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You can do a lot in one life
An idea from a marketer, an inventor, a diplomat, and a scientist
Today, I wanted to share the short life stories of four Americans.
They shared a few things in common. First, they all lived in the American colonies in the 18th century. Secondly, they had mastered their field by the time they died.
I’ll reveal the third thing they shared at the end (no cheating, okay?).
I was inspired by the unique achievements each made in their lifetime. I think we all have the potential to do the same.
Let’s get to it.
In the 17th and 18th century, publishing a successful almanac was a good way to get rich. Almanacs were filled with wide-ranging information, which made nearly everyone a potential buyer. In the American colonies, more almanacs were published than all other books combined.
But how could a new almanac author break into such a crowded space?
The answer, it turned out, was better marketing.
One aspiring author concocted a devious stunt to get a competitor to unwittingly promote him. In the opening remarks of his first almanac, he predicted the precise date and time that the highly-popular almanac writer, Mr. Titan Leeds, would die.
Leeds fell for the bait. In Leeds’ almanac the following year he ripped into the unknown author, calling him a “false predictor, an ignorant, a conceited scribbler, a fool, and a liar.”
Fully committed to the stunt, the new author published his second almanac citing Leeds’ fiery words as proof the real Leeds had, as predicted, died. A man as fine as Leeds would never talk so much shit.
“Mr. Leeds was too well bred to use any man so indecently and so scurrilously…
That pamphlet may only be a contrivance of somebody or other, who hopes perhaps to sell two or three years’ almanacks still, by the sole force and virtue of Mr. Leeds’s name.”
The stunt worked. By defending himself so loudly, Leeds had only brought attention to the obscure author. In just a few years, the new author became one of the best-selling in the colonies. He amassed enough wealth to retire in his early 40’s.
In 18th century America, most colonists heated their homes with wood-burning fireplaces. But wood was expensive and in some towns it had to be fetched from as far as 100 miles away.
A civic-minded inventor set his sights on helping. He invented a new fireplace that leveraged the latest theories of combustion. It could heat homes by burning drastically less wood.
The Boston Evening Post praised the new fireplace, writing that “the author of this happy invention merits a statue from his countrymen.” The governor of Pennsylvania offered the inventor an exclusive patent on the fireplace. The inventor refused, later explaining:
“That as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.”
As the Revolutionary War entered its second year, a desperate America sought the support of France.
Rather than marching up to King Louis and asking for help, the American diplomat assigned to France knew that power was a dance. He spent months bouncing around the various salons in Paris, befriending intellectuals and royalists, gradually working his way into various spheres of influence.
He crafted a self-image that played up positive stereotypes about Americans. The policy expert Harvey Sicherman explained:
“He didn’t wear a wig, didn’t powder his hair, and he discovered that this was an extremely popular image, fitting the French notion that the Americans were some kind of a new race, purged of all the dross and the excesses of the Old World.
…This proved exceedingly popular with everyone.”
And finally, he made it clear the American revolution was against the English, not all kings.
“He went so far as to refer both in France and then later even in the United States to Louis XVI as the father of American independence.”
In 1778, he succeeded. The colonies secured their first formal alliance with France and the balance of power forever tipped in America’s favor.
In 1749, an unknown scientist in the colonies discovered a way to store electricity. He dubbed his invention the “Electrical Battery.” He also built a primitive electric motor, which he referred to as the “self-moving wheel.”
At the time, nobody had yet invented a working theory of electricity. Afraid he was repeating experiments that were happening in Europe, he regularly wrote letters to the Royal Society in England with his findings.
Within a few years, it became clear that he was at the cutting edge. The Royal Society awarded this previously-unknown American its Gold Medal for scientific achievement.
Almost overnight, his name became known within the European intellectual and scientific communities. The king of France declared the scientist deserved the “esteem of our nation.”
Tying it all together
If you’re a student of history, you probably caught my lie.
These weren’t four different Americans; they were all one.
To me, Franklin’s life is evidence that we can accomplish far more than we think in 80 years. For some of us, that starts by rejecting the idea that we must stay in our lane.
Instead, why not redefine our lane over time?
Sources: The First American by H.W. Brands, Benjamin Franklin: American Diplomacy Traditions by Harvey Sicherman, and Benjamin Franklin: A Ken Burns Film.
See you next week,
P.s. I recorded a live conversation about writing and the Internet with David Nebinski in front of a small, live audience in New York. David’s a fantastic interviewer and I enjoyed every second of our chat. You can listen here.