The Promise of a Pencil

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My favorite summer read has been The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change by Adam Braun. It’s the story of how Adam founded Pencils of Promise, a for-purpose organization that has built more than 200 schools around the world. This incredible organization has become a movement with thousands championing the cause, including college students, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and many others who seek to achieve an impossible dream.

Adam is a true changemaker, but he didn’t start out that way. As an upper middle class middle schooler, he was keenly aware of the extreme wealth some of his classmates enjoyed. With a desire to reach that financial status, his entrepreneurial skills emerged through early ventures in investing and finance. When Adam wanted something, he went after it with everything he had, and his strong will and hard work tended to pay off. However, when Adam wasn’t all in, it showed, as he ultimately discovered via his lack of passion for running in the Wall Street rat race.

The first half of The Promise of a Pencil follows Adam’s journey through a variety of experiences before his idea to build schools coalesced when “Pencils of Promise” suddenly popped into his head. His big idea was seeded by the strong values his parents instilled in him growing up along with his own spiritual pursuits. But it was a terrifying night aboard his Semester at Sea ship that truly awakened his need to live a purposeful life. That same voyage introduced Adam to extreme poverty. He learned that something as simple as a pencil can make a big difference in a child’s life.

Instead of collecting souvenirs during his voyage, Adam sought to collect stories. He asked one child in every country where the ship stopped, “If you could have anything in the world, what would you want most?” He expected the children to desire the latest toy or fancy new technology. Instead, the children surprised him with answers of wanting a book or to dance. Yet one child stopped him in his tracks when he wished only for a pencil so that he could study and learn.

From the moment Adam could give his passion a name, his heart was fully committed. However, it still took a few years for his head to catch up. Eventually, Adam built up the courage to leave his financially secure job at Bain & Company to pursue building Pencils of Promise full time. With this new undivided attention he was forced to take his idea to the next level. It was time to sink or swim.

Adam identified the keys to staying above water as living his passion, surrounding himself with like-minded, talented, committed people, and focusing on his long term mission. Through all of this, Adam had to hustle to get his dream off of the ground. He worked for years before anyone knew who he or Pencils of Promise was, but he did so purposefully. When the Pencils of Promise breakthrough moment finally arrived, all of the systems were in place to capitalize on the momentum and build a sustainable organization.

Each chapter in the book is titled by a different mantra. However, Adam’s commentary and thought processes stuck with me more than the mantras that summed them all up. I couldn’t help but write many of them down as I went. I was inspired as I read, and I hope to reread them often for continued motivation as I seek to pursue my own impossible dreams.

Here are some of the book’s memorable words of wisdom. Unless otherwise noted, all of the quotes are of Adam Braun:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

“True self-discovery begins where your comfort zone ends.” (p. 20)

“Purpose can manifest from so many different places, but it most often appears through the small things that enable us to feel connected to a broader whole.” (p. 46)

“Find your passion and you’ll find your strength.” (p. 64)

“Our culture glorifies founders and CEOs far too often, when in fact the early adopters and evangelists are actually the ones who make a company’s success possible.” (p. 84)

“We recreate our reputation everyday.” (p. 91)

“Many presentations follow a traditional hero’s journey, with the presenter portraying himself or herself as the hero in order to win over the audience. But the best presentations-the ones that inspire action-are those where the same journey is portrayed, except the audience is the focus. It’s not about the presenter; it’s about the chance that the audience has to become the hero by completing a well-defined task.” (p. 136)

“Here’s my best advice: make the little decisions with your head and the big ones with your heart. Do that, and you’ll be fine.” – Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi (p. 191)

“Think about how the world will change in the next ten years, and how you and your resources and networks will change within it. Use that compass to determine how you can affect as many people as possible.” – Ray Chambers, financier and philanthropist (p. 218)

“Certain people help you see a future that you could never have envisioned without their influence. They make you a better version of yourself.” (p. 218)

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb

“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female elected head of state in Africa (p. 244)

Yet with all of these deep words of wisdom and advice, it was feedback from Adam’s girlfriend, Tehillah, that has stuck with me the most. She challenged Adam stop being one-dimensional. His commitment and passion for Pencils of Promise was admirable, but with this advice he learned to turn work off, connect with other interests, recharge, and spend more meaningful time with family and friends. All of these pursuits caused Adam to be more interesting and productive at work and happier overall.

This book was an incredible read, and helped me reignite my love of social entrepreneurship. Pencils of Promise challenges readers to accomplish their impossible dream. I was inspired by Adam’s journey and all that he’s accomplished. The many words lessons shared made me feel empowered, even though I’m not sure what my next dream will be. When I do discover it, I feel prepared to make my impossible real!

What is your impossible dream?

11 thoughts on “The Promise of a Pencil

  1. Katie @ Pick Any Two

    Sounds like a really worthwhile read! This quote is going to stick with me for quite some time: “True self-discovery begins where your comfort zone ends.”
    Katie @ Pick Any Two recently posted…Letter To My Son On His Second BirthdayMy Profile

  2. Marie

    Wonderful wonderful wonderful!! You are a fantastic writer and I appreciate everything that you share. I really needed to hear about this. God bless you and your family:)

  3. Tricia

    I hear an interview with him a while ago and have been meaning to add this to my list to read! Doing that now, can’t wait to check it out!
    Tricia recently posted…Lovely Little Things, 27My Profile

  4. Susan - ofeverymoment

    I had not heard of this book, but it sounds inspiring. I especially love the quote by Adam that you supplied: “Find your passion and you’ll find your strength.” (p. 64). Good advice! So glad I found your post at Saturday Sharefest!
    Susan – ofeverymoment recently posted…Wishing you a sunny weekend …My Profile

  5. Rebecca "Franticmommy"

    It makes me very happy to know there are people like Adam in this world. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this!
    Rebecca “Franticmommy” recently posted…When Clients Screw You Over, Die or Just Plain Go AwayMy Profile


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