The following is an excerpt from The Start-up of You by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha. It addresses the power of relationship in inspiring creative problem solving in civic life, from the beginning of our republic.
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.”
It wasn’t Franklin’s first time rounding up friends for regular discussion. Forty years earlier, he had convinced twelve of his “most ingenious” friends (as he referred to them in his autobiography) in Philadelphia to form a club dedicated to mutual improvement. Meeting one night a week, these young men recommended books, ideas, and contact to one another. They fostered self-improvement through discussions on philosophy, morals, economics, and politics. They called the club the Junto (‘hoon-toe”). The Junto became a private forum for brainstorming and a surreptitious instrument for leading public opinion. The group generated a bounty of ideas, such as the first public library, volunteer fire departments, the first public hospital, police departments, and paved streets. They also collaborated to execute on opportunities. For example, one idea that emerged from the Junto was the need for a liberal arts higher education that would blend study of the classics with practical knowledge. Franklin teamed up with fellow Junto member William Coleman and several others to start what is now the University of Pennylvania. It was the first multidisciplinary university in America.
Benjamin Franklin is often remembered as driven, self-educated, and endlessly inventive – a quintessential entrepreneur. But what we find most entrepreneurial about Franklin has less to do with his personal talents and traits and more to do with how he facilitated the talents of others. Franklin believed that if he brought together a bunch of smart people in a relaxed atmosphere and let the conversation flow, good opportunities would emerge. He set in motion a trend that the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, his 1835 classic assessment of the young united states; nothing was as distinctive about America as its people’s proclivity to form associations around interests, causes, and values.