circles are run by libraries or schools and some are run by individuals who gather friends in their living room or around the dinner table.
We have a toolkit for people to get started. We have guides for running the meetings and we have fun stuff –– like blog posts and quizzes that present new ways of thinking about the virtues.
Beyond the resources on the website, what is your advice for those who are interested in starting and/or running a Circle?
Don’t be intimated! We like to joke that Ben Franklin Circles are like being part of a book club but you don’t have to read the book. Meetings are fun and relaxed.
You don’t have to be a Franklin scholar or a seasoned organizer. They are very easy to get started. All you need is the desire to get people together to talk. And you’d be surprised by the many unique paths a Ben Franklin Circle discussion can take.
What are the most memorable stories or takeaways from Circles that you have heard about? Have any civic initiatives come out of any modern BFCs, as they did in Ben Franklin's groups?
One of my favorite stories comes from a Ben Franklin Circle host in Asheville, North Carolina who shared that between their first and second meeting, one member of his group gathered a bunch of coats and other clothing to be donated to charity and said his action was inspired by the conversation his Circle had the meeting before.
It’s a small step but it shows how being a part of Circle can change how you think about yourself in relation to others, to your wider community and a lot of Franklin’s virtues were geared towards not only creating better lives for ourselves but better lives for the people around us.
Anything else you would like to add?
Join the Ben Franklin Circle initiative! If you like the idea, please reach out to us and we can help you get started. Visit benfranklincircles.org or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you liked this article, you might also like: 5 Books to Save the World
Let's change the world.
Who wrote this?
Gina Edwards, Impact Explorer founder and lover of all pun jokes, making a positive change in the world, Stephen Colbert, Jif Peanut Butter, and staying inside on rainy days. Order may vary.