I just finished reading Adam Braun’s book The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change. In it, the author shares how he found his own life purpose, abandoning the default plan his family and the larger society had for him (get into finance and become rich) and instead set out to live a fulfilling life by embracing his passion: to change the world for the better.
I don’t know Adam Braun personally, but we have friends in common who always spoke highly of both him and the organization he founded, Pencils of Promise. What’s impressive is that Adam is a young man, 30 years old, who performed already the actions of a large life.
The 30 mini-chapters of the book mirror the 30 mantras that upheld the author’s journey. They are inspirational mottos as well as lessons Adam learned along the way. His personal experience as well as the impact of his work, building in a few years more than 200 schools in marginal areas around the world, are a reminder to all of us that leadership is not the rare gift reserved to a few chosen and charismatic unique individuals, but a potential that lies within all of us and that we are all called to awaken by finding our passion and living a purposeful life. The Promise of a Pencil reflects the awareness that life fulfillment depends on making a contribution larger than just ourselves.
For this post, I chose three of Adam Braun’s mantras that resonated with me in a special way and that I believe are shared not only by those who like me work in conflict resolution and leadership development, but also by those who see in everyday problems and challenges an opportunity for growth.
Since his early teens, Adam Braun dreamed a career in finance. During the college years, though, he questioned his assumptions. He felt the need to be challenged and thus enrolled into the Semester at Sea program. Before taking off, Adam wrote in his journal:
“I’m going to leave everything behind, my biases, my expectations, my comforts, my friends, and my family…”
As a result of that resolution, Adam's life changed. Curiosity, being open to explore the unknown ready to embrace the surprises that come along the way, are essential attitudes for self-growth and for gaining clarity about one’s own life purpose.
A valued mentor to Adam told him he was crazy if he thought he'll be successful in fundraising given the current unfavorable financial environment. It turns out, the mentor was wrong and Adam experienced an unheard-off success in fundraising for a young organization. Strongly believing in his end-goal, Adam pushed himself and those around him beyond what might be considered safe and rational.
Going after the impossible is the difference between good and great. At the beginning of the 1990s, when Tony Blair embarked in ending the conflict in Northern Ireland, he went with determination after a goal that at the time seemed impossible to reach. Failure, he said to his staff, was not an option. No Good Friday Agreement would have emerged, without that firm belief that the impossible was actually possible.
When Adam was already working full time for Pencils of Promise (PoP), the organization he founded, a family friend made him a very attractive business offer, one of those that are difficult to turn down. In fact, Adam was tempted. “I was tormented by the weight of the decision,” he admits in the book. Eventually, Adam turned down that lucrative offer, because, as he writes, you cannot be in love with two girls at once. He decided to stick with PoP, his real love and passion.
Clarity of purpose and of one’s own values is key to remain steady on the chosen path, reach the desired goal and be successful. Transformational leaders, like the experience of Adam Braun shows, are grounded in that clarity.
The Promise of a Pencil makes for a great read. I suggest to read it not only to know the work of an ordinary, yet extraordinary, individual, but also to reflect on how one can grow and contribute to a world in which everyone wants to be part of. How can you awaken the leader that is in you and make a difference?