If you were asked what you wanted most in the world, how would you answer?
Adam Braun asked that question of a boy begging on the street in India, and the answer was both stark and simple: “a pencil.” He asked it of parents in impoverished places around the world when he backpacked beyond the beaten trail. The most common response: an education for their kids.
These experiences led Adam to his vocation of building schools around the world. He’s now written a book about how the encounter with one boy in India and a girl named Nuth in Laos (pictured above) led him to create an organization that has built 200 schools in places kids used to only dream of an education. The Promise of Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change* is part memoir, part motivational text, and it leads you to two conclusions: First, that next to love, education is the ultimate gift we can give a child; and second, we owe it to ourselves and the world to pursue the calling that we all have within us. As this very personal book describes, for Adam these two things are intertwined. He wants to ignite the potential of children through learning – and he wants everyone to be inspired to “listen to that restless feeling that your head may tell you to ignore but your heart will tell you to pursue… Every person has a revolution beating within his or her chest.”
Adam offers 30 mantras that have helped shape his own path of bringing meaning to his work, from “get out of your comfort zone” to “do the small things that make others feel big.” The one that best sums up his story is, “know that you have a purpose.” He learned that from a boy who wanted a pencil. The rest of us may not have that kind of encounter with clarity, but we do have moments when we feel what we most want to do. We should pay attention to those.
Which brings me to some of my own mantras. I thought I’d share three that remind me of my purpose and give my own work meaning. I hope you will share your own in the comments.
1. Do one thing today that will help a child learn. My company ePals is focused connecting children to great learning experiences. Like Adam, education is close to my heart. So before I start and finish my day, I ask myself if my work – and also my parenting – has reflected this mantra. It’s a good kick in the butt.
2. Never stop being a student myself. I try to have the humility of viewing myself as a student in a lifelong learning experience. It makes me a better listener and more open to what others can teach. I aim to stay curious and ask lots of questions. I don’t always succeed because I’m passionate and strong-willed about my views. That’s the point of reminding myself that there’s far more meaning in work and life when I see all people as teachers and all experiences as a lesson.
2. Every time I encounter another person, think: Help this person. This mantra comes from Bruce Kasanoff, and it left a strong impression on me. When I’m frustrated by any situation, I imagine the person across from me has the words “help me” on their forehead. It makes me more calm, compassionate and effective as a manager. And for those of you thinking this is a bunch of altruistic dreck, Bruce has this to say: “There is no faster or more effective way to change your interactions and relationships. You will be viewed as a positive, constructive, helpful and dependable person. People will think you are more perceptive, attentive and understanding.” It’s good for others but also yourself.
Why do mantras matter? The book begins with a telling quote from Howard Thurman:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Life is not a matter of asking what others want most. It’s about what you most want to do. The point here is not to quit your job and go off to save the world, although there are people who do that (like Adam). The message of the book is to find a way to devote the time – whether at work or as a volunteer or in the way you conduct your life – to fulfill your own calling in some way. That is the best way to make meaning in your work – and make a mark that matters for others.
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