In the book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford, he talks about Ben Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues. Below is an excerpt from the book about the third virtue:
Ben Franklin’s Third Virtue: Order
Whiling away the long voyage from London to Philadelphia in 1726, a young printer named Benjamin Franklin conceived the notion of a notebook in which he would record systematically his efforts at self-improvement. Franklin aspired to thirteen virtues, including frugality, industry, sincerity, and cleanliness. His plan was to spend a week focusing on a particular virtue, in the hope of making it a habit, before moving to the next virtue, and the next, cycling through the virtues in an unending quest to become a better man. Each day he would reflect on his activities and every failure to live up to his own standards would be commemorated with black mark in his notebook. The custom stuck with him his entire life. Fifty-none years later, while writing his memoirs, Franklin lingered on the merits of his virtue journal longer than on any other topic, reconfirming his commitment to the habit.
Franklin’s aims were ambitious, but his virtue journal was a success: the black spots in the notebook, initially numerous, became scarcer over time. Perhaps this is no surprise, since Franklin had a habit of doing whatever he set out to do. He lived one of the most celebrated lives in history. He charted the Gulf Stream; he invented bifocals, the lightning conductor, and the flexible urinary catheter; he was the first U.S. postmaster general, served as America’s ambassador to France, and was president of Pennsylvania. And, of course, Benjamin Franklin’s signature is on the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Yet the great man had one weakness-or so he thought.
Ben Franklin’s third virtue was: Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time. Franklin never mastered this seemingly simple task. “My scheme of ORDER gave me the most trouble,” he wrote in frustration in his memoirs, adding, “my faults in it vexed me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment, and had such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt.”
He was not exaggerating. One scholar wrote, “Strangers who came to see him were amazed to behold papers of the greatest importance scattered in the most careless way over the table and floor.” Franklin’s diary and his home remained chaotic, resisting sixty years of focused effort from one of the most determined men who ever lived. No matter how many disorderly decades passed, Franklin remained convinced that orderliness was an unalloyed virtue: that if only he could fix this deficiency in his character, and become less messy, he would become a more admirable, successful, and productive person.
Franklin was surely deluding himself. It is hard to believe such a rich life could possibly have been made still richer by closer attention to filing papers and tidying up. His error is no surprise. We are tidy-minded people, instinctively admiring order and in denial about the way mess tends to be the inevitable by-product of good things, and is sometimes a good thing in its own right.
What seems more surprising is not Franklin’s error, but his failure to keep his ill-advised resolution. This is a man who did almost everything he set out to do; why is it that he failed on this one occasion? Perhaps he realized, on some unconscious level, that disorderliness was no bar to success. Many of us have yet to make the same realization, in areas that define much of our daily lives: organizing our documents, tasks, and time; looking for love; socializing; raising our kids. Benjamin Franklin’s mistake is a mistake from which we can all learn, every day of our lives.