The Promise of a Pencil Book Summary, Review, Notes

Adam Braun prepared for a life at Wall Street Hedge Funds and a young boy’s response to the question “what do you want most in life?” completely changed his course in life. “A pencil” was the answer that made Adam Braun start Pencils of Promise and build more than 350 schools in impoverished countries all around the world.

Book Title: The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change
Author: Adam Braun
Date of Reading: March 2017
Rating: 8/10

Table of Contents

What Is Being Said In Detail:

The Promise of a Pencil has 30 small chapters that show the path Adam Braun took from his first journey all the way to the present day of building schools.

1. Why be normal
2. Get out of your comfort zone
3. Know that you have a purpose
4. Every pencil holds a promise
5. Do the small things that make others feel big
6. Tourists see, travelers seek
7. Asking for permission is asking for denial
8. Embrace the lightning moments
9. Big dreams start with small, unreasonable acts
10. Practice humility over hubris
11. Speak the language of the person you want to become
12. Walk with a purpose
13. Happiness is found in celebrating others
14. Find the impossible ones
15. Focus on one person in every room
16. Read the signs along the path
17. Create separation to build a connection
18. Never take no from someone who can’t say yes
19. Stay guided by your values, not your necessities
20. You cannot fake authenticity
21. There is only one chance at a first impression
22. Fess up to your failures
23. Learn to close the loop
24. Change your words to change your worth
25. A goal realized is a goal defined
26. Surround yourself with those who make you better
27. Vulnerability is vital
28. Listen to your echoes
29. If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough
30. Epilogue—Make your life a story worth telling

The book covers the enticing event of “What do you want most in life?”—”A Pencil” that happened to Braun in India and then covers the path of building his first school in Laos, the problems of getting financed in the US, and adapting back to the life he once taught was destined for him.

Most Important Keywords, Sentences, Quotes:

 

1. Why be normal

Even back then, we knew his (dad’s) crazy temper and strict discipline were just forms of tough love. He wanted to get the best from each of us—and he got it. As a coach, no one pushed me harder. He had me play three games on the final day of the 14-Year-Old State Championships with a raging fever because he knew how badly I wanted to win the tournament. He’d set up cones in the basement so that after dinner I could do dribbling drills in the dark. But the result was worth it. And when I consider what motivated my siblings and me most, it all boiled down to one phrase that my dad used constantly that gave us the permission and the directive to stand out. He loved to remind us, “Brauns are different.”

My dad learned to speak English without an accent by diligently studying the way Americans pronounced words on television shows such as The Lone Ranger and The Little Rascals. He was a star student, skipping eighth grade and attending Bronx High School of Science. His parents were so fearful of their only son’s getting hurt, they wouldn’t sign the permission slips to let him play on any local sports teams. Instead, he waited for his parents to go to work and then snuck out to play basketball and football on the city playgrounds.

2. 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.
The next month, I applied to SAS and was accepted. I didn’t tell anyone besides my parents because I knew that some of my high school and college friends would want to join. I loved and respected those friends, but I wanted to be alone on this journey. I wanted to see how I would react without the familiarity of my past dictating the steps toward my future.

3. Know that you have a purpose

But I was also forever altered because I now knew that my life had 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. I rubbed my tattoo again, this time in thanks, as the MV Explorer bobbed in the distance—battered, but still afloat.

4. Every pencil holds a promise

Although I didn’t want junky souvenirs, I did want to collect something I could recall and cherish later. Before I got on the ship, I had decided I would ask one child per country, “If you could have anything in the world, what would you want most?” This would give me a chance to connect with at least one kid in every country. I would have the kids write down their answer, and when I returned, I would create a map of their responses. I expected to hear “a flat-screen TV,” “an iPod,” or “a fast car.” I thought I’d gather a series of responses that sounded like the things I wanted as a child—the latest toy, a shiny car, or a big new house.

Adam Braun Quote 2

In Beijing, I asked a girl near the entrance to the Forbidden Temple what she most wanted in the world, and she said, “A book.”
“Really? You can have anything,” I urged.
“A book.”

“A pencil.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. He had no family, nothing, yet his request was so basic.
More men came over and started chiming in. They prodded him, “You can have anything. He might give it to you!”
The boy remained constant with his wish: “A pencil.”
I had a No. 2 yellow pencil in my backpack. I pulled it out and handed it to him. As it passed from my hand to his, his face lit up. He looked at it as if it were a diamond. The men explained that the boy had never been to school, but he had seen other children writing with pencils. It shocked me that he had never once been to school. It then started to settle in that this was the reality for many children across the world. Could something as small as a pencil, the foundation of education, unlock a child’s potential?

5. Do the small things that make others feel big

Rather than pursuing guided tours at historic sites, I developed a habit of befriending locals who were my age and asking if I could spend time in their home villages. This simple request took me far off the beaten path and enabled me to gain an inside glimpse into how rural communities functioned. I became obsessed with learning how other people lived and was consumed by a newfound passion to help. By the time Semester at Sea came to a close, we had circled the globe and I felt like a man on fire.

Although I had a sharper sense of purpose than ever before, I still had this lingering feeling that no one understood me. I’d gone through such a rapid and profound transformation over my four years of college, and sometimes I felt as though my life was trailing far behind where my mind was taking me. When I hatched plans to launch a nonprofit after graduation, my parents, professors, and peers all tried to dissuade me.

6. Tourists see, travelers seek

I couldn’t help but laugh at the beautiful irony of a Jew reading the Christian Bible aloud in a town called Palestina.

7. Asking for permission is asking for denial

“Well, now you have to eat it,” said the partner across the table, smiling. For the next several minutes, everyone’s eyes remained fixed on me as I polished off my second steak of the evening. It was as delicious as the first, but I felt the dissonance between backpacking culture and corporate privilege with each bite. One thing was clear: if I was going to do well at this company, I needed to change more than just my clothes.

Instead, I spent my first year in New York City drinking and chasing girls. I went out partying five to six nights per week, every single week. I’d often guzzle ten to fifteen drinks in a night, bouncing from bars to clubs until sunrise—whatever it took to get me to feel happy, free, and alive.

8. Embrace the lightning moments

Just as I started to settle into the rhythm of New York City living, I found out that I was nearly eligible to apply for the Bain “externship,” a six-month leave where I could work at a company of my choice and then return to the security of my job at Bain. I wouldn’t be an official Bain employee during my leave; I would be paid by the company that hired me for those six months, but having a safety net to return to gave me all the confidence I needed to step out on a limb and try something new

I began to contemplate my desire to start something bigger than myself, something that could move others as well. I also thought about the revelation from Jen about creating a volunteer force and Dennis’s words about taking risks while young. People think big ideas suddenly appear on their own, but they’re actually the product of many small, intersecting moments and realizations that move us toward a breakthrough. I thought about the joy I’d felt while sharing those pencils across the developing world, my desire to build a school one day, and suddenly a name shot across my mind.
Pencils of Promise.

9. Big dreams start with small, unreasonable acts

When Mimi and I grabbed drinks about a week later, she ran me through a series of ideas about how to take the organization to the next level. She wanted to be more than just a casual volunteer; she wanted to make PoP her true focus. The more we talked, the more we realized how aligned our visions were for the organization. Her energy was infectious, her work ethic was unmatched, and she produced real results. With this group, PoP had a small leadership team that began to meet in the Bain office on late nights and weekends.

Adam Braun Quote 2

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.

11. Speak the language of the person you want to become

PoP agreed to fund the construction costs for a large one-room preschool with bathrooms in Pha Theung, but only if 10 percent or more of the total project was funded by the village itself through contributions of raw materials and physical labor. This would ensure their sense of ownership, and more important, it would increase their commitment to sending their kids to the school once it opened. The education ministry agreed to provide a trained teacher and take the school under its supportive jurisdiction as well.

As we drove back to town, I pulled on my sunglasses and looked out the window, hoping the others in the car wouldn’t notice the tears streaming down my face. This school, my dream, was happening right in front of me.

As I floated in the river I often wondered, What are my friends doing at this very moment? They were at swanky parties or sitting in important meetings with important people, and I was in the mountains swimming and playing Duck, Duck, Goose. I couldn’t have been happier with my choice. It was the simplest life I’d ever known, and the most fulfilling too.

Sometimes you know something in your head, and other times you know it in your heart. The mind delivers logic and reason, but the heart is where faith resides. In moments of uncertainty, when you must choose between two paths, allowing yourself to be overcome by either the fear of failure or the dimly lit light of possibility, immerse yourself in the life you would be most proud to live.

12. Walk with a purpose

Many Western organizations never transition leadership into local hands, which in my eyes demonstrated a lack of commitment to long-term sustainability. After spending time with David, I vowed to find my first local staff member when I returned to Laos.

14. Find the impossible ones

One of my founding beliefs was that even if people didn’t have money to donate, which few twentysomethings during the financial crisis did, they could still add value through other forms of donation. Their time, energy, and skills could help us advance our mission. Every conversation began with the same question: “What do you love doing most?” Once I understood that person’s passion, we could craft a way for him or her to use it to support PoP. Through that approach, our volunteer force expanded rapidly.

And although I didn’t have deep pockets behind me at the start, I had a far more potent weapon—conviction in a set of unique beliefs. When you align individually high-performing people around the idea that they are collectively underdogs, you tap into the cohesive gel that brings early adopters together. We created an enemy for us to rebel against (this belief that our approach was “impossible”)

15. Focus on one person in every room

This led to our early PoP slogan, “A generation empowered will empower the world.”


16. Read the signs along the path

Many presentations follow a traditional hero’s journey, with the presenter portraying himself or herself as the hero 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.

Nearly everyone I knew, including my own parents, thought I was an idiot to do this. We didn’t have a single full-time employee or major institutional donor. Every part of my rational brain told me to stay and finish out my time. It was safe, it was lucrative, and it was easy. But I couldn’t ignore the voice somewhere deep inside that knew what I needed to do. In some ways it felt like a choice, and in other ways it felt as if I was simply following the path I was meant to take. The signs were clear. I took a deep breath, packed up my desk, and pressed send. (for quitting the Bain&Co job).

19. Stay guided by your values, not your necessities

Meanwhile, everything at PoP was finally taking off: I had an office, a staff, and a website on the way. How could I build two companies simultaneously? I knew that I needed to pick one and go all in.

But I’d have to change everything I stood for. You never realize how much you value something until you are faced with the prospect of losing it. And you never know your selling price until someone makes you a hard offer. I stayed up through sunrise, furiously scribbling in my journal, sealing my decision in ink on the final pages.


20. You cannot fake authenticity

Rule #1 set the tone for the type of staff we would recruit: “Hopeless idealism in things that are utterly impossible is required to work here. If you want to be realistic, please work elsewhere. This is a place for dreamers.” Rule #3 stated the importance of staying humble and asking for help. Rule #4 was to recognize how your energy affected all others around you, and Rule #7 stressed the importance of bringing family (especially grandparents) to the office so you could share your work with those who got you there.

22. Fess up to your failures

Nobel Peace Prize–winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu even sent us a surprise video to endorse our efforts. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I watched him say, “Pencils of Promise . . . keep working, keep learning, the world needs you.” As I saw that video, I thought back to a phrase my friend had scribbled on my apartment whiteboard months earlier: “The most powerful thing in the world is an idea whose time has come.”

I had wrongly responded as a CEO by addressing financial concerns without truly focusing on my employees’ well-being. I was trying to protect the organization, but in doing so I neglected the very people who were the organization. It was a massive failure. I had alienated two of our best people. They’d wanted compassion and I’d focused on covering costs.

23. Learn to close the loop

“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 just fine.”

24. 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.

Rather than thinking of ourselves as nonprofit, we would begin to refer to our work as for-purpose.

As strange as it sounds, this meant that we had to start firing volunteers who didn’t deliver. For years we had people that worked on PoP part-time and full-time whom we would never let go because of the generosity of their service.

25. A goal realized is a goal defined

“Since PoP was founded, we’ve wanted to work on the African continent. If we raise one million dollars tonight, we will expand into Ghana next year. You can make that happen. That’s not just an idea, it’s a promise.” Hands started to go up with pledges, and the room willed itself forward.

27. Vulnerability is vital

It wasn’t just about fear. It was about ego. I was putting myself at the center of the equation. I was so personally attached to PoP that I felt as though I were asking for myself. I didn’t recognize that the ask wasn’t for me. I was just an ambassador for the organization and for the children we served.

30. Epilogue—Make your life a story worth telling

But while many perceive youth as a weakness, it’s actually an incredible strength. The single most powerful element of youth is that you don’t have the life experiences to know what can’t be done.

For any young person reading this book, my message is clear. Never let anyone tell you that your dream is impossible. No matter how big or small, you can make it real.

The key is to think big and then take small, incremental steps forward day by day.
Start by changing the subjects of your daily conversation 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.

Book Review (Personal Opinion):

The Promise of a Pencil is a book that lifts your spirit! Adam Braun thought he wanted to work at Wall Street and a single boy’s response in India made him question all of that. So he backpacked for a couple of years, learned about the world, and saw himself and his life with new eyes. And in the process, he found his purpose in life that he’s still pursuing even today. It’s a true feel-good story.

Rating: 8/10

This Book Is For (Recommend):

  • A millennial who wants to carve their own path in life
  • A volunteer working for a nonprofit looking to improve their finances, management, and standing
  • A young professional who doesn’t feel inspired working in the tech or finance sector.

If You Want To Learn More

Here’s Adam Braun having a speech at Google.
Google Talks

How I’ve Implemented The Ideas From The Book

This is a book that confirmed to me that I can follow my dreams and that I shouldn’t discard my path just because it might seem crazy to some people. Living life on my terms while helping people the best way I can (through education) is something I do even to this day.

One Small Actionable Step You Can Do

Take a Friday/Saturday off and go volunteer for a local charity of your choice.
P.S. You can’t donate money, you need to donate time/skills.

The Promise Of A Pencil Book Summary Infographic
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