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The Promise of a Pencil doesn’t lay out a methodology for improvement in some area, or present an argument for a certain set of actions, or provide education about some aspect of psychology or economics.

It simply tells a story. That story, however, is abundantly rich in simple, honest truth about the detailed steps that one man took to build a world-class and world-changing organization from the ground up. In these pages, Adam Braun shares how he left his job at elite management consulting firm Bain & Company to found Pencils of Promise, a “for-purpose” organization that builds schools in the developing world. There are layers upon layers of insight here, available to anyone who will take the time to connect the dots.

Sir Richard Branson says, “For anyone with a big dream to transform the world, this book will show you how to get it done,” and Gary Vaynerchuk calls the book “A perfect step-by-step guide to building the life you’ve always wanted on your own terms. Pay attention to the details and apply them to your passions.”

The Promise of a Pencil by Adam Braun

Book Summary of The Promise of a Pencil

The Beginning

Adam starts with his childhood years when his father would constantly remind him, “Brauns are different.” He heard these words when his father wouldn’t give his children cash for good grades like the other parents did, or told him to read or play outside instead of playing video games, or spent half the holiday budget on charity.

This early belief in being somehow different is a mindset that bears notice, having been mentioned by some sources, including Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, as a trait of people who have changed the world. See chapter 2 in our summary of Think and Grow Rich for a theory on how such beliefs materialize.

“To achieve exceptional things, you must hold yourself to exceptional standards, regardless of what others may think.”

A level of exceptional standards in childhood compounded upon itself year after year, eventually putting him in a place where he had the skills, mindset, and resources to do great things. Part of this process involved an entrepreneurial streak – as a teenager, Adam made thousands of dollars selling CDs of rare live concerts.

Later in college, the same willingness to be different sparked the journey that would shape his life. During his sophomore year at Brown University, Adam watched the movie Baraka, which depicted scenes from around the world that was so shocking and so alien to his own experience that it inspired in him a burning desire to see the world beyond his home. The trailer is below. (If you’re willing to watch the movie itself, you’ll be moved by its power. The entire film is breathtaking, but the singular moment that moved Adam the most is an hour and 17 minutes in. Warning: that scene is not suitable for children.)

Inspired to see the world, Adam enrolled in a semester at sea, knowing that “True self-discovery begins where your comfort zone ends.” His comfort zone ended very quickly indeed when the ship sailing from Vancouver to South Korea came very close to sinking, but the semester continued. Perhaps the near-death experience opened Adam to a deeper contemplation of his purpose in life or a clearer evaluation of what was important.

In any case, something compelled him, again, to be different. While others on the tour collected trinkets as souvenirs of each place they visited, Adam decided he would instead ask one child per country, “If you could have anything in the world, what would you want most?”

He was surprised at the answers he received – never an iPod, or a TV, or a car, but “to dance,” “a book”, or “for my mother to be well.” A young boy in India gave a particularly unambitious answer: “a pencil.”

Realizing that even as a college student he could change a child’s life and open a world of possibility with something as small as a pencil, Adam began carrying a pack and giving them to children along the way. Each time, the children seemed to come alive, empowered with an ability to create and to learn that had never before been provided to them.

Inspired by this experience, Adam saved enough money by the following summer to first backpack Europe, and then southeast Asia. In Cambodia, he met Scott Neeson, a former Hollywood executive who left the U.S. to start the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF). Inspired by Scott’s story, Adam volunteered to be a fundraising coordinator for CCF, and the following October came up with the idea to ask for a $10 donation at the door for his birthday party instead of presents.

Scott gave him business cards with a title and the CCF name, which might seem insignificant, but gave Adam a sense of value, belonging, and identity, and inspired him with purpose and meaning.

His enthusiasm, however, was somewhat subdued when his parents, professors, and peers all told him to defer the desire to start his own nonprofit, work in the business world for 20 or 30 years, and then use his real-world experience and financial security to do the work he wanted. Adam decided their advice made sense, but after graduating, he took one last backpacking trip to South America.

In a small village, a man by the name of Joel Puac boldly approached Adam and asked him to help him learn English so he could teach his children. It took Adam six days to finally decide what to do with the strange request, but he ended up staying with Joel and his family and recording the words of the English Bible on an old tape recorder.

Seeing how bravely and intensely Joel worked for a better future for his children, Adam realized that charity shouldn’t be about just giving aid to the poor and creating a cruel cycle of dependence; it should be about enabling them. There are people like Joel who will ask for nothing but help to educate themselves and will use what they are given to make a way for others.

Joel also reminded Adam of his grandmother, who had endured the Holocaust and built a life for her children in the face of insurmountable difficulty. Filled with a desire to honor his grandmother’s sacrifice and legacy, Adam resolved to carry the same spirit forward to build a better life for others.

Choosing a Career, and a Life Path

Back in the U.S., Adam began his career with Bain & Company, a prestigious management consulting firm. He soon fell into a pattern of 12-hour workdays and partying five or six nights a week – “whatever it took to get me to feel happy, free, and alive.” Anchored by his resolve to do something meaningful with his life, Adam took action by emailing the project manager on a nonprofit client of Bain’s, asking to be on the team.

His request was declined, but undeterred, he made the choice to stop the destructive cycle of endless work and partying. He began spending more time at the gym than at the bar, and the next time a nonprofit case came up, he informed the manager he would be coming to meetings regardless of whether he was assigned to the case or not. (It probably helped that the manager was already a close work friend.)

Shortly afterward, Adam discovered that once he was promoted to associate, he would be eligible to apply for a six-month externship where he could work for a company of his choice before coming back to a guaranteed job at Bain. He began networking with people involved in nonprofits, and he realized for the first time that professionals like himself ran nonprofits on the side.

His friend Dennis shot down the well-meaning advice Adam had been given about getting experience and financial security before pursuing his passion:

“You’re looking at it all wrong. Now is the time to take a risk. Twenty years from now you’ll have a family and a mortgage. That’s when you won’t be able to take on risk. You’ll have too much responsibility.”

After a time wrestling with the conflict between the safe, responsible path at Bain and his desire to do something more meaningful, Adam had an epiphany. He writes:

“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.”

(Refer to chapters 12 and 13 in our summary of The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin for a method to develop the ability to intentionally trigger these breakthroughs.)

In a flash of inspiration, while he was sitting at a symphony, Adam decided to use his next birthday and the following holiday to raise enough money to build a school, then jumpstart an organization using his externship. He stayed up all night furiously making plans and took the train to Greenwich the next morning to tell his family. A few weeks later, he filed the DBA form and walked into the bank to create an account for Pencils of Promise.

In a decisive flurry of activity, Adam combined boldness with a powerful network to launch the organization.

1) He emailed all his friends and family in the legal industry to find someone willing to help him with the forms required to obtain 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. A young lawyer who worked with his uncle offered to do it for free.

2) He approached the manager of a large lounge in TriBeCa and asked to have space for free the evening on Halloween, in exchange for the guarantee that he would bring in at least 200 people – without really knowing how many people he could get to come.

3) He asked his friend (who was a videographer) to put together a music video to publicize the party.

4) He created a Facebook event and gave all his friends “host” capabilities, and together they invited thousands of people.

Four hundred people showed up, and Adam collected a $20 cover charge donation at the door. He raised $8,000 for a new school, but perhaps more importantly, people began asking him how they could get involved with Pencils of Promise.

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

Adam’s architect friend offered to help with school design and construction. Another friend was a consultant at Deloitte who began to help with planning and management, and yet another friend was an investment banker who offered to help with the organization’s financials. With other friends offering their unique abilities and shared passion, Pencils of Promise was no longer a one-man show; it had a leadership team.

“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.” 

Building the Foundation for Success

Adam then began spending his evenings cold-emailing anyone he could find who was involved with education – organizations, professors, tour guides, anyone – in the country of Laos (the poorest country in Southeast Asia that was open to outsiders).

His first response came from an executive at another nonprofit who told him to pick another country and then failed to respond when Adam asked for details explaining why.

Adam then added persistence to his potent mix of boldness and relationships. He writes:

“Most ventures fail in the early stages because people stop trying after they’re told no too many times.”

In contrast to the typical response to rejection, Adam stayed up until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning for weeks, persisting with his cold email campaign until he met Dori.

Dori was a former banker who retired and founded a charity that built schools in Laos – exactly what Adam wanted to do. Dori’s gave him some invaluable insights, like how his charity asked the local community to contribute 10% of the funding for each school, brought donors who funded full schools to the country to see what their money had built, and had local staff members to run the project. The organization also provided introductions to officials in Laos’ education ministry, who would need to commit to providing teachers for the schools that were built.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Adam made a trip to Laos to meet the officials, who provided the data he needed to decide between where to build a school – villages with the greatest need, number of classrooms required, distance between the potential school site and town, and so on.

The team decided to make the winter fundraiser a formal event, stumbling upon a market demand that would greatly contribute to the organization’s success: young professionals wanted to go to formal nonprofit events, but rarely had the opportunity since those events usually had stratospheric ticket prices.

By promoting the event through social media (which most nonprofits didn’t do at the time), they were able to eliminate advertising costs that ate away the margins of most charities. One of the executive team members convinced some companies to be the event’s liquor sponsors, and the combination of the high demand and low cost netted Pencils of Promise $20,000 the night of the event.

Adam identifies this as a pivotal point in the organization’s history; the team had come together to bring about a success that was greater than any he could have accomplished on his own.

“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.”

Adam is right, but he is also being humble – someone had to communicate the vision to create the shared passion that made success possible.

On top of that success came a stroke of good luck. Because of the crashing economy, Bain was giving its externship program participants the option of taking nine months off instead of six. He also found that Bain didn’t typically approve entrepreneurial externships, but undeterred, he went to the decision-maker. Adam had been smart enough to have previously bonded with the New York office head over music, and whether it was that bond, the firm’s need to cut some payroll costs or a combination of both, Adam’s PoP externship was approved.

Success then turned into a bumpy road as Adam continued building the organization to be in a good place for when he began to work on PoP full-time. The inherent conflict between his Bain job and the organization came to a head the day of Valentine’s Day fundraiser. Toward the end of the day, Adam’s manager unexpectedly asked him to complete an in-depth project of a nature that wasn’t one of his strengths.

Since all the drinks, decorations, and equipment were at Adam’s apartment, the event couldn’t start until he left work. He rushed through the project and still didn’t get to the event until an hour after it was supposed to start.

The following Monday, the Bain manager called Adam into his office and informed him that the work he had done was so awful, he wouldn’t be recommending him for the promotion he needed to be eligible for the externship.

Fortunately, Adam aced his next project and was cleared for promotion based on his prior history of great work. His takeaways were that you re-create your reputation every day and that the greatest danger is when you’re feeling overconfident from your success. Perhaps an even more important lesson is that there will always be a conflict between what you’re doing to make money and what you’re doing for meaning; build some redundancy in your systems early so everything isn’t relying on you to strike the right balance and make things work.

The Externship

The next month, Adam began his externship by signing a memorandum of understanding with Laos officials to kick off the construction of the first Pencils of Promise school. The local villagers enthusiastically kept their promise to contribute 10% of the construction. They didn’t have the money to pay, but they did their part with raw materials and labor.

Adam recounts an incident that illustrates the power of helping others help themselves: when he saw two elderly ladies carrying a wooden plank, he went over to try to tell them they might hurt themselves. “They smiled and shooed me away. They said something in Lao. [The translator] told me, ‘They say they’ve been waiting their whole lives for this. You can try to stop them, but I wouldn’t if I were you!’”

While his colleagues were sitting in meetings with important people in office buildings, Adam spent his days carrying bricks and laying cement in the morning, and playing and swimming with the children in the afternoon. One day, three shy preschool-age girls approached him to say hello, and the video Adam recorded of Nuth, Tamund, and Nith showcased a joy, transcending language barriers, at having the opportunity to go to school.

The video blew up on Facebook, leading to comments and emails from friends and strangers alike asking how they could get involved giving this joy to children across the world.

Adam never stopped reaching out to others with experience in the nonprofit space in Laos, and he was soon connected to the founder of another organization that built schools for $5,000 less than the $20,000 it was costing Pencils of Promise by having an in-house architect and buying materials at wholesale from local companies. This essentially allowed a 25% boost of PoP’s effectiveness overnight.

Back in the states, Adam also would meet with anyone who wanted to volunteer with PoP. He began every conversation by asking, “What do you love doing most?” Once he had the answer to that question, he found a way for the person to support PoP by doing what they were most passionate about. As a result, PoP’s volunteer ranks swelled quickly.

It helped that Adam found a way to get business cards made for each volunteer for $2.50 a set, borrowing a page from Scott Neeson at the CCF. The volunteers ended up handing out those cards, thereby promoting PoP, even more than they gave out their actual business cards.

As Adam took the time to chart PoP’s future path, he bet the organization on the emergence of two trends: first, the rise of social media, which twenty-somethings could plainly see would envelop the world, but most nonprofits saw as a fad for college kids. Instead of seeking donors, Adam built the organization to create advocates who would use their social media presence to support the cause.

Secondly, Adam correctly identified the rise of “cause marketing,” or efforts by companies to build their brands by associating themselves with organizations doing social good. This tied into social media, as well, since those companies would likely seek out nonprofits with the largest and most engaged following. By positioning the organization to capitalize on these trends, Adam had set PoP up for another round of explosive growth.

To take the organization to the next level, Adam and four friends rented an RV and head across the country to spread the word at college campuses. At the first presentation, only a single student out of Oklahoma State University’s 35,000 showed up – but after Adam persisted with a heartfelt presentation, that one student became an enthusiastic PoP ambassador, starting a campus PoP club, and shortly thereafter giving a presentation about PoP at her old high school.

One student at that high school also started a PoP club, and later led the expansion to other PoP clubs in high schools across the nation. He also gave a TEDx talk and was featured in numerous press outlets, giving PoP a great deal of exposure.

Adam observed this ripple effect over and over again. Whether there was one person in the audience or 50, it only took one person to be inspired, and PoP would have someone to lead the charge and inspire others in that circle of the world. Adam began to make it his goal at every speech to find that one person in the room whose eyes lit up the most, and turn them into an ambassador.

“I realized that even big waves start with small ripples” 

Leaving Bain

When the nine-month externship ended, Adam returned to Bain, intending to work at the company for one more year as an associate consultant before going back to PoP full-time for another one-year trial period. PoP continued to grow, punching above its weight by using social media to make a name for itself in the Chase Bank Community Giving campaign.

The $25,000 prize from Chase also helped, as did the next fundraising party, and by the end of the year, PoP had enough funding for three more schools.

It was becoming difficult for Adam to put his energy behind editing PowerPoint presentations for a management consulting firm, and he realized he might need to leave Bain before the year was over. He began to prepare the way for his departure.

A friend who worked at a commercial real estate firm told him about an office space he might be able to rent cheaply and introduced him to Norman, the owner of the apparel business that owned the space.

By this time, Adam was familiar with the power of the narrative of a “hero’s journey,” and knew that the most powerful pitch is one that portrays the audience as a hero, and allows them to fulfill the role by presenting a hero’s task. (Refer to The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell for a better appreciation of the power of society’s mythic traditions.)

He began the pitch by understanding what the other person cared about most – asking what he was most passionate about so that the story could be communicated in the most meaningful way (one of the key pillars of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie). After seeing Norman’s love for his family and grandchildren, Adam told him about his grandmother, who had inspired his vision for PoP.

He showed Norman the pictures of the children who were being given the opportunity for an education when they previously had none, and he explained his struggle with the alternatives of staying at Bain to compile some savings or risking everything to put his full energy behind PoP. If he had an office space the organization could afford, a major hurdle would be gone, and the way would be paved for PoP’s mission to continue and transform these children’s lives. Norman could be the hero who removed that hurdle.

The struggle between Bain and PoP, however, was coming to a head far more quickly than Adam realized. When he returned to the Bain office after his meeting with Norman, an email from the Bain staffing manager was waiting. For the next four months, Bain was staffing him on a project in upstate New York, where it would be more difficult for Adam to manage PoP, meet with people who might be able to help build the organization, and so on.

The next day, Adam was on his way to the airport for a trip to San Francisco to talk to a friend about whether the Bain chapter of his life should be cut short. After going through security, he heard from Norman: the office space was PoP’s, at no cost. With facilities in place, Adam’s head had no more difficulty following his heart. He sent his farewell email to his colleagues at Bain the following week.

After Bain

With his future resting completely upon the success or failure of his efforts to build PoP, Adam began to devote 99% of his time and energy to the organization. He soon found himself randomly sitting on a plane next to the founders of Summit Series, a company that holds exclusive conferences for young up-and-coming world changers. Inspired and impressed with the PoP story, they extended an invitation to Adam that would allow him to make invaluable connections. Rather than immediately accepting, Adam first insisted that the founders introduce him to three people who would join the PoP Board of Directors.

The following weeks included recruitment of a small army of volunteer interns and even a former McKinsey recruiter who volunteered to coordinate the interns. When Adam arrived at the Summit Series conference, he was surrounded by other people who “defined themselves by what was on their mind, not on their business card.” These individuals taught him how to give a razor-sharp 60-second pitch for PoP, and one of them gave Adam a commitment to PoP’s first full-school donation.

Back in New York, Adam talked to his friend Alex, who worked at one of the top digital agencies in the U.S. PoP needed a website that would support the organization’s social media presence and inspire people in a way that was consistent with the PoP brand, but the agency’s pricing started at $100,000. Alex offered to try to get some people together to work pro bono and possibly get the fee down to $20,000, which PoP would be able to pay. In addition, he offered to introduce Adam to the agency’s CEO, Rick, who was known as a great philanthropist.

Two weeks went by, and Adam followed up with an email. Alex was still working on setting up a meeting. Another few weeks went by, and still no word about a meeting. Finally, after 22 total emails, a meeting was scheduled, but Rick had to cancel.

Doggedly pursuing what would be a big win for PoP, Adam responded that if Rick was going to be anywhere close to a major airport in the next two weeks, he would fly there to meet with him. He didn’t have to follow through; Rick agreed to call him later the same day.

After a good 40 minutes of telling Rick the PoP story and answering his questions, Adam made his ask: a website for PoP at the greatly reduced rate of $20,000. A few days later, Rick called back with an offer to do the website completely free of charge, a request to join the PoP board, and a reference to another digital ad agency CEO who was also interested in joining. The PoP board was getting some serious firepower.

Around the same time, Adam got a call from a family friend and hedge fund manager he had worked for in college. He wanted someone young and ambitious to be CEO of a business he was starting in the lucrative e-commerce auction industry. He offered a six-figure salary, equity, health insurance, an expense account, and even a chauffeur. Adam would have a million dollars of capital and the whole floor of an office building just to start the business.

Of all the fantastic benefits, health insurance was what tempted Adam the most. His shoulder had been torn out of its socket in a motorcycle crash during a recent visit to Laos, and he was in excruciating pain and desperate need of surgery. He had taken no health insurance in order to keep PoP’s costs down, and now had a preexisting condition that meant no health insurance provider would take him.

The hedge fund manager told him that he could continue to build PoP on the side, and tempted with the opportunity to make millions, Adam verbally agreed to take the job and to sign the paperwork the next day.

Fortunately for PoP, he realized by morning that he could never succeed with PoP if it wasn’t receiving his full attention. The internal struggle ended with the realization that you must be guided by your values, not your perceived necessities.

Perhaps inspired by Adam’s passion, his friend and Deloitte consultant Hoolie agreed to defer his MBA to become PoP’s, Chief Operating Officer. Adam continued to tap his networks from the Semester at Sea and Bain, bringing on more highly talented young people to extern with the organization as well as others to work in full-time paid positions.

PoP moved into a new space to accommodate all the new personnel, and by the end of the year, had begun construction of the organization’s 15th school.

“It’s the presence of others who are smarter, kinder, wiser, and different from you that enables you to evolve. Those are the people to surround yourself with at all times.” 

Luck & Fame

Clearly, Adam had built a successful organization with a combination of passion, insight into the future, an extensive network, and pure management talent. It was luck, however, that propelled PoP forward, though that luck wouldn’t have come if Adam hadn’t first put the pieces in place.

At the time, Adam’s brother Scott was having a successful career with the music label he started. He dropped by Adam’s apartment one day with a thirteen-year-old kid he discovered on YouTube. His name was Justin Bieber, and before he went on to sell millions of records, he became a member of Adam and Scott’s extended family, spending days at their parents’ house playing basketball and practicing dance moves. Adam was teaching Justin how to wakeboard when they first heard his breakout single play on the largest radio station in the U.S.

Justin shared Adam’s passion for helping children across the world, and as he became a worldwide celebrity, he lent his public voice to PoP on social media, as well as donating to the cause financially. When he and Adam were rooming together on a two-week vacation to Africa, they came up with the idea to hold a competition where the student who raised the most money for PoP would win a visit to their school by Justin. With the authenticity that came from their real relationship and Justin’s real commitment to PoP, it was a huge success, raising over $300,000.

While PoP was beginning to become known through this contest, the Chase Community Giving Contest, and word of mouth, Adam had avoided the traditional press. He wanted to build the organization’s long term success by modeling his publicity approach after his favorite bands, who had been famous for thirty or forty years.

Instead of advertising everywhere after they wrote a few songs, those bands built a loyal fan base who felt they discovered the band and shared their music with others. These true fans provided the basis for strong growth, and eventual widespread fame when the band was ready. (Though Adam doesn’t go into much detail about the mechanics of how this works, Kevin Kelly’s essential article 1,000 True Fans is a great technical explanation of this phenomenon. Tribes by Seth Godin provides some context, as well.)

Seeing how other nonprofits received press coverage but weren’t able to turn it into meaningful engagement or donations, Adam resolved to first put in place the right system to make sure PoP was able to capitalize on media attention. In his mind, this involved three components:

  1. A “wow” story – When people heard about PoP, they should wonder why they’ve never heard of an organization with such an amazing story.
  2. A website that supported the story by looking great and having the ability to handle inquiries.
  3. The staff and infrastructure to respond to those inquiries.

By late 2010, PoP had their “wow” story with 15 schools built. The website looked fantastic and boasted functionality that allowed donors to see the exact location of schools they funded and take a virtual tour of the classrooms. PoP also had attained a certain degree of legitimacy with audited financial statements and a board of directors packed with experienced, respected individuals.

At that point, Adam agreed to interview with the Huffington Post and was pleasantly surprised to see the interview become the cover story on HuffPost Impact. The article was shared almost 2,500 times that month, and a flood of interest began.

In addition to a wave of emails and phone calls from the general public, AOL, Vogue, Variety, People Magazine, CBS, ABC, and other major media outlets began calling. Justin Bieber’s support continued to spread PoP’s message as his own fame grew. Perhaps even more importantly, however, major corporate sponsors began to express interest.

PoP eventually partnered with organizations like Google, Microsoft, and Delta Airlines, who valued the opportunity to do good while also gaining the positive exposure provided by PoP’s fame and powerful social media presence. PoP introduced products to a new audience enabled the company’s employees to feel like their work was going toward a very meaningful cause, and increased individual donations through the corporate matches. PoP was now earning money instead of begging for it.

Adam shares a number of valuable lessons he learned as PoP transitioned from a bootstrapped startup to a larger organization, such as making a habit of “closing the loop” by following up with everyone, whether a donor or a blogger who simply wrote about PoP. PoP also brought effective business practices to the non-profit space, firing volunteers who were dragging the organization down and implementing data-driven metrics to drive commitment to results.

Looking Ahead

Before long, Adam was hosting PoP galas that were attended by celebrities and raising over $1 million in a night. He continued to add incredible people to the board of directors, began to get introductions to world-changing individuals, and learned to let go of his ego to directly ask people for six-figure donations that accelerated PoP’s growth.

Despite all this success, Adam considers the height of his achievement to be the people who embraced PoP’s vision and took it far beyond what he could have done, like the 17-year-old girl who rode a bike 3,500 miles across the U.S. and raised $20,000 to build a new school. By early 2013, PoP celebrated the construction of its 100th school.

As of the date of this post, PoP has built over 300 schools and opens new schools once every 100 hours. The organization has more than 70 staff members, 90% of whom are locals.

Adam finishes The Promise of a Pencil with some parting words addressed to young people, and just as applicable to the young at heart:

Martin Luther King Jr. was just twenty-six when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Steve Jobs created Apple when he was twenty-one, Bill Gates founded Microsoft at twenty, and Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook when he was only nineteen…

…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… Your conversations will lead to opportunities, which will become actions, which will become footprints for good.

But you can’t keep saying, ‘I’ll get started tomorrow.’ The world has far too many problems, and you are way too smart and capable not to help tackle them. Your time is now.

“…when your faith is tested you simply have to believe that there will be light ahead and continue moving forward.”


If you spend enough time asking people how to be successful, you’ll start to notice a pattern of responses: words and phrases like “persistence,” “willingness to take risks,” or “single-minded focus.” Even coming from people who know what they’re talking about, this advice isn’t very useful. How are you supposed to integrate, “Be persistent!” into your daily behaviors?

Therein lies the value of The Promise of a Pencil. A much more useful tool is this book’s specific examples of the applications. The creation of a world-changing organization required the kind of tenacity that stayed up until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning for weeks to cold email hundreds of nonprofit leaders, and the kind of boldness that told a TriBeCa lounge manager that 200 people would show up to the party, not having any idea how many would actually come.

In this summary, you’ll find many other specific examples of the ingredients of success. Here are a few; let us know on Facebook or Twitter if you read the book and find a gem that we missed.

on people:

  • An intense focus on building an exceptional network (e.g., constantly reaching out to people in the nonprofit space and meeting everyone interested in volunteering)
  • Finding someone who already did what you want to do, and enlisting other mentors (e.g., Dori and Rick)
  • Simply being around passionate and talented people (e.g., Semester at Sea and Bain)

on general life skills and success factors:

  • Luck (e.g. Bain externship extended, being friends with Justin Bieber, and randomly sitting beside the Summit Series founders on a plane)
  • Balance (Bain vs. PoP)
  • Focus (leaving Bain and not taking the second job)
  • Inspiring others with your passion, communicating your vision, and providing a way for people to make meaning

on business skills:

  • Being aware of upcoming trends (social media and cause marketing)
  • Sensitivity to market opportunities when you stumble across them (the formal charity events with small cover charges for young people)

I’ll end this summary with the same quote from Howard Thurman that Adam used to start the book – words that are at the core of excellence.

“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.”

– Alan Braun

What did you learn from the summary of The Promise of a Pencil? What was your favorite takeaway? Is there an important insight that we missed? Comment below or tweet to us @storyshots.

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Book summary of The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz, PhD (Open in the app)

Book summary of Start with Why by Simon Sinek (Open in the app)

Educated by Tara Westover

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