Adam Braun began working summers at hedge funds when he was just sixteen years old, sprinting down the path to a successful Wall Street career. But while traveling he met a young boy begging on the streets of India, who after being asked what he wanted most in the world, simply answered, “A pencil.” This small request led to a staggering series of events that took Braun backpacking through dozens of countries before eventually leaving a prestigious job to found Pencils of Promise, the organization he started with just $25 that has since built more than 250 schools around the world.
The Promise of a Pencil chronicles Braun’s journey to find his calling, as each chapter explains one clear step that every person can take to turn their biggest ambitions into reality.
If you could have anything in the world, what would you want most?
Although I didn’t want junk 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.
When an adorable girl in Hawaii approached me and asked if we could be friends, I said yes without hesitation. ‘But first I have something very important to ask you,’ I said. “If you could have anything in the world, what would you want most?”
She put her finger to her chin and glanced knowingly at her mom. “To dance,” she replied with a nod.
I laughed. “No, I meant if you could have absolutely anything in the entire world, what would it be?”
She smiled, now fully understanding my question, “To dance!” she replied again with delight.
“Wow, that’s beautiful,” I said with a massive grin. Her answer was disarming in its honesty.
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.
Her mother explained that the girl loved school, but didn’t have any books of her own. This child’s dream was to have something I took for granted every single day.
In Kowloon, Hong Kong, I asked a young boy what he wanted. His older brother translated my question, then translated the response: “Magic.”
My mom to be healthy
Alongside the Mekong River in Vietnam I asked a shy six-year old girl what she would want most. She spoke in a quite voice as she stared at the muddy, brown soil below. “I want my mom to be healthy. She is sick in bed all day, and I just want to her to hold my hand when I walk to school.”
The next morning we went to to Agra Fort, a stunning red temple within view of the Taj Mahal. I strayed away from my group and found a young boy with big brown eyes who was previously begging, but now sat alone.
As I approached him to talk, a man came over to translate. I wanted to know what would the boy want if he could have any one thing?
He thought about it for a few seconds, then responded confidently: “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 Nº2 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 once been to school.
Could something as small as a pencil, the foundation of an education, unlock a child’s potential?
For me, that pencil was a writing utensil, but for him it was a key. It was a symbol. It was a portal to creativity, curiosity, and possibility. Every great inventor, architect, scientist, and mathematician began as a child holding nothing more than a pencil. Than single stick of wood and graphite could enable him to explore worlds within that he would never otherwise access.
This is my thing, I thought. Rather than offering money or nothing at all, I’m going to give kids pencils and pens as I travel.