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The Promise of a Pencil

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
May 27, 2022

This is the fifth review of books one might not find on a public administration reading list. Each of these has been an author’s view on living a meaningful and purposeful life.

This month’s book, The Promise of a Pencil, is Adam Braun’s account of developing an international education program.

Braun rose from modest circumstances to employment in the lucrative financial industry. He left that industry to form Pencils of Promise, which has been recognized nationally and internationally for the work it has done to build schools and support education in developing countries.

Braun’s journey began while traveling as a college student. He asked a young boy begging on the street: what was one thing that he wanted. The boy responded: a pencil, which would allow him to write, and to learn. This led to Braun building schools—the first in Cambodia—using personal funds and funds donated by friends. Within five years, Pencils of Promise had built 500 schools, worked with national education ministries to support teachers and linked with local community organizations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Public administrators work alongside nonprofit organizations. Understanding their challenges and their passions can strengthen those relationships. Braun describes the process of building his nonprofit and the lessons he learned, among them:

  1. Know that you have a purpose. Effective nonprofits are focused on a single goal. Braun’s purpose grew out of a personal challenge. “Bliss comes from fulfilling one’s purpose in this existence.”
  2. Drive programs through simple actions. Braun’s work began as he handed the pencil to the Indian boy and recognized the importance of education. We often seek to solve big problems with big programs, but the first step may be something very simple. However, the problem also may be complex. As Braun learned, “education is complex…a fragmented issue requires a fragmented set of solutions.”
  3. Do something uncomfortable. Braun notes that creative people “created their greatest works not during a period of happiness and contentment, but during a period of struggle.” From the beginning of his organization Braun faced challenges—making connections, securing funds, navigating bureaucracies—that led to new insights and growth. “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”
  4. Be bold. Choose bold goals. In the end, “the big wins, the most daunting tasks, are the ones that matter.” “We all know which tasks are the most important on any given day, yet we still choose to do them last. Choose to do those things first.”
  5. Feel strongly about something. As he watched a piano concert Braun noted, “If I could feel as strongly about any one thing in the world as this man feels about his piano, I know I would be fulfilled.”
  6. Make connections and use resources, including cyberspace. Braun used connections in the countries where he established schools, as well as with powerful people in the United States, to build his organization. He used his website, staff and back-end systems to convert his intentions into action.
  7. Be humble. “It’s in the moments when you feel most confident that you are most likely to fall flat on your face.” Reputation is created daily, and it is how mistakes are handled that tells more about an individual than do their successes.
  8. Overcome fear. “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.”
  9. Celebrate others. “We exist because of the sacrifices of those who came before us, but how often can we make them feel the full value of their impact?”
  10. Believe in the impossible. It is one of the fastest ways to unite people around a common goal.
  11. Be guided by values rather than necessities. “You never realize how much you value something until you are faced with the prospect of losing it…. Necessities exist in a state of mind that will not last, whereas values are transcendent and enduring.” “Make the little decisions with your head and the big ones with your heart.”
  12. Be persistent. “Creating something new is easy, creating something that lasts is a challenge.”
  13. Be transparent and build trust. For Braun it was important to treat his organization like a business, setting clear goals and evaluating performance.
  14. Surround yourself with those who make you better. The African proverb states, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
  15. Recognize that “Reaching peak performance is difficult, maintaining it is nearly impossible.”

Braun concludes, “as long as somewhere in the world a child still stands with an outstretched hand asking for nothing more than a pencil, our mission will continue on.”

These lessons define successful organizations and their leaders—nonprofit, public and private. Reading this book may encourage you to take a nonprofit leader to lunch to learn their story, and to build relationships with partner nonprofit organizations.


Author: Susan Paddock is a Professor Emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an interest in public leadership and in state and local government. She lives in Las Vegas and can be reached at [email protected] or at Twitter at @spaddock1030. Do you have a book that is not included in traditional public administration reading lists, but which holds important lessons?  Please share that via email.

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