Lesson #3: Experiment and Innovate

“I am in the prime of senility,” Franklin once said. Known for his often seemingly eccentric musings and scientific experiments, Franklin was never one to shelve his ideas or shun his research in the face of public ridicule. He was one of the most forward thinkers of his time and made a name for himself by not only embracing change, but also by directing the change itself.

“To succeed, jump as quickly at opportunities as you do at conclusions,” said Franklin. He believed in seizing the moment and taking risks. Fear never entered into the equation for Franklin; if something hadn’t been done before, then that was even more reason to try it. If an experiment failed, as Franklin knew it so often would, he looked upon it as being just one step closer to finding the truth. “I didn’t fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong,” he said.

Key to being able to take the risk that comes hand in hand with innovation, according to Franklin, was a necessary combination of courage and optimism. “Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight,” he said. “Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.” If he had the patience to continue conducting his experiments even in the face of disappointment, Franklin knew that in the end, it would eventually pay off. And, even if it didn’t, it was a price Franklin was willing to pay. “The man who achieves makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all – doing nothing,” he said.

In 1752, Franklin conducted his famous kite experiment, attempting to extract electrical sparks from a cloud in order to prove that lightning is actually electricity. Franklin knew that in carrying out this experiment, he was embarking upon a life or death mission. He had written about the dangers of proving his own theory, but thought he had found an alternative, safer way of doing it. In the end, Franklin proved his theory correct and lived to tell about it. Franklin was eager to confirm his hypothesis and blaze the path. A Russian scientist attempting the same experiment months later would not be so fortunate.

Franklin’s kite experiment and his willingness to go to extreme measures for research should not, however, be taken to mean that Franklin did not have a firm grasp on the reality of what he was doing. Yes, he was passionate about his work, but he never let his enthusiasm get the better of him. “If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins,” he famously said. “To follow by faith alone is to follow blindly…when in doubt, don’t.” Franklin put in much preparation and thought to everything he did, making his gambles more calculated than risky.

In the business world, Franklin applied a similar philosophy of trying new, creative ideas. As Postmaster General, Franklin pioneered the mail order catalogue. And, when his competitors stuck to printing reliable material such as newspapers, and almanacs, Franklin took the riskier route of publishing what would go on to become profitable best-selling novels. This willingness to take risks and leap into new directions characterized everything that Franklin did, from his printing business to his inventions to his life in public office and was one of the key factors behind his success.

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