Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

Franklin had a love for maxims, which he both collected and confected for his Poor Richard’s

Almanack. Today, none of them is better remembered than “Early to bed and early to rise

makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Mark Twain later singled out this adage, with

rueful humor, as an example of Franklin’s “animosity toward boys.” They might have well

wished for another object of emulation, he said, than a man who “acquired his great genius

by working for nothing, studying by moonlight, and getting up in the night instead of waiting

Twain was having fun, but he was far from the only person who regarded Franklin’s

elevation of “Industry” to one of his 13 virtues as tantamount to encouraging one to work

himself to death. No doubt, Ben Franklin was an extremely hard worker, and he scorned the

tendency toward distraction, whether it be the printer’s apprentice who stopped assembling

type to watch the carriages in the street or, today, the executive who checks his Twitter feed

every five minutes. And yet, the reason for this had nothing to do with some blind devotion

to work for work’s sake. Instead, it may be found in the middle of the precept Franklin

attached to this virtue: “be always employ’d in something useful.”

For Franklin, the ultimate marker of a life well lived was the degree to which we proved

ourselves useful. Such a commitment not only included professional activities, but those

extra-curricular pursuits that improved the world around us and connected us to it. The

feeling that underlay all such pursuits, the one that breathed life for him into what it meant

to be industrious, was a sense of passion for the work at hand. Whether it was establishing

his stationer’s shop, conducting scientific investigations, or organizing philanthropic

initiatives, Franklin always had a love for the work that he was doing, and guided by such

love, his efforts were vigorous and focused as well as conducive to an abiding sense of

personal satisfaction and individual happiness.

To live a life consistent with Franklin’s vision of Industry is not to forsake entertainment,

skimp on sleep, or overlook the obligations of friendship. It is to construct a life where

passion for the ways in which you spend your days sees you spring out of bed in the

morning. To be sure, Franklin believed that leading your life this way would make you

healthy, wealthy, and wise, but the health he had in mind was that of body as well as soul,

the wealth that of meaning as much as money, and the wisdom that of one who always goes

to bed knowing that today was well spent and tomorrow will be, too.

John Paul Rollert teaches classes in politics, leadership, and business ethics at Harvard and the University of Chicago. He has also written on related matters for a wide variety of publications, including Harper’s, The New York Times, and The Atlantic.