Over the course of his life, Benjamin Franklin’s (1706-1790) contributions to the world were nothing short of astonishing. Franklin taught himself the fundamentals of writing, science, engineering, and diplomacy. He sought practical applications of what he learned each step of the way—emulating his favorite authors and developing his own writing style, running a successful printing business, advancing our understanding of electricity, and positioning himself as an accomplished diplomat with a vital role in the American Revolution.
Franklin’s list of accomplishments is impressive. But equally impressive was his ability to thrive in a range of environments, from printing halls and makeshift laboratories to foreign cities and diplomatic congregations.
Each step of the way, Franklin maintained a deliberate focus on his environment, orchestrating the conditions that were within his control. His environment was fundamental to all of his accomplishments and allowed him to give more back to the world around him.
An Apprentice in the Printing Shop
Franklin’s ability to adapt and maneuver across environments was evident from an early age. Almost as soon as Franklin’s formal education began, it was over. At eight years old his father sent him to Boston Latin School to prepare for a path towards Harvard. Franklin excelled, jumping a grade in his first year, but due to either financial constraints or his father’s recognition that Franklin’s personality was not particularly suited to a life in academia, he was pulled out.
Franklin enrolled for one more year at a writing and arithmetic academy near his family home. After that, with just two years of formal schooling under his belt, he left to work full time at his father’s candle and soap shop.
But Franklin’s defining characteristic, his insatiable curiosity, endured. What he lacked in academic opportunities, he made up for with his voracious reading habits.
When he turned twelve he became an apprentice under his brother, James, in the printing business. For the next five years, he gained direct access to hundreds of articles, books, and essays being printed. He would strike deals with other apprentices under booksellers so he could borrow early copies, as long as he returned them in good condition. At night he would rewrite his favorite passages, honing his own writing style and testing his ability to form logical arguments.
While he poured over everything he could get his hands on, practical subjects resonated strongest with Franklin. He demonstrated a particular interest in books on science, history, politics, writing, and business skills. He had little patience for memorizing abstract concepts, isolated facts or learning for learning’s sake.
It was thanks to his brother’s printing shop in Boston that he began honing his own writing skills and digging into practical subjects. This was the environment that set the stage for the rest of Franklin’s remarkable life. The print shop was a catalyst for Franklin—a place where he could channel his wide-ranging curiosity and explore his own multidisciplinary approach to life.
An Escape to Philadelphia
After five years alongside his brother, Franklin’s time in Boston came to an abrupt halt. James discovered that Franklin was behind the popular, anonymous submissions to the paper written under the pen name, "Silence Dogood." As his brother lashed out in retaliation, Franklin took off for Philadelphia to escape the remaining terms of his apprenticeship. At seventeen, he officially set out to create something of his own. Philadelphia would become his lifelong home.
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, the skills that Franklin honed in his brother’s printing shop, allowed him to find a job in the same space. As he began establishing himself in this new city, he was approached by the governor of the colony of Pennsylvania, William Keith. Keith urged Franklin to start his own printing shop and assist in his efforts to transform Philadelphia into a cultural center.
Keith promised to lend Franklin the money for the machines and materials required to get things off the ground, but Franklin would need to head to London to secure them. Franklin saw this as terrific news, so he quit and bought a ticket for his passage to London. Keith assured him that the required letters of credit would be waiting for him upon arrival.
But when Franklin reached the shores of England, there were no letters of credit to be found. He discovered that Keith was full of empty promises. Franklin was now alone, halfway across the world, without enough money for a return ticket.
Stranded in London
After allowing a brief moment for self-pity, Franklin set back out, determined to make his own way. He went to work at a large-scale printing shop in London. During this time he developed an even more extensive understanding of the printing business—learning new manufacturing methods and the importance of developing relationships with key customers and merchants.
After a year and a half in London, Franklin had finally saved the money for his return journey to Philadelphia. Upon his return, he leveraged the experiences and resourcefulness that he honed in these early environments to finally launch his own printing business. In short time, Franklin would become one of the most successful newspaper publishers and authors in the colonies. And this was all before he turned thirty.
If you study Franklin’s life, you see this time and time again. Franklin was a master at orchestrating the right environment for himself at each point in time—or making the most of it, as was the case when he was stranded in London in 1724.
Whether his brother’s printing shop, the opportunity of a fresh start in Philadelphia, or setting up America’s first foreign embassy on the outskirts of Paris in 1776 to help negotiate a critical alliance during the American Revolution, Franklin was deliberate about his environment and putting himself in a position to learn and contribute the most he was capable of.
The Constitutional Convention
The importance of environment was something he never lost sight of. Even well into his later years, at eighty-one, Franklin positioned himself to play a significant role in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 where delegates from thirteen states set out to improve the Articles of Confederation.
In those halls, Franklin established himself as the voice of reason. He was more receptive to the needs of each state and open to the diversity of opinions. His wide-ranging knowledge across subject matter, professions, and geographies helped him find common ground between delegates and resolve key issues facing a young country.
Many of the other delegates felt their integrity was tied to winning arguments and the accuracy of their initial opinions. Franklin stepped in multiple times to urge humility and an open mind, "For, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise."
Despite heated debates and slow progress for the first two months, over time he imbued these qualities in the rest of the delegates. Franklin advocated for compromise and deemed the Convention a success because they were willing to concede they might be wrong and did not expect the new government to be without faults. The end result was the Constitution of the United States.
Each step of the way, Franklin’s environment was a catalyst for his greatest work.
And as his life demonstrates so well, the environment that resonates with you and challenges you to grow will evolve over time. Franklin held a strong sense of which environment was right for him at each moment in time. And it all started back in his brother’s printing shop in Boston.
Songwriting, Evolution, and Exploration
Franklin, though, is not alone in how he sought out the environments he found meaning in and the importance they played in his life.
For Bob Dylan, it was moving to New York City and immersing himself in the folk-music scene of Greenwich Village during his formative years. It was here that he found his community, built confidence, and honed his craft. In the decades since, Dylan allowed his environment and influences to evolve. He’s explored different genres, different sounds, and different sources of inspiration to stay in touch with his own sense of authenticity. Even when it went against what his audiences expected.
For Charles Darwin (1809-1882) it was setting out on the HMS Beagle and sticking it out for five years despite treacherous seas and becoming deeply homesick. During this time, Darwin turned his attention to subtle observations of surrounding natural environments and the tiny details he found meaning in. This was the starting place for what would become the theory of evolution.
But Darwin wouldn’t publish his theory of evolution until twenty-four years after his visit to the Galapagos Islands. During that time, he speculated on diversity in the natural world through experimentation and careful observation—breeding pigeons, studying barnacles, and soaking seeds in saltwater to see how long they survived. What tied together these seemingly unrelated experiments—across natural landscapes and laboratories—was working to understand the nature of life.
For one of Darwin’s greatest influences, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a Prussian naturalist and explorer, it was his three-year expedition across South America that served as the spark for the rest of his life. While he didn’t set off on his voyage until he turned thirty-years-old, those three years of exploration opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
Upon returning to Europe in 1804, despite his desire, he would never have the opportunity to return to South America. But he found meaning in new environments which made him come alive in different ways. One such example being the auditoriums in Berlin where he fascinated crowds by weaving together art, science, and poetry, bringing distant landscapes to life. We can imagine Humboldt’s series of lectures as a 19th-century precursor to Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos.
Environment was critical to each of these people—Franklin, Dylan, Darwin, Humboldt—at pivotal moments in their lives. And while they didn’t always find themselves in a perfect situation, when they were afforded the opportunity they were deliberate about which environment they chose to immerse themselves in. The end result helped each person find their footing so they were able to contribute the most they were capable of.
The Nashville Years
One of the most important moments in my own life, which set the trajectory for the past seven years, was when I decided to leave my hometown of Indianapolis in December of 2013. I was twenty-five when I packed up a moving truck and set off for Nashville, Tennessee. I found a cramped one-bedroom duplex that had seen better days. But rent was cheap and that was my best option to get down there.
Although it wasn’t my job that led me back to Nashville. I interned there in college and fell in love with the city. In fact, I negotiated to keep my job in Indianapolis and work remotely from Nashville—that’s how committed I was.
At the time, I was trying to figure myself out and felt drawn towards the creative community in Nashville. A new city allowed me to escape the narrative I locked myself into in Indianapolis growing up. Nashville presented an opportunity to struggle through what I wanted to do with my life and push the boundaries of my comfort zone.
In the early days, this wasn’t easy. I missed home. I missed routine and familiar surroundings. But as I struggled through this period, eventually I found my way back to writing, launching my own startup, and learning how to stack the skills that set me apart. I started to believe in myself, building confidence in what I wanted to do with my life and how I wanted to spend my time.
By giving myself space to explore in Nashville, I returned to two of the most important outlets for learning and creativity than I lost years earlier—reading and writing. It’s hard for me to overstate the importance that these have played in my own growth—personally and professionally.
Reading offered me lifetimes of wisdom to find the way forward. Writing provided me room to reflect on these lessons. Together these allowed me to challenge myself, explore questions, channel curiosity, and find kindred spirits. Nashville was the space I needed to step back and reevaluate what mattered to me.
Ultimately, seeking an environment with room to explore led me back to not only an outlet for creative expression in writing, but also towards a career that fit me. As I honed my own multidisciplinary approach and considered what I was naturally drawn towards, I found my way into product management.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified when I drove away from Indianapolis—my home for the past two decades—towards Nashville on that cold December morning. But the easiest path is rarely the most fulfilling. A deliberate decision to seek out the environment that resonated with me at that point in time had a profound impact on the course of my life.
But just as Benjamin Franklin demonstrated so well, you can’t expect your environment to remain the same throughout your entire life. And after seven amazing years in Nashville, we recently relocated to Denver. This time it was for a job opportunity and a new community, as I’ve found my niche and an opportunity to grow my career.
Leaving Nashville was just as difficult as it was leaving Indianapolis over seven years ago. But we felt like it was the right thing. This new opportunity presented an amazing chance to grow, face new challenges, and push ourselves.
For me, Nashville was the single most important environment I found during my twenties. It helped me rediscover a creative outlet and led me to a new career. It introduced me to a community of beautiful, deeply talented people who challenged me to discover myself, push forward, and trust in those things. I’m better for having grown up there. Everything about Nashville—the community of creatives, the distance from home, and opportunities it presented—made me a better person.
Environment Is Your Force Multiplier
Much of our lives hinge on finding the right environment. This might mean surrounding ourselves with the right community, finding somewhere that feels like home, being in the right place at the right time, or seeking out challenges that we find meaning in. And this evolves over time. Whether community, geography, or opportunity, we value different environments at different points in our lives.
By seeking out an environment that resonates with you, you can accelerate the rate at which you grow and create room to have a far greater impact. Environment is a force multiplier. You still have to put in the effort. But paired with the right place, it goes significantly further.
In the words of Nassim Taleb, "You want to be the fire and wish for the wind." Think of your environment as the wind. Pair this with the fire within and that’s how you catch hold of life—giving the most to yourself and the people around you.