The Making of a Genius?
In 1726, at the young age of 20, Benjamin Franklin came up with a list of thirteen virtues that he wanted to live his life by. He then carried around a small booklet so that he could track his daily and weekly progress against these virtues.
An example of this tracking system as well as a description of these virtues was included in ‘The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin’:
T = Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
S = Silence: Speak not but what benefits others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
O = Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have it’s time.
R = Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
F = Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
I = Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
S = Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly.
J = Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
M = Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
C = Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes or habitation.
T = Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
C = Chastity: Never use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation
H = Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
That’s a pretty intense list to try and follow, and Franklin never seemed to achieve them all on any day if you look at his chart above. Maybe he still improved more from striving towards living by these virtues than if he hadn’t, even if he didn’t achieve them? It’s hard to know.
What we do know is that Benjamin Franklin managed to do a lot in his lifetime, and he excelled at nearly everything that he put his mind to. Most people still know who Franklin is nearly 300 years later and his face remains on the US $100 bill, so he must have done a few things right.
12 Rules for Life?
By now, a lot of you have probably heard of Jordan B Peterson and his immensely popular self-help book ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’.
Here are his 12 rules, which make up the chapters of the book:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back
- Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
- Make friends with people who want the best for you
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
- Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
- Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
- Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
- Be precise in your speech
- Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
I notice some overlap between Peterson’s rules and Franklin’s virtues. # 8 and 10 from Peterson is very similar to Sincerity and Silence from Franklin. # 2 and 7 from Peterson is similar to Industry and Resolution from Franklin. # 6 is similar to Order and Tranquility from Franklin. Franklin’s list is more personal and focused on self-discipline and resisting excess, whereas Peterson’s list mentions children and animals.
Looking at the two lists, I’d take Franklin’s virtues over Peterson’s rules any day if I had to choose between the two as my guiding principles for life.
People seem to love Peterson at the moment not because his rules are what we should all live by, but because he is well read, intelligent, articulate and confident. He is very sure of himself and not afraid to say things exactly how he sees it, which makes him a strong thought leader in a time of confusion and minimal external input into what a positive and meaningful life actually consists of.
But what if rather than trying to adopt Franklin’s or Peterson’s rules to our own lives, we could actually learn how to come up with our own principles and virtues for better living?
How Do We Develop Our Own Guiding Principles in Life?
It is possible to develop your own guide to a better life in only three steps…
STEP ONE: Who am I?
In order to know what we want, we first need to figure out who we are (or more accurately, what we see ourselves to be).
STEP TWO: What do I care about?
Once we know who we are, we must then figure out what is important or meaningful to us (and what isn’t).
STEP THREE: How do I show that I care about these things?
We then need to figure out what actions we need to take and what systems or habits we can develop that will help us to live consistently by these values.
Our identity, or who we see ourselves to be, often consists of many factual things. It may include our name, our family, our nationality, our ethnicity or racial background, our culture, our class, our friends, our relationship status, our sexuality, our gender, our religious beliefs, where we live, where we work, what we do for work, what our interests and hobbies are, and what we like to do for fun or to relax. Most people can answer these questions fairly easily.
Different factors can shape the overall identity of one person much more than they do for others. A cisgender straight white male may not consider that his gender, race, sexuality or culture play a big role in his identity, but these factors could be huge for someone who is non-gender conforming or sexually fluid or from a minority cultural or religious group in the country that they live in and have suffered stigma or discrimination as a result.
1a. Take a personality test to help answer the question “Who am I?”
No matter what is important to you, it is important for everyone to construct a cohesive narrative or story about who they are. If you are getting stuck in describing what your personality is, there are a number of tests out there that can help you. Peterson and I both agree that the five-factor personality model is probably the best personality test for the average person who is trying to understand themselves better. It can be completed for free at this website.
An individual’s scores on Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness to Experience are fairly consistent across their lives, so knowing where you sit on the spectrum of each one of these facets is a helpful way to get to know yourself better. It can also help you to work with who you are rather than against yourself when designing your own principles for better living.
Looking at my last IPIP-NEO results, here are my percentile scores on each of the five factors, ranked from highest to lowest:
- Openness to Experience: 95th percentile
- Agreeableness: 90th percentile
- Extroversion: 74th percentile
- Conscientiousness: 74th percentile
- Neuroticism: 13th percentile
Here are all facets that I am in the top 11% in comparison to other males of my age from Australia:
Cooperation…… 99th percentile
Liberalism………… 97th percentile
Adventurousness…… 95th percentile
Emotionality……… 90th percentile
Altruism………… 90th percentile
Trust……………… 90th percentile
Activity Level………… 90th percentile
Intellect…………… 89th percentile
WHO AM I?
DESCRIPTIVE INFORMATION: I’m Damon Ashworth. I’m the middle child in my family, with an older brother and a younger sister. My parents are still happily married and we all get along fairly well. I am a dual citizen of Australia and the United States of America, but have spent the majority of my life in Melbourne, Australia. I am of Caucasian descent. My parents were both teachers, so that makes me from the middle class I guess. My friends are predominantly from Melbourne, but I’ve made some friends when I lived in the US for two years and some good friends since moving to Vanuatu too. I am currently volunteering in Vanuatu for two years as a Clinical Psychologist with the Ministry of Health and at the Vila Central Hospital. I identify as straight male and I am currently in a happy monogamous relationship with my girlfriend. I have been baptized as a Christian, but do not attend any religious services. I love reading non-fiction books, listening to podcasts, playing basketball, volleyball and tennis, being creative through my writing and making music and movies. I love hip hop and some mainstream music, horror and comedy movies, and stand up comedy. I also love to be active, get outside and visit new places on holidays, and travel and snow ski when I can afford it.
PERSONALITY PROFILE: I am extremely high in openness to a variety of experience, including cultural, intellectual, emotional, and physical. I am very high in agreeableness and tend to do whatever it takes to have positive relationships with other people. I will always try to co-operate with others if I can. I like to challenge convention and try to help bring about progressive change. I prefer a lot of variety in my life and like to go on adventures. I am highly attuned to my emotions and the emotions of others around me, and try to remain open to whatever it is that I am feeling. I enjoy helping others when they need it. I trust others easily, and strongly believe that most people are generally good and not out to harm others. I have lived a pretty fast paced life, and care about being both efficient and effective. I love to have in-depth discussions with others, and enjoy playing with ideas and reflecting on important aspects of life through meditative practices and my writing.
Finding out what you care about is through the process of clarifying your values. Values are guiding principles in life that we cannot achieve like a goal, but make a choice to live by each day. Someone who values honesty is not living in a way that is consistent with what matters to them the moment they tell a lie, but is being consistent as soon as they go back to telling the truth. By clarifying which values are most important to us, we can then know when we have gone off track, and what we need to do to get back on.
2a. Engage in thought experiments to elucidate what is most important to you
An interesting experiential method to help patient’s identify their top values if they aren’t sure what they are is to write their obituary. For this, they would write what they hope would be said about them if they were to die after a long and good life. Every time I think of writing my epitaph, all I come up with is “Here lies Damon. He tried his best.” This tells me that one of my core values is applying myself to be the best that I can be.
If writing your obituary seems too dark or morbid, try to imagine your birthday party at least 20 years from now (I choose my 70th birthday). All of your closest friends and family are there. The most important person in your life gets up and makes a speech about the type of person that you have been from today until then (over the past 20+ years). What do you want to hear them say? It can be a powerful exercise that often brings tears to people’s eyes, and helps them to realize the type of person that they most want to be going forward, both to themselves and to others.
2b. Take a strengths survey to identify your key strengths or top virtues
If neither of the above exercises interest you or help to highlight your core values, the Values In Action (VIA) Character Strengths Survey can. It ranks your strengths from 24th to 1st, and is quite useful in elucidating what you may want your guiding principles in life to be. It can be found at this website.
My Top Strengths
Based on my 2018 findings, my top nine strengths are as follows:
- 9: Honesty, Authenticity and Genuineness
- 8: Forgiveness and Mercy
- 7: Fairness, Equity and Justice
- 6: Creativity, Ingenuity and Originality
- 5: Judgment, Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness
- 4: Humour and Playfulness
- 3: Kindness and Generosity
- 2: Curiosity and Interest in the World
- 1: Love of Learning
My Top Virtues
Based on my 2018 findings, my top virtues are as follows:
- Wisdom – Average score = 6.2
- Humanity – Average score = 8.33
- Justice – Average score = 13.33
- Transcendence – Average score = 13.4
WHAT DO I CARE ABOUT?
I care about being an honest person. I care about living my life in an authentic and genuine way and being a “real” person with everyone that I interact with. I care about forgiveness and being compassionate to those who have wronged me. I care about trying to be fair to others, and not let my decisions or actions be biased by my feelings. I try to give everyone at least one chance, and sometimes more unless it is obvious that the other person does not want things to be equal or fair too. I care about challenging convention and thinking of new and more efficient or effective ways to do things. I care about not jumping to conclusions and looking at the evidence and things from multiple perspectives before deciding what the best thing is to do. I care about being able to say that I am sorry and that I was wrong or being open to changing my mind if evidence to the contrary is presented. I care about not always being serious, and being playful and having fun and laughing or smiling with others. I care about being generous and kind with others, and giving them my time and help and undivided attention if it is possible to do so. I care about learning new things and continuing to develop my knowledge and skills in a variety of subjects and topics. I care about maintaining my curiosity and awe, growing as a person and gaining wisdom, and using what I have learned to help out humanity where possible. This may be individually, or on a larger scale.
Finally, we need to assess how much we have been living consistently with our core values or key strengths. In other words, how much are you currently being the person you want to be, and what changes can you make to move more in the right direction going forward?
3a. Do the Bullseye Exercise to assess where you are currently at
The Bullseye exercise, first created by Swedish ACT Therapist Tobias Lundgren, is the best way to determine if you are living consistently with your values in four key areas of your life: 1. school or work, 2. leisure or recreation, 3. personal growth or health, and 4. relationships (including with friends and family).
Keep your core values or key strengths in mind and say whether you have been fully consistent with these values in this area of your life (a bullseye) or if you have lost touch with your values (all the way at the outer circle), or anywhere in between. A full worksheet can be downloaded here, or you can imagine placing an X somewhere in each quadrant in the picture below:
3b. Set up some sustainable systems and/or goals that would make it so you are living more consistent with your core values and strengths in each key area of your life.
Once you have identified where you stand on each quadrant of the bullseye, ask yourself what you can do over the next 1-2 weeks (short-term), next 1-3 months (medium-term) or next 6-18 months (long-term) that would help you to feel like you are living more consistently with your core values or key strengths. This could be designing a new system of working, eating, sleeping, or it could be goals and targets.
If you do set goals, make sure that are SMART:
HOW DO I SHOW THAT I CARE?
Work is going really well for me, although it would help to set weekly goals for myself, and assess my progress against these goals to determine my efficiency and productivity. I will do this each Monday morning at 8am. For leisure, we have been visiting beaches more frequently recently, and I want to get to the beach at least once each weekend if possible with other people so that we can enjoy our time together. I want to see new beaches at least once a month if possible too so that I explore different parts of Vanuatu. For relationships, I want to schedule in time in my calendar each month that is just dedicated to keeping in touch with all my family and friends back in Australia. Lastly, for personal growth and health, I have not been as active as I would like to be, and my lower back has been sore as a result. I want to get back into swimming at least once a week, and stretch every time I go to the gym or play basketball too.
As you take action towards achieving your goals or putting your systems into place, you are showing yourself and others that you know who you are and what is important to you. You will begin to feel that you are heading in the right direction towards a more personally meaningful and satisfying life. You will have created your own guide to better living!
Dr Damon Ashworth