Live Your Passion: Adam Braun, Founder of Pencils of Promise

Every now and again, you come across people who are truly special. They are the ones who light up a room the moment they enter it. They seem to operate at a higher level–thinking and understanding the magical interconnectedness of the world and the people living in it. They are visionaries, dreaming up a better future and inspiring other people to help them bring that better future to life. Adam Braun is one of those truly special people. He is the Founder and Executive Director of Pencils of Promise, an organization that builds schools and provides access to education in developing countries. Since its birth in October 2008, Pencils of Promise has built more than 40 schools–and is planning to build another 60 schools by the end of 2012.

Check out this inspiring interview with Adam–he shares his thoughts on the importance of: getting out of your comfort zone, starting a movement, and finding your purpose.

MK: Did you always know what you wanted to do?

AB: I didn’t know until I started traveling. Within the first few weeks of being in the developing world, I knew that was what I wanted to spend the rest of my life working on. I was 21 years old when I figured out exactly what I wanted to do–and I felt and still feel very fortunate, because a sense of purpose is one of the hardest things to find. When you find what your purpose is, you are able to steer your compass directly towards it.

MK: You realized that you wanted to build schools at 21 years old, and you started Pencils of Promise when you were 24. What did you do in between?

AB: I took a year off after I graduated to travel. During that year, I came back for two weeks to interview, and I was deciding between investment banking and management consulting. I decided to go into consulting because I could see how consulting would lead to one day running a non-profit, more so than finance would. I knew that I wanted to start a non-profit to build schools in the developing world, but I was not sure how I was going to do it or how soon I wanted to do it. I knew that I did not want to start it until I felt ready. I did not want to build a company, and then have to bring in a 40-year-old CEO to tell me how to run it. I needed to gain skills and abilities to the point where I felt confident that I could run my own organization through it’s entire life trajectory. That year I spent traveling really solidified in my own mind what I wanted and was going to do. I made a leap into the workforce, but I did so completely under the pretense that I was going to use that time to learn hard skills until I got to a point where I could get back to what I was most passionate about.

MK: What was that point for you when you decided, “OK, I am ready to make the leap and start my own business”?

AB: I was really fortunate because I started my own business when I had a little bit of a safety net. My company had an externship program, where employees can leave for six months. When the recession happened, they told us that we could take a nine-month sabbatical. Nine months? That was really enough time to see if it could work or not. So, I left thinking, “I’m going to work on this and then after nine months, come back to work, and if it is still running, do it on the side.” Everyone said to me, “How are you going to go back? How will you do both?” It wasn’t until I came back and was trying to balance two fifty-hour-per-week full-time jobs that I started to weigh both sides and quickly figured out where my passion was. If I was willing to make the leap, I just knew deep down inside that I could make Pencils of Promise work.

MK: When you look back during your college years, what did you do then that you think has really paid-off now?

AB: There are a few things.

One: I got out of my comfort zone. I went on a study abroad program where I didn’t knowing a single other person and I didn’t tell most of my friends. I went to parts of the world that I had never been to and was supposed to be scared of, but fell in love with those places. Getting out of my comfort zone was the most important thing I did because it exposed me to a world full of passion that I didn’t even know existed.

Two: I learned that a lot of my education would occur not just within the classroom, but also in the environments that are shaped around classrooms. I got deeply interested in religion and went through a spiritual reassessment phase; I would just sit in the cafeteria and talk to people about why they held their religious beliefs, and I was fascinated by what I learned. I never took a Religious Studies class, but I’d go to the library and all I read were religious books during my junior year. Then, my senior year, I persuaded my parents not to buy me any textbooks. Instead, I gave them a list of twelve books that I really wanted to read–mostly biographies of musicians. My roommates and I would study music and then lecture each other on the revolution that was occurring within the music that we liked. So, it really was like having a second education outside of my classes.

MK: Few start-ups make it past the five-year mark. Pencils of Promise has been incredibly successful so far–what do you think are the elements that create success?

AB: Three things:

1. You have to have an idea that, at its core, is right for the times. It has to fit in the macro environment. For example, Twitter could not have existed if it launched three years earlier. I think PoP is a movement that, by using social media and reaching a younger generation, is both ahead of its time and of-the-moment.

2. You have to be delusional about your idea in order to create a successful start-up, because you will be up against big odds. If an idea was “meant to be,” someone else would have already started it. So, you have to completely convince yourself that you are going to create something that no one else has ever seen or done before, and have to become unreasonably delusional about how successful your idea will be.

3. You have to realize that it can’t be about one person’s contribution. There has to be a greater movement behind it. That requires elements like a brand that goes beyond just you or your company. More than anything else, to create a successful start up, you need others to believe in it and find ways to get involved and contribute.

MK: What are the traits of successful leaders?

AB: The first is ambition. People that are successful entrepreneurs just want their success so much more than other people are willing to put on the line. The other thing is vulnerability. I think successful leaders have an element of personal vulnerability that they tap into. They recognize when something is scary and they might be wrong, but that allows them to be personally humble, while exuding extreme confidence onto an idea that is bigger than them. So, I can be insanely confident about PoP, as long as I can balance that with personal humility–it allows successful entrepreneurs to push forward an idea rather than themselves. And finally, a great work ethic is critical. Successful leaders spend way more hours on their work than the average person.

MK: What advice would you give to current students seeking to live their passions?

AB:  First, get out of your comfort zone. Travel. Go beyond the places that make you feel safe, and then you’ll figure out who you are, what makes you feel most alive. The second thing is to surround yourself with people who push you to grow. People that aren’t excited to see you change are not people who will help you become more successful and passionate about something that you care about. The third is to be willing to be wrong. Those people who have succeeded? It’s their third, and fourth and tenth time. But, you only know about that one beacon of success. There is this notion that if you don’t hit it out of the park on your first try, you should stop trying. That goes back to the vulnerability, where you maybe will be scared and know that you could be wrong, but you go for it anyway. Just try. Even if it doesn’t work out, it’s OK. Just move in that direction. Move in the direction of what you love, and you’ll be happy.

MK: Why do you think companies fail? What are the elements that drive failure?

AB: The idea may not be right for the time. You can create the best app with the coolest functionality, but if Apple creates a new functionality next month, you’re screwed. So, sometimes it’s just bad timing. The other thing is that people dive so deep into what they are doing that they don’t get outside opinions. People fail because they don’t have objectivity outside of their pursuits and they don’t ask other people what mistakes they should be looking out for.  And a lot of people fail because they aren’t willing to put in the hours and work hard enough to make what they want to happen actually happen.

MK: Why do you think that is?

AB: Well, some people just don’t work hard. Others work like crazy, but the more influential piece is how deeply you believe that what you are doing will be successful. I never hoped or believed that PoP was going to be what it is now- I just knew. And I knew what it was meant to be and what it was going to become, and all I needed to do was put in the hours to make it happen. I’m one of the laziest people you will meet for sure. But I work harder than most people I know, because I know this is happening and that gives me an adrenaline where I don’t fatigue from it. I don’t get bored of it. When I leave work, I go home and I don’t watch TV. I have a whiteboard and a computer, and that’s what I want to spend my time on. It’s not about being the hardest working person by nature, but rather believing in something that you know is going to work, so you work hard to make it happen.

MK: Why do you think PoP got so big so fast?

AB: I still think we are so far from what we are going to become. It’s grown so quickly because of a lack of satisfaction that we had achieved anything great yet. As soon as we do something great, I’m still pushing. I want us to succeed, so I think it’s the notion of consistently raising the bar beyond what you thought you could’ve achieved six months ago. It’s like being nearsighted and simultaneously having extended far-sightedness. We are going to be a leader in the global education space. There’s no point in me planning out the next 18 months of Pencils of Promise. We’ve never had a business plan, because as soon as we could write one, it would be obsolete. I think the rate of acceleration is aligned with the rate of expectation in relation to your achievement. It’s expecting to constantly achieve at a higher and higher level.

MK: How do you define success?

AB: For PoP, I define it based on the two axis of the organization’s mission. The first is how many educational opportunities we’ve helped provide to those in the developing world, and then how many domestic youth we have inspired to take action in the causes they care most about. I measure the success of PoP based on how far along we are in achieving both of those missions.

Personally, I think about two things only. One is, “What is the amount of physical positivity and energy I put into the world, that my being has projected out into the world?” That’s the most important one. The other is, “What level of personal fulfillment, joy and happiness do I have in the moments throughout my day?” If both of those are really high, I feel successful.

MK: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about achieving success so far?

AB: Well, one is that the two ways in which I measure my success aren’t always congruent…or they aren’t always directly correlated to one another. The greater positivity and good that I can personally create is not always tied directly to my personal fulfillment and joy. I’ve learned to try and make sure there is a balance so that one is never fully submerged for the other, because that can be a really slippery slope. For example, there have been many periods where I’ve worked so hard on the organization and the amount of good that has been created from that work was really, really high. But, my happiness level was not very high at all because I was working too hard. So, I stopped using email from Friday night until Sunday morning because I needed to find a balance.

The other one is that as soon as you think you are really, really good at something, it probably means you are about to get knocked down. And when you do, it’s probably going to be really, really good for you.

MK: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received that you want to pass on to readers?

AB: The single most important thing you can do find is your sense of purpose in the world. Making money, having prestige…whatever it is…none of that is more valuable than finding your sense of purpose. And then once you find your sense of purpose, you need to pursue it relentlessly. It may be to be a great parent, start a hedge fund or run a non-profit. But once you have that knowledge, it’s incredibly empowering and will guide you in your life. Constantly seek out and pursue your purpose.


Melissa is the Marketing Director at Baking for Good, an online bakery that donates 15% of the proceeds from every sale to a charity of the customer’s choice. Previously, she was an Associate Brand Manager at Time, Inc. working on brand extension projects for numerous publications including: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, People, MLB, NFL and National Geographic. Melissa has a passion for magazines, writing, traveling and of course, the NY Jets. To find out more, read her blog, follow her on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

Related posts:

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  2. Live Your Passion: Mike Radparvar, Co-Founder of Holstee
  3. Live Your Passion: Rachel Phillips, Founder of Music Crossing Borders

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