Poor Richard Keeps His Coat

“We may give advice, but we cannot give conduct.”

  Benjamin Franklin.

Ben FranklinAlmost everyone’s heard of Franklin’s colonial bestseller, Poor Richard’s Almanack. Beginning in 1732, he produced the work under the pseudonym, Richard Saunders or Poor Richard. The Almanac succeeded in being both entertaining and useful. Franklin was rewarded with annual sales of about ten thousand copies. For the twenty-fifth edition, he crafted a humorous preface that summarized his thoughts on gaining success in business as well as attaining personal prosperity.

In the preface, Poor Richard tells of his meeting with an old man, Father Abraham, at a country auction. While waiting for the auction to begin, the crowd asks Father Abraham for his opinions on taxes, which in turn, leads to a broader discussion of wealth. Father Abraham quotes liberally from none other than Poor Richard who is both intrigued and flattered by the old man. The preface became hugely popular and has been independently published ever since as The Way to Wealth.

The Way to Wealth

In, The Way to Wealth, Father Abraham offers three principles essential for success: industry, care, and frugality. Together—and with the wisdom to apply them—success is a near certainty! Industry is the cornerstone of wealth. It means exercising diligence in pursuit of a goal. It means making the best use of your time by concentrating your efforts. By first taking care of what’s important, comfort and leisure become well-earned byproducts. Exercising Care—the second step toward wealth—is a matter of paying attention to your own business. Never rely on others to do what’s in your best interest. Others may have competing interests or simply just not care enough about your well-being. He urges us to be involved with the details of our affairs and to never put off the small but important activities that will move us toward our goal. Frugality is certainly the least popular principle. That’s because pride—and its close relation, vanity— are so deeply ingrained in human nature. Sadly, we haven’t changed a bit since the 1700’s—we tend to spend our limited resources in the pursuit of things that will impress everyone else. Franklin wisely suggests we resist the initial impulse to extravagance.  He also wryly notes, “If you would be wealthy, think of saving as well as of getting.”

What Are You Going to Do About It?

As the story ends, Poor Richard observes that when the old gentleman ends his harangue, “The people heard it and approved the doctrine; and immediately practised the contrary.” And that seems to be Franklin’s ultimate point. While good advice can be offered, and avid listeners can approve it, words must be translated into action if they are to be of any real value. Principles, ethics, and beliefs are all just words until we start living them.

Unlike his country cousins, Poor Richard decides to take his own advice—as related by Father Abraham—and wear his old coat a little longer rather than buy a new one as he had planned. This is a good approach for the rest of us as well. Maybe with a little industry, care, and frugality, we’ll find our own way to wealth.              —Ebert

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