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.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The Five Phrases That Can Change Your Life: Adam Braun at TEDxColumbiaCollege
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.
And the next thing that I experienced was backpacking, for the very first time in the developing world. And I would — ended up traveling over the next few years through more than 50 countries as a backpacker, because I felt that I could discover this purpose by immersing myself in new experiences. And for you guys, as college students, there is nothing that I can advocate more than to get out of your comfort zone while you can and immerse yourself in something radically new that challenges everything that you’ve ever believed before.
And I had this habit of asking one child per country what they wanted most in the world. I said, “If you can have anything what would you want most?” And when I was in India, where the poverty was at its most extreme that I’d ever witnessed, this young boy was begging on the streets. I said, “If you could have anything what would you want?”
And he looked at me, and he said “A pencil.” And that was it. I said, “You can have anything,” and he said, “A pencil.” It was so profoundly powerful and immediately illuminated to me that this was the plight of millions of children, right now is about 61 million children who do not have access to any form of education, no schooling. And I suddenly realize this is my mission, is to eradicate this global injustice.
Challenge your assumptions, so that you can find your truths
And so, at the age of 23, I had graduated, I traveled to Fairmount. Like I said, I wanted to work on Wall Street. And I got this new phrase in my head, “Challenge your assumptions, so that you can find your truths.” And I think inside of each of us, we have kind of different ideas spinning through our head. But we have these truths that are internal, they come from the heart, they come from the soul. And when you follow those truths, you will never be led wrong. I’ve made a career of this now.
And there are these inherent truths, and they are different for each of us, but they are there, and they only come when you break down the walls of assumptions that each of us have been raised upon and taught by traditional society.
And so I ended up saying, “All right. You know something? Everyone else is going off and working straight out in a job,” and I’d always been an entrepreneur so I’d start several businesses and I took my money and I went and I backpacked Latin America for 4 months, just before I started working in New York City.
And I just want to share one story from that experience that led to me finding my truth. I was in a remote area of Guatemala. And I looked up one day, and there was a man, his name was Howell Buak. This is Howell. And he came up to me, and he asked me if I would come to stay with him in his village. And at that point in time that was a crazy idea, I’m kind of by myself, I’m in the middle of nowhere in Guatemala, and this man is saying, ‘come stay with me in my home’.
And I said, “Well, I don’t really know you,” and we’re speaking broken Spanish. And I said, “Why?”
He said, “Well, I’ve taught myself to read from my Bible, I can read English. I’m a teacher, but I can’t pronounce it very well. So I want you to come and stay with me and read English into a tape recorder every night so that I can teach English to my children”. And it was such a profoundly powerful idea, that he wasn’t asking for a hand-out, he wasn’t asking for money, he was asking for me to read so that he could teach his own children. And I thought this is an exceptional opportunity. My parents would kill me if I do this. But yeah, I’m going to do this. And I took shuttle buses to shuttle buses to other buses to this remote town, where there were no phones, nothing. I was the first gringo in the history of the village.
And I got to Howell’s home. This is my supplies. Here is the Bible. He had shockingly a pamphlet called “Raising Kids Who Don’t Smoke”. I don’t know how he had that. And he had this dictionary, this large tape recorder that I’ve read into for the next 3 days. Because I had a bad stomach, I brought peanut butter jelly and a loaf of bread. And that’s all I ate for the next 3 days, so you can see my butter knife.
And what I found when I got there was, it wasn’t just Howell. It was him and his wife. So they sat me up on this lovely bed with my backpack, you can see back in the day. And what I didn’t know was that on the other side of the room, was Howell and his wife, in the same room. It was only a one-room home. But I lived with him for 3 days. I read English into his tape recorder. And witnessing Howell’s commitments to his children’s education informed this broader philosophy on how an organization could be built, that was about empowering locals; that wasn’t about handing out gifts from the top but it was a ground-up approach to finding leadership within communities, that was truly dedicated to their children’s education. And then empowering them to spread that to their communities and beyond.
And so I ended up moving into New York City. And I started working at what I thought was the top corporate training that I could find to one day start an organization that would truly affect global education. And that was by working at Bain & Company, a top-tier consulting firm.
And I worked at Bain for a few years, and I leaned how Fortune 500 companies were advised to become even better. It was literally the best business training possible. But I found that I was losing my passion for service work, for education. And when you go out to a bar or somewhere, a social function, and somebody says, “What do you do?” And you say, “I’m a management consultant,” and you’re 24 years old, it’s not an inspiring conversation, it wasn’t for me, because I didn’t feel like I was speaking the language of the person that I sought to become.
Speak the language of the person that you seek to become
I wanted to become somebody who was going to start a non-profit or an organization that it was going to affect global education. And so this was the third phrase, it was: ‘Speak the language of the person that you seek to become’. And I sought to become somebody who started this.
And so I started just changing the language by which I spoke. I really believe when you start to project ideas into the universe, the universe starts to manifest around their eventuality. And so I started to saying, “My name is Adam,” etc. “Well, what do I do? I work in consulting, but I’m going to start an organization that’s going to build one school, and we are going to start to affect global education.”
And so I got this big idea in my head, I said, ‘I’m resigning my job, I want to try and find a way to build one school’. My grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor, was getting old, I wanted to build one school and dedicate it to her.”
And I was turning 25. And so I went to the bank, and I said, “I have this big dream,” but big dreams, they start with small and reasonable acts. So I said, “My big dream is to build one school; how do I start?” and the Bank of America said, “Well, you have to start by opening up an account with $25.”
I said, “Well, OK, that’s a good sign, I’m turning 25 this month”. So here is the bank deposit slip on October 1, 2008, when I put $25 into a bank account and started officially Pencils of Promise, this organization that passed out pencils because of that one child in India.
And I ended up throwing a birthday party, I’m born on Halloween, and I just don’t think that I needed more gifts, so I asked friends to give small donation at the door. And through a series of small events with twenty somethings, we were able to raise the money to build our very first school. And I took a sabbatical, I left my job, and I went out to Laos, one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. And I was riding a motorbike everyday out to this remote village called Paktom.
And I turned around one day, we just broke ground on this very first school. And again, I could tell you guys a million stories about how the organization was built, but I want to focus on the lessons today. So I turned around, and I see these 2 beautiful young girls, 3 girls actually. “Jâo seu nyãng?” is “What’s your name?”
So what you are going to see now is there’s an existing primary school, but we’re building a preschool. And I just met these girls literally in this moment, it kind of hits me.
[Video clip: You are going to be our first preschool students. Sounds good? All right, thank you guys.]
So now I am smitten, now I’m just totally in love. Not just with the idea of building a school, but I have these girls whose lives could truly change. And what was incredibly personally transformational was months later, when I got this picture, and Facebook was just kind of getting legs, at this point in time. And so I posted this, and then I posted this picture, which is Nit and Nut now in their very first classroom. And this language that I’ve been speaking became real. It was no longer just an idea, it was incredibly real.
Make the little decisions with your head, and the big ones with your heart
And so I came back to my job, and I had to make this critical decision: do I return to Bain after I took this sabbatical, or do I pursue the person that I really genuinely believe I am on Earth, that I’m in this existence to become? And that’s when heard this phrase that you “Make the little decisions with your head, and the big ones with your heart.”
And I think every single person at some point in your life — might be a relationship, a home, or where you live, a job that you choose, a school that you end up attending — but you have these massive decisions, and your head will tell you something. I am here to tell you: follow your heart. Your heart will never lead you wrong if you follow. You might find challenges and regrets, but those regrets are temporary. If you follow your heart, you will not go wrong.
And that’s what I did. I said I’m going to go and focus on building a best in-class organization. And I noticed there was profit and purpose and those are traditionally separate. And that there was an emerging generation that said, “No, that’s not the case anymore.” They’re intersecting, and that we each have a sense of profitable propose where it’s not just about maybe making the world better or advancing yourself, but that those two can intersect in a way in which you are advanced and society is made better as well.
And I said this phrase “”not profit” makes no sense to me. It’s the only industry that says what it’s not, right? What it means you are non-profit, none of us are driven by not profiting: we are driven by making true value, purpose, emerge. So I said that Pencils of Promise, yes, we are technically a non-profit, but we are not going to treat ourselves that way. We are a for-purpose organization. We are about making the world better. We’re not about lack of profits.
We’re going to be driven by the data, the same way that Bain trained me, and so many some others on building the best in-class company, we are going to take the same approach to best in-class problem solving on global issues. And that we’d build a movement of people, of true citizen philanthropy. And there are amazing stories all across the organization. This was a girl who raised 250 dollars, educated 10 kids by shouting at people on the corner of 42 and 10. This girl, Kennedy Donnelly, she is 17. She just rode a bicycle across the country and raised 10,000 dollars in doing so. We threw a party for her at our office, a donor was there inside, “You know something? I’m going to match her, I’m going to do another 10.” And her response last week was, “Geez! I should have just started here, and met my goal.” And then Louis, who donated his part, said, “I’m going to match every dollar donated.” He raised 25,000 dollars to build a full school.
So this is our story now, this is the snapshot. Pencils of Promise, as of this week, has broken ground on 90 schools around the world, and in 4 different countries across Africa, Latin America, and Asia. There are over 400,000 supporters in some form of this organization. And we’ve delivered more than 3 million educational hours. This is what I feel like is my purpose, but it was only found through following those four mantras that I shared earlier.
One great kind of part of this story is that I returned later on and thanked Howell as we opened up our first school. As of this week, we’ve broken ground on a new school everyday last week in Guatemala. We’ve now built 40 schools in Howell’s region, so that people like him are empowered to educate their children.
Now it’s about continuing to speak that language; we’ll break ground on a new school every 90 hours in the coming year. That’s a big claim, but I know that this organization can do it. And the way it’s going to happen is by a movement of the people. So this is one way that you can easily find me: Adam@iPromise.org; it’s very simple, in case any of you guys want to get in touch.
And the very last thing that I’ll share with you is the current phrase that is guiding me right now. It’s how can you, with the knowledge that the world will change in the next 10 years and you’ll change within it, how can you create the most positive impact for as many lives as possible? I think everyone of us has the capability to truly transform millions of lives. Every person is a revolution being carried within a vessel. It is just about finding your purpose, activating it, and I hope that each of you dream big because if your dreams aren’t scaring you, then I really believe that we aren’t dreaming big enough.
Thanks so much guys.
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