The Promise of a Pencil

"These mantras have served as my guideposts as I’ve faced decisions both large and small. They have become my essential truths. I’ve written them with the hope that they will be carried forward, shared with others, and adopted in ways that will help you in your own journey as well."

- The Promise of a Pencil, page 3

We’ve all read books by accomplished individuals who tell their impressive stories in a way that basically comes across as “you really should be more like me.”

In The Promise of a Pencil, Adam Braun has an equally impressive story. At the age of twenty-four, he left a promising career in finance to start a “for-purpose” organization called Pencils of Promise, which builds schools and provides education throughout the world.

Braun, however, tells his story without any “be like me” braggadocio. Instead, he adopts a much more actionable, “be who you can become” tone.

He does this by introducing each of the book’s thirty chapters with the mantra that helped him through that stage of his life. For example, he frames the chapter describing his parents’ influence with the mantra he learned from his father: “why be normal.”

This technique encouraged me as a reader to adapt these mantras to my own story or articulate new ones that help me find my purpose. To borrow one of Braun’s mantras, the book motivates readers to “speak the language of the person you want to become.”

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Leaders forge into the unknown so others can follow

"Joel showed me the essence of leadership by forging into the unknown so that others could follow. He taught me to approach each new person I met with the dignity he or she deserves."
- The Promise of a Pencil, page 57

In the sixth chapter, Braun shares one of the most influential stories in his ultimate decision to start Pencils of Promise. While backpacking in Central and South America, he met Joel Puac, a Guatemalan man in his mid-forties, who wanted to learn and teach English so badly he invited Braun to his remote mountain village.

After listening to the man’s dream of educating his children and grandchildren, Braun traveled to that village and read aloud into “an old-school cassette recorder” the only book that Joel owned, a Christian Bible.

As he watched Joel “forge into the unknown” of language study against all odds, Braun came to understand that the essence of leadership is seeking a better future rather than merely observing present obstacles.

Appropriately, the mantra Braun uses to title this chapter is “tourists see, travelers seek.”

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Re-create your reputation every day

"I assumed I could coast into the next phase based solely on my previous accomplishments. In truth we re-create our reputation every day. Journalists with thirty years of credibility have washed their careers down the drain with one plagiarized paragraph. I soiled months of good work with one lazy night."
- The Promise of a Pencil, page 91

By the tenth chapter, Braun has reached a low point in his narrative. On the fast track to a successful finance career, he desperately needed a promotion to qualify for an extended leave that would allow him to make Pencils of Promise a viable organization.

Unfortunately, he tried to do too much at the same time. On one particular evening, he shortchanged a presentation for his employer because he was late to a Pencils of Promise fundraiser. His supervisor, who only knew him from this project, unapologetically blocked his path to promotion and Braun had a much more difficult time eventually securing it.

Braun’s response to these events provides another actionable insight: Practice humility over hubris. Instead of lashing out at his supervisor, he praises him in this chapter for showing him that we must re-create reputations every day.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Make your life a story worth telling

"I realized that I needed to live a life that reflected the themes of the stories I wanted to one day tell, and when I veered off that path later on, it was time to make a change. Regardless of age or status, if you’re not satisfied with the path you’re on, it’s time to rewrite your future."
- The Promise of a Pencil, page 251

Again, Adam Braun’s primary focus is not to have us make our stories identical to his. Instead, he encourages us to make our individual narratives distinctive. To do so, he provides the following advice “for anyone going through a restless period in life”:

  • Start with an ambitious, but attainable goal. Braun’s initial vision was to build a single school.
  • Change the subjects of your daily conversation. Instead of talking about the life you’re currently living, speak the language of the person you’re becoming.
  • Realize the time is now. Braun believes “the world has too many problems and you’re way too smart and capable to not help tackle them.”

In the end, we decide whether we make a positive or negative impact on the world. When Braun speaks of the extraordinary story waiting to unfold in each of us, I’m reminded of the final sentence in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “My life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.”

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Bill Stadick

ABOUT Bill Stadick

I studied poetry and English literature in college then debt-stumbled into advertising, a job where words actually mattered. A few decades into it now, I recently left a communications firm in Wisconsin to start Page 17, Inc...
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