Americans have long been captivated by the notion of self-improvement–none more so than Benjamin Franklin. An accomplished printer, author, postmaster, scientist, inventor, and diplomat who taught himself to speak five languages, this Founding Father never stopped striving to change for the better.

At the tender age of 79, he “conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection,” describing 13 virtues to aim for–temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity, and humility–and an intricate system for charting his progress in each. “Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation,” he writes in his Autobiography. “Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”

Today, self-help is not just a way of life–it’s practically a national obsession. There are 7,500 books on the topic on alone, covering just about every imaginable bad habit or dilemma, from How to Make Anyone Fall in Love With You and Positive Magic: Occult Self-Help to The Trick to Money Is Having Some! and Change Your Underwear–Change Your Life . Flip on the television and you can’t avoid the latest spate of reality shows, which pledge to help everyday Joes and Janes remake their bodies, homes, careers, and relationships over the course of an hourlong episode or, at most, a season–all for their health, wealth, and happiness and, of course, your personal viewing pleasure.

Such offerings “appeal to the deeply felt American idea of ‘before and after,’ ” says Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York, who points out the underlying similarities between Franklin and, say, Dr. Phil. “If you were born a peasant in a medieval village, you knew who you were and it was very hard to change that, but here there is fluidity of class, and entire industries and program types pop up that reflect the ultimate optimism that really anybody can be a ‘swan’ and completely turn [his or her] life around.”

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