There are many types of knowledge you need to stay on top of to be successful in business and life, from tech innovations to trends in your industry. But there are also some truths that you can take to the bank. These bits of wisdom were as likely to make you successful 300 hundred years ago as they are today.
Learning them is great because you only need to do it once. Plus, they’re usually so fundamental they apply across a range of situations. That means the leverage from this type of learning is huge. If you’re looking for a good source for it, head straight to founding father Benjamin Franklin.
I’ve already found occasion to share Franklin’s centuries’ old wisdom a handful of times before, which suggests the guy was excellent at uncovering enduring truths. And I’m not the only person who sees Franklin’s writings as a mother lode of timeless wisdom.
On Big Think recently philosopher Jonny Thomson points out that Franklin’s essay “On Conversation is full of practical, surprisingly modern tips about how to be a nice person.” He urges readers to check out the short essay in full, but for those pressed for time he also extracts the five big mistakes Franklin claims make people unlikable. They’re just as relevant in 2021 as they were back in 1730:
Talking too much. People love entertaining company. They do not love people who become a “chaos of noise and nonsense,” Franklin insists, describing self-involved chatter birds who “interrupt one another at every turn, and watch with the utmost impatience for a cough or a pause, when they may crowd a word in edgeways: neither hears nor cares what the other says; but both talk on at any rate.”
Asking too many questions. While taking an interest in others is great, interrogating them isn’t. How do you make sure you’re on the right side of this line? Franklin claims that problems begin when your questions are designed to “discover secrets…and expose the mistakes of others.”
Storytelling. Being able to weave a compelling yarn sounds like a good thing, and it is, but Franklin warns his readers against developing canned stories and trotting them out again and again, or going into excess details that interest the teller far more than the listener.
Debating. Franklin’s description of those who love to argue is hilariously contemporary. “Say whate’er you will, they’ll be sure to contradict you: and if you go about to give reasons for your opinion, however just they be, or however modestly proposed, you throw them into rage and passion. Though, perhaps, they are wholly unacquainted with the affair, and you have made yourself master of it, it is no matter, the more ignorant they are you still find them the more positive,” he wrote, describing someone you could have encountered on Facebook last week.
Misjudging. Franklin likens humor to salt — a little gives conversation flavor, too much makes it unpalatable. So only make jokes you know will land, he advised hundreds of years before cancel culture was a thing, and never mock “natural infirmities, unavoidable misfortunes, defects, or deformities of any kind.”
There is plenty of great advice on how to be more charming and a better conversationalist out there, but none I’ve come across beats Franklin’s dead simple advice from nearly three hundred years ago, including his final summation of what it takes to become super likeable: “Be ever ready to hear what others say… and do not censure others, nor expose their failings, but kindly excuse or hide them.”
How much more pleasant would modern life be if we all followed this simple prescription for kinder, more enjoyable conversations?