The Ben Franklin Invention That Nobody Talks About…

Working as a Philly tour guide the past five years, you get a sense of the things kids learn in school.  Every time we get to Ben Franklin’s house and I ask people to name some of his ideas and inventions, the studious ones tend to name the same things: bifocals, volunteer fire departments, swim fins, or, my personal favorite, “electricity” (close enough).

I haven’t yet had someone name the accomplishment that I personally think was his biggest; the idea that I think created the foundation for basically every success he saw: the Junto.

When Franklin was 21 years old, a nobody printer who had run away from home, he and his working-class friends started a weekly meeting.  On Friday nights, they would get together over a drink in order to discuss, basically, how to make the world a better place.  The name Junto is a mistranslation of Spanish, but it’s supposed to mean “joined”.

They would ask themselves questions like:

“Have you met with any thing in the author you last read, remarkable, or suitable to be communicated to the Junto?”

“Have you or any of your acquaintance been lately sick or wounded?  If so, what remedies were used, and what were their effects?”

“Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?”

It’s such a simple idea, it almost seems stupid.  Yet out of this group of cabinet makers, mathematicians, astrologers, and bartenders came a series of firsts: first scholarly society, first university, first volunteer fire department, first public library.  Not bad, considering Franklin only had 2 years of public education.

The thing about Franklin that most people don’t realize is that he didn’t work alone.  Like, that key and kite experiment?  His son William was with him the whole time.  The Pennsylvania Hospital?  He co-founded it with local doctor Thomas Bond.  The idea to  support American Independence?  His wife Deborah wrote him a letter while he was in overseas, telling him that she had just fended off an angry pro-independence mob from their house, and maybe he should reconsider his silence towards the issue so their house didn’t get burned down.

Of all the characteristics Franklin had that helped make him successful, I think the biggest one that people overlook was his appreciation of pluralism.  He wasn’t some lone conquistador spewing bifocals and firetrucks.  The guy knew how to network.

I was so curious about this approach of Franklin’s, that a few years ago I helped launch a modern-day Junto.  A group of people from various backgrounds – businesspeople, actors, web developers, college students – began meeting weekly in coffee shops around the city, posing the same questions that Franklin’s group did.  We found ourselves tackling everything from financial planning to poetry, homelessness to neuroplasticity, app development to helping a group member transition from a tech company to comedy writer.

With zero social media presence, we met weekly for over two years, and remain connected today, even as we’ve been launched into new careers, locations, and leadership roles.   This has been proof to me that the idea behind the Junto is, in fact, the quintessential “oldie but a goodie”…Maybe even moreso in today’s world.

I mean, I don’t know about you, but with the nature of my current work, I often find myself without camaraderie for large portions of the day.  And hey, sometimes that can get comfortable.  I don’t get challenged.  All my ideas appear to be perfect.  On the flip side, I’ve noticed that without having others around, problems in my life tend to magnify.  And I can’t tell you how many times that groups like the Junto could answer my problems – whether through practical advice (“A time-tracking app called Manifest?!  What?”), or, on a deeper level, by simply fulfilling that human need to belong somewhere.

I’m beginning to think that there are some problems that really can only be solved through a community.  Especially a diverse one.  Juntos, therapists, friends, faith groups – I mean, sometimes they can solve our problems before we even know we have them.  I say this as someone who gets called out for isolating myself, and am taking active steps to stay in civilized society and out of the hobbit hole.

Sure, community is never perfect.  But hey, neither was the Junto.  I mean, for crying out loud, its name is a mistranslation.

In general, I’m realizing the importance of staying connected.  And I’m thankful to each of those people who have been a part of my journey.  A special shout-out to the Junto-ers who saw the vision behind the group and were willing to take the leap with me (Belle, Joelle, Julian, Meredith, James, Eric, Nick, Sean, Zack, Emily, Jamie, Kamal, Diana, Hua)!  Sure, connection might look different in today’s world than Franklin’s – blogs, forums, meetup.com, and considerably less tricorn hats – but I think the ability to learn to keep an ear to the ground will be key to unlocking the great inventions and organizations of the next 200 years.

Hope to see ya on the journey!

If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.

-African Proverb

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