We were delighted to recently meet Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha, co-authors of The Start-Up of You. Apart from offering superb career advice (after I finished reading it, I shared my copy with my young adult daughter), it included an astute understanding of civics. Here’s just one story that caught our attention – and something we could use a lot more of: Ben Franklin’s “The Club of Honest Whigs.” Reid and Ben write:
In 1765 Joseph Priestley, a young amateur scientist and minister was running experiments in his makeshift laboratory in the English countryside. He was exceptionally bright but isolated from any peers, until one December day when he traveled into London to attend the Club of Honest Whigs. The brainchild of Benjamin Franklin, the club was like an eighteenth-century version of the networking groups that exist today. Franklin who was in England promoting the interest of the American colonies, convened his big thinking friends at the London Coffee House on alternating Thursdays. Their conversations on science, theology, politics, and other topics of the day were freewheeling and reflected the coffeehouse setting. Priestly attended to get feedback on a book idea about scientists’ progress on understanding electricity. He got much more than feedback. Franklin and his friends swelled in support of Priestly: they offered to open their private scientific libraries to him. They offered to review drafts of his manuscript. They offered their friendship and encouragement. Crucially, Priestly reciprocated all the way; he was committed to circulating his ideas and discoveries through his social network, thereby strengthening the interpersonal bonds, refining the ideas themselves, and increasing the likelihood that his new connections would help him exploit whatever opportunities were found.
In short, Priestley’s night at the coffeehouse dramatically altered the trajectory of his career. (According to author Steven Johnson in his book the invention of air, Priestley went from semi-isolation to plugging into “an existing network of relationships and collaborations that the coffeehouse environment facilitated.) He went on to have an illustrious scientific and writing career, famously discovering the existence of oxygen. The London coffee house went on to become “a central hub of innovation in British society.”