Adam Braun, founder & CEO of Pencils of Promise, discusses The Five Phrases That Can Change Your Life at TEDxColumbiaCollege conference. This event occurred in November of 2012, on the campus of Columbia University in the City of New York. Below is the full transcript.
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Adam Braun – founder & CEO of Pencils of Promise
How are you guys? Good. All right.
So, my name is Adam Braun. And I’m the founder and CEO of this organization Pencils of Promise. And in the last 4 years, we’ve gone from a place that you’ll hear about starting with very, very humble beginnings to now what I really believe is becoming a leading global education organization.
But what I want to do today is talk to you all about the path. What it takes to go from an idea, and how that idea has birthed, to now really working on solving a truly global challenge. And so I’ll take you through my story, the story of the organization, but along the way, I want to share with you guys, these five phrases that have guided me along this path.
And so this is where my journey starts: with my family. This is my cousins, my grandmother. And I’m the really cool kid in the yellow sweater over here. And from a very early age, we were very close in that family, but more than anything we lived in a home where education was the top priority.
My grandmother and grandfather were Holocaust survivors. And it was always part of our upbringing that we knew that the only way that they had removed themselves from this horrific situation was to emigrate into the country and then, my parents were able to lift themselves up was through the dedication to education. And like most of you here at Columbia, I was an academic growing up, I played a lot of sports too, basketball in particular.
And I went to the Brown University, and I found myself a student athlete, which I’m sure, some of you in the room are as well. And this was myself at the age of 22, entering graduation, which I think is something that hopefully, some of you guys are going to be facing soon.
But what I want to take you through today are these 5 phrases that they’ve guided me at various points in my life: at 21, 23, 25, 27, and now as of 4 days ago, 29.
My upbringing was one where there was a clear path ahead. I wanted to work in finance my entire childhood, I wanted to work on Wall Street. I was competitive, and I played sports and mathematics was the subject that I was most interested in. So wanting to work on Wall Street, it’s a very neatly defined path to go from a New England upbringing, New England school, to then move to New York.
Get out of your comfort zone
And I saw a film when I was 21, that’s called Baraka. And it was shot in 24 countries around the world. Hopefully, I can start with the first phrase that really resonated with me, which was to get out of your comfort zone. I saw this talk, and this person shared these wonderful stories of traveling all around the world. And at the age of 21, I got this phrase in my head: “Get out of your comfort zone.” For one time in my life, I wanted to be uncomfortable. I hope that resonates with some of you. It’s a strange feeling, but when I thought about the greatest art, the greatest creations that came out of either music, and painting, and sculpture, it always seemed to be that the artists produced those pieces in eras of struggle, not in eras of complacency.
And so I thought, just once in my life I want to know who I am, and I feel like I can find that when I get out of my comfort zone.
And I discovered this program called Semester at Sea; it’s a cruise ship that goes around the world and you stop in 10 countries. You are able to explore and backpack countries across the developing world for 4 to 6 days. And I said, “That’s it! That’s how I’m going to be uncomfortable. I’m going to go, I’m going to travel the developing world, and I’m going to do so without knowing a single person”. So I withdrew from school, I quit the basketball team, and I didn’t tell a single person I knew outside of my parents, and I said, “I’m going to go on ‘Semester at Sea’.”
And we left from Vancouver, in early 2005. We crossed the North Pacific for the first time in the history of the voyage in winter. They’d always gone the other way, but they had a new ship my year. And I’m not sure how many of you will remember this, but in January 2005, a 1,000 person-cruise ship was struck head on by a 60-foot rough wave of 900 miles from land in the dead of winter, with hypothermic water all around. And that was my ship.
And so I’m going to show you guys a video that has surfaced on YouTube since. It’s about a minute long. So what you are going to see here is the captain looking out on what are 40-foot swells. And again we are about 900 miles from land.
So now you’ll see the actual wave, as it strikes our ship. So here is the wave. And then this is our ship. So this is our ship. And again, you guys don’t have to freak out. I was on the ship. Not anyone in this room. But going through an experience like that, as you saw the water came through the window. And what you don’t know is that how was all the navigational equipment and the power to our engines.
So when the water came through, we lost all power to our engines which caused a mayday alert. And this panic announcement that I’ll never forget came over the loudspeakers: “Help the women and children up the stairs, everyone get to the 5th floor or higher. Get to your master stations.” This is what he said which is where you evacuate the ship from.
And there was a feeling of certain death, absolute certain death. It wasn’t a question at all. And when you’re faced with certain deaths — I’ve only had it once — but a few things happen. One of them is you suddenly start to no longer question you know, the how or the what, but the why. You’d say, “Why is this happening? Why am I here?”
And about 30 seconds in, I felt this overwhelming calm, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that it was not my time to perish. I can’t explain it, but I knew I had something more to do here. And in that moment, I found a sense of purpose, which I think is the single most powerful thing that anyone of us can find is a true sense of meaning, that you have a sense of belonging, that you have a mission here, in this existence.
And the next thing that I needed to face unfortunately, obviously, I’m here, we survived through a mass hysteria; you can imagine the whole room flipping sides, and everyone was screaming. It was much like Titanic; but we didn’t go down. And so, fortunately, we survived, and now I had this renewed sense of commitment to purpose.