The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change was one of those books that I just couldn’t put down.
It inspired me. It opened my eyes up to new possibilities. It was scary and exciting at the same time, as it tempted me to step outside of the box. To leap out of my comfort zone and to be uncharacteristically bold.
Below I will summarise some of the key takeaways and lessons that I took from the book that might be useful or applicable in your own life, as well as tell you how you can win a free copy of the book for yourself.
Why be normal
“… to achieve exceptional things, you must hold yourself to exceptional standards, regardless of what others may think.”
Adam talks about how his Dad would often say that “Braun’s are different” in motivating him and his siblings to stand out, to hold a higher standard, and to take the path less travelled. He also tells stories of his childhood and family history that set the context for learning to overcome challenges and achieve personal transformation, by choosing and accepting that you are different and showing the courage to “leave home and venture into unknown lands.”
Get out of your comfort zone
“Many of us spend our entire lives in the same bubble – we surround ourselves with people who share our opinions, speak the way we speak, and look the way we look. We fear leaving those familiar surroundings, which is natural, but through exploration of the unfamiliar we stop focusing on the labels that define what we are and discover who we are.”
Adam shares that when he left school and began to study economics at Brown, play basketball, and work multiple jobs on campus, that his path toward a lucrative job in finance was progressing well – but he couldn’t ignore the internal questions arising about meaning and purpose. He talks about how he started to explore and research spirituality and religions, listen to different music, and explore possibilities of spending time abroad. Before he knew it, he was on a Semester at Sea (SAS). About this experience he writes: “I’m going to leave everything behind, my biases, my expectations, my comforts, my friends, and my family. I don’t know exactly how these 100 days will affect me, but I know I’ll be a changed man.”
Know that you have a purpose
“… I now knew that my life had a purpose. Out of catastrophe emerged clarity. When faced with the prospect of death, something deep within me fought back. I was here for a reason.”
On his SAS, Adam’s ship was hit by a rogue wave that shorted the electrical controls and caused the engines and navigational equipment to shut down. Throughout the chaos of following the emergency announcements, Adam started to worry about dying and what his time here was for if it was to end that day. It was in that moment that he realised with 100% conviction that he had more to do in this life and that this wouldn’t be the end. He didn’t know what it was yet, but he had a purpose. He had to survive.
Every pencil holds a promise
“For me that pencil was a writing utensil, but for him it was a key. It was a symbol. It was a portal to creativity, curiosity and possibility. Every great inventor, architect, scientist, and mathematician began as a child holding nothing more than a pencil. That single stick of wood and graphite could enable him to explore worlds within that he would never otherwise access.”
As he continued on his adventure, Adam decided to focus on asking locals questions and listening, rather than providing answers. He would ask them “If you could have anything in the world, what would you want most?” He was surprised by the answers that the children he asked gave him – to dance, a book, magic, and finally from an orphaned begging boy, “a pencil”. Adam recalled giving the young boy a pencil from his back pack and how much his face lit up as he handed it over. He had never once been to school and that was the reality of many children across the world. It was in that moment that Adam realised that he could make a difference, even in a small act like this, and for the remainder of the trip started handing out pencils and pens to children as he traveled.
Do the small things that make others feel big
“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.”
Adam recalls the culture shock he experienced when he returned to America and talks about how he became deeply connected with the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) which provides housing, education, food and life-skills training for kids in the most impoverished communities. He started to raise funds for the organisation and ended up receiving business cards with his name, listing him as a ‘Fundraising Coordinator’. It was such a small thing, but he felt like those cards were the best gift and something to be proud of. These cards seemed to stir up feelings that he wanted to explore more.
Tourists see, travellers seek
“At the greatest levels of affluence, and the deepest levels of poverty, parents share the same desire for their children to have a better future. The willingness to sacrifice their own wellbeing for the betterment of their children was the common thread I witnessed across mothers and fathers from vastly different cultures.”
Adam shares his adventures through another trip, this time to Guatemala, and how he wanted to experience the country through the locals’ eyes. When a Guatemalan man named Joel invited him to stay in his village, he accepted the offer. Whilst staying in the village, he taught Joel English, as he wanted to teach his children and the people in his village. In doing this, Joel taught Adam that his assumptions about the nature of charity had been incorrect and this sparked a new curiosity within him.
Asking for permission is asking for denial
“Asking for permission opens the door for denial, and in this instance I would not be denied.”
Adam talks about how his position at the prestigious Bain & Company involved working with people he genuinely liked, but he didn’t feel passionate about the work itself. When the company took on a charity he was interested in, he insisted to be on the team that managed the case. He said that he would turn up at the meetings whether he was on the case or not. As he worked on the case, he could feel his sense of self starting re-emerge. His work still wasn’t aligned with his passion yet, but he knew it was getting closer, and that when the opportunity arose, he’d be ready to seize it.
Embrace the lightning moments
“At certain moments in your life you just know that everything after will change. You can ignore these moments by not acting on the new set of possibilities they enable, and your life will stay the same. But if you say yes to their reverberating potential, your life path alters permanently.”
Adam shares that he went to a symphony one evening and was blown away by a performance by the pianist. He wished that the could feel so passionately about one thing, like the pianist did about his piano. As he was reflecting on this, his mind wandered to the boy who he had gifted the pencil, and the name ‘Pencils of Promise’ shot across his mind. It felt like a jolt of lightening went through him. He begun to get excited and full of ideas. In this moment, he knew that his life would change. Now was the time to take the risk. He could feel it in his bones.
Big dreams start with small, unreasonable acts
“In the early days, we were a ragtag group with one common thread: belief in the impossible. We wanted to break the rules that others put in front of us and bring about a better world than the one we’d inherited.”
Adam talks about the early days of establishing Pencils of Promise, starting with opening a bank account for the organisation and putting $25 in it. All big things, start small.
Speak the language of the person you want to become
“The more we speak in the voice of our most aspirational self, the closer we pull our future into our present.”
Adam speaks of the process of building his first Pencils of Promise school in Laos. He didn’t know whether it would be successful – but he had faith that it would work out. And having this faith gave him the confidence to start speaking the language of the person he wanted to one day become. He argues that this is key to becoming that person.
Focus on one person in every room
“I started to realise that it didn’t matter how many people were in the room. If I could inspire just one person to take one action on our behalf, then the organisation would have a committed individual to carry it forward.”
Adam shares that when he first started speaking, that only one person turned up to the event. On the second event, there were only eight. But on both of these occasions one person ended up getting heavily involved in his cause. It was then that he realised that you only need to inspire just one person to continue the momentum moving forward. From then on, whether it was a small or large audience, he would focus on finding the one person who’s eyes lit up the most and focus on converting and inspiring them.
Read the signs along the path
“In certain situations you ask to see a sign to guide you in the right direction. Sometimes these calls to a higher power are answered, and sometimes we are left to counsel from within. But if you look for them, the signs will usually present themselves to those with open eyes.”
When Adam was called into the Bain’s staffing manager’s office, he knew he was in strife. He was essentially given a choice – to dedicate himself to Bain or to continue dedicating himself to Pencils of Promise. On his way home that evening, he found a large cardboard box next to his front steps that said “Become Your Dream”. The next morning he got a call to tell him that a free office space had opened up for Pencils of Promise. That was the final sign he needed. He left Bain to pursue Pencils of Promise full time.
Change your words to change your worth
“No part of me wanted to be poor; I just refused to let the size of my bank account serve as the yardstick of my success. While I once thought the best measure of accomplishment was monetary wealth, my path over the past few years had shown me that the real value comes from investing in the wellbeing of others. I wanted to spend my time maximising purpose rather than profit…”
Adam talks about how in the early days of starting Pencils of Promise, he would tell people that he ran a non-profit organisation and would often be immediately dismissed. He didn’t like the feeling this left or the frequency that it was occurring. He realised that the word non-profit did not accurately describe what they do – their primary driver was not to avoid profit, but was “the abundance of social impact”. So instead of introducing himself by explaining what he didn’t do, he decided he would introduce himself by describing what he did do. From then on, Adam started to introduce himself as running a for-purpose organisation. He noticed profound changes due to this simple twist in language.
Make your life a story worth telling
“Purpose is found when you stop thinking about how you exist in the world and start trying to figure out why you are here. Once you solve that question, everything will fall into place.”
Adam encourages us to stop waiting for tomorrow. To start now. And to start by changing “the subjects of your daily conversations from the life you are living to the life you aspire to create. By speaking the language of the person you seek to become, you will soon find yourself immersed in the conversations that make you most come alive. You’ll sense the energy you emit attracting similar energy from others. Your conversations will lead to opportunities, which will become actions, which will become footprints for good.”
I hope you enjoy Adam’s stories and lessons as much as I did!
Let’s soar together,
Please note that if you use any of the links in this blog post to buy this book, I may receive a small commission from Book Depository.