Adam Braun is a New York Times Best-selling author and the Founder of Pencils of Promise, an award winning organization that has built more than 300 schools around the world for children in need.
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Best Business Book for Goals
Interviewee: Yes I am
Interviewer: Yes. Adam is a New York Times best-selling author and the founder of Pencils of Promise, an award winning organization that has built more than 300 schools around the world for children in need. Adam, take a minute, fill in some gaps in that intro, and give us just a little glimpse in your personal life.
Interviewee: Sure. Well, my personal life is – one of which, I’m very happily married. I met my amazing wife about four years ago, and I got married about a year and a half ago. But I’m somebody who is incredibly driven by a sense of purpose. I think a lot of people have passion, but the ultimate manifestation of that is when you genuinely feel like you are in this existence to accomplish a certain goal. And so I’ve always been driven by the seeking of that sense of personal purpose, and then, once it’s discovered, bring it to life. Ever since I was 21, I just had a series of life changing experiences that led me to become incredibly committed to the value of education as really a lever to elevate human potential.
And so in founding Pencils of Promise, that was probably the most powerful way in which I’ve been able to do it. But there’s some exciting things ahead, as well.
Interviewer: I will definitely say this, Adam, that Fire Nation knows we are on a killer 33 day journey right now where we’re taking past guests like yourself, that were just rock stars and doing amazing things. And we’re bringing them back on to talk about the power of that, of setting goals, and accomplishing goals. And so Fire Nation, if you’re recognizing Adam’s voice, it’s because – it’s because he was episode 513 of EOFire. I mean, Adam, can you believe that was over 600 episodes ago, my friend?
Interviewee: That’s insane. And truthfully, that’s not insane for me, but is insane to think about how much content you are producing that, it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago. Like, “John and I had that chat a year and a half or so.” But hats off to you for just serving your audience wholeheartedly, and the level of commitment to bringing them great value, I think is a testament to the success you’ve seen thus far.
Interviewer: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And I was actually stoked that we had that great talk a year and a half ago, but then we got to meet in person at Las Vegas, at a great event called “Thrive” in late 2015. So it was great hanging out with you, and just kind of getting to chat as a couple of guys, and just have some fun there. One thing I do want to point back to Adam, is on episode 513, I mean, you really did plant a seed in me. Whether you know it or not, you’ve done this with hundreds and thousands, and potentially now hundreds of thousands of people. You just plant seeds.
And for me, I was so connected because back in 2007 after my four years as an active duty officer U.S. Army, I decided to take a little bit of a break. So I went to Lago de Atitlan in Panajachel, Guatemala, and I spent four months, and I lived in this beautiful city, beautiful town on the lake. And I was actually part of some great organizations where we were just fixing schools up, and like helping out here, and doing some different things there. But it just didn’t seem like I was doing enough because I was kind of there just having fun, and I wasn’t really sinking my teeth into – I kind of left there with a little bit like, “I wish I could feel like there was more that was done.”
And then fast forward, having our conversation, I said, “There definitely is more that I can do.” And I love what Adam is doing, the 300 plus schools and growing that you are now responsible for through Pencils of Promise, that are being developed. It’s just amazing, and I’m honored that in 2015, and I personally wrote a check for $25,000.00. I just got an email, actually, Adam, from Suzy, of the school in Ghana, that’s being built, which I’m so excited about.
Interviewee: Yeah, thank you.
Interviewer: It’s so cool to see the picture of the people that we’re actually going to be helping. So when I was set off on my journey with the Freedom Journal, you were one of the first people that came to mind, as I said, I don’t just want this to become like another EOFire revenue stream, that’s not the point; I want to be significant. So I reached out to you, and I said, “Adam, I want to partner up with an amazing company that I really believe in, where I believe in the founder, and what they’re doing. And I want to go big. Like, I’m really looking to go big with the Freedom Journal, and this kickstarter campaign.”
And every single time that we hit a funding level, I’m personally writing a check on behalf of you, Fire Nation, who’s going to be contributing, to build another school in a developing country through Pencils of Promise, again, an incredible organization. Adam, can you talk a little bit about what you and I have gone back and forth a little bit on this. What you’re seeing out there, in the world of people like me, and like Lewis Howes, and like Pat Flynn, who are just really stepping up and saying, “You know what, we found success in this entrepreneurship world, but now, we want to move into significance.”
Interviewee: Yeah, I mean, one, thank you again for the tremendous generosity you displayed to –.
Interviewee: Truthfully, I think what I’ve seen happen is this is this incredible ripple effect from people like – whether it’s you, or Lewis Howes, or [inaudible] [00:05:09] or Patt Flynn. Just a handful of these people – [inaudible] that are not only leading in their own generosity – and all of you guys have funded one or multiple schools for many of you guys. But creating this example for your listeners, for your audience to really follow – and what I’ve seen is that while you’re attaining tremendous levels of business success, often times, individuals, whether it’s some of you guys, or any individual – and I’ve certainly experienced this on a personal level as well.
The money goes far; it brings a lot of options in our lives, it allows us to support our families, sometimes get material possessions that can be meaningful. Also, there’s this feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction associated with reaching a certain level of financial independence. But ultimately, that doesn’t fully satisfy that craving that we all have internally to be part of a broader whole, and to create a legacy. And there’s a book by the journalist, David Brooks on “The Road to Character” and I really love how he frames it, that people need to be thinking about what goes on their obituary more so than what goes on their résumé.
And when you really start to think, “What’s going to be in my obituary?” It’s not necessarily going to be these kind of small accomplishments that we have in our career, that at the time feel really meaningful. Ultimately, it’s really going to be about the legacy of the life that we’ve lived and the way that it impacted others, and ways beyond just the ways that we could count. And that’s for philanthropy, an effective service, comes into play. I think kind of the middle ground is what I call the full purpose sector, which is kind of this intersection of nonprofits and for-profit.
Where for-profits and income generating ventures that people are taking on are finding ways to partner with effective philanthropy or non-profits, whether it’s a one for one model or –. I think what you’re doing, the Freedom Journal, is a perfect example to say, “Look guys, every time we hit this milestone, not only are we going to add value to your life by giving you access to this incredible product…” that you were kind enough to send to me in advance, before we started this podcast. I was raving about it and you had to stop me so that we could get into the –.
Interviewer: I was like, “Adam, go on. But no, seriously, don’t.”
Interviewee: And then, on the other side, I think one of the unique things that I brought to the non-profit sector is a real sense of business acumen in that the only way that non-profits are going to thrive is by holding themselves accountable to the same standards that for-profits do; from a set of transparency, and accountability. A perfect example is most of the time, people donate to an organization, you get your tax-deductible receipt, and maybe that’s it, and you don’t really hear from them again, and you get a picture of a sad kid at the end of the year, asking for more money.
Interviewee: And it’s really gratifying for me to hear the feedback, “Hey, I built this school, and now I got the photos of the actual school,” and you have a sense of connection to that actual community. And that’s really what I think giving is all about.
Interviewer: I got that email from Suzy, just yesterday, actually. And to see what the school is right now, which is basically a couple pieces of wood with straw, as like a really bad roof, to what it’s going to be. Because, I’ve seen – if you go to Pencils of Promise, you can go there, and you can see the schools that they create with 25,000.00 from [inaudible] [00:08:35], from beginning to end. It was absolutely outstanding. So my heart is so warm knowing what is going to replace that.
And the fact that I’m actually able to dedicate the plaque to my grandparents, who are no longer here, but have given me so much in this world, as far as mindset and hard work, and all of that, and love, not to mention. It’s just such a great gift – it literally brought tears to my mother’s eyes when I sent her those pictures, and the dedication plaque, and what it’s going to be to her mother, and her father, as their legacy. Their legacy. That word that you use, that I love, is going to continue on.
Now, that for purpose talk that you gave in Vegas, by the way, Adam, was outstanding. It got Fire Nation a standing ovation of the entire room, just like – it went nuts. It was almost kind of like a high school graduation; if they had had hats on, they would’ve thrown it in the air because they got it. They got the power of what it means to be for a purpose. It really – I do really appreciate you saying – I’m setting an example for Fire Nation because I really do want to set an example for you, Fire Nation, but I also want to give you, Fire Nation, the direct opportunity to join us in this.
So by pledging to this campaign that we’re doing right now, not only are you giving yourself the gift of accomplishing your number one goal in one hundred days, which is a huge gift you’re giving yourself, and you deserve it, Fire Nation. You deserve it. We are also giving the gift of education to those less fortunate in these developing countries, and you’re a part of that. You are an absolute part of that. So it means so much. Adam, we can go on, and we are going to circle back to a few more things throughout this interview, but I do kind of want to bring this to SMART goals right now because you are a person who just knows how to set goals, and knows how to accomplish goals.
And SMART stands for Specific Measurable Attainable Relevant and Time bound. Can you just choose one of those letters, and break down why you think it’s especially important for Fire Nation to focus on that one there, of setting and accomplishing their own goals?
Interviewee: Yeah, so the one that I wanted to focus on was “M,” measureable. I think having a measurable goal is one of the most important things that you can do when setting some type of aspirational idea out there. The reasons are pretty kind of self-intuitive and plentiful, but I think that one of the things that we often do when we set goals is we’re kind of scared that if we don’t actually reach them, that we’re going to feel a sense of failure.
Interviewee: And so what we do is we make them a [inaudible] [00:11:05]. We don’t actually restrict what they are or what they’re not because we feel like, “If I don’t get there, maybe I got close,” and there’s no kind of obvious sense of failure. But from what I’ve seen, it’s that fear of failure that actually drives us. And as soon as you kind of create a bit of a burning platform behind yourself, that’s when you say, “I’ve got to kick things into high gear” that’s why marathons are so effective. It’s why tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people – I don’t know the number, but millions of people have run marathons. I can guarantee that.
Interviewee: And every time that you talk to them about running a marathon – my sister-in-law just ran the New York City Marathon for Pencils of Promise this year. And when I talked to her about it, she was like – kept on mentioning 26.2 miles. And there was something so definitive about that as the goal. And the whole training, if you think about how people train for marathons, is built around getting to a level of 26.2 miles. When I think back to my goals within starting Pencils of Promise, it was very clear. I wanted to build one school. That was it. But the fact that I had this vision in my mind to build one school dedicated to my grandmother, who was turning 80 at the time, and is a holocaust survivor – so I really wanted to honor her in a meaningful way.
It captured all the SMART that you just referenced. But the fact that it was measurable, I think, was something that gave me an ability to then work backwards. And I said, “Okay, if I want to end up with one school, then what is the cost for that school? Okay, if it’s around $25,000.00, how do I get there?” And back then, I didn’t have much money, and my friends didn’t, so we needed to crowdsource everything. And so that meant, “Okay, what can we anticipate for an event?” And you can start to really break down what is a very large aspirational idea, into much smaller steps.
But it starts with that measurement, to say “Where do I want to end up?” and “How do I reverse [inaudible] [00:12:56] end up there in the distance?”
Interviewer: So Adam, you started that story, and maybe we should just continue it because I think it’s such a powerful one, about how you set that goal. Can you maybe get a little bit more specific going forward about the actual creation of what turned out to be the first school, and has now turned into over 300?
Interviewee: The measurable was build one school. I had spent a lot of time backpacking in my early 20s, and really, kind of living in rural communities all across the developing world. And so I had a sense of generally how much a school would cost. I thought it might be no more than $35,000.00, obviously it would depend on the size. But I kind of realized right away, “Well, I need to figure out the cost,” and the best way for me to figure out the cost is to go to somebody who’s done it before. And so I reached out. I just Googled and literally sent emails to anybody that I could, who had done any type of education work in Laos, the country where I wanted to start.
And there were a lot of nay-sayers. The majority of people either didn’t respond to me, or they said, “Probably not a good idea for you to try and work here. It’s a very challenging environment. You should maybe try and start somewhere a little bit less impoverished, and kind of turned me away. But this comes back to the other components of entrepreneurship and developing a goal, is you have to be relentless. You have to be willing to take no 99 times to get to that one yes. And that’s how I was, and certainly am now. And so, fortunately, I finally found an organization that had built about 20 schools over maybe a decade in rural Laos, primary schools.
And the founders were basically just outside of New York City where I was living, and still live. So I kind of hounded them and asked to meet with them, and met with them, and then asked for a copy of a budget for a school and they were willing to send that over to me. So suddenly, I had a couple of Excel budgets that really broke it down, literally, to the cost of the nails and the rhubarb, and the scrap wood. So suddenly, I thought, “Okay, why don’t I bring this to life for my potential donors?” And so the next event that we did – that fall, we did a white party for the first time.
And you know you only get dressed up in white for the spring. And the way that we sold tickets, which again, just comes back to the idea of pushing forward transparency – was we let people for that event, literally decide whatever they wanted to pay. It was a five hour open bar party, and we said, “You can pay $30.00, or $40.00, whatever you want, $100.00 plus, but we’re going to let you know what that’s going to impact. And I took from the budget, and it’s $30.00 buys whatever it was, six stack of spare wood. $40.00 provides “X” many books in a classroom. $50.00 would provide the rhubarb for three walls.
And people opted in for whatever they felt was appropriate, but 800 people bought tickets to that event. And that was a huge early income generator for us. And once we had enough of the capital to fund that for school, then we moved forward and developed a partnership with the local education ministry. And I went out to Laos, and spent four months in Southeast Asia working on the ground with the original community learning as I could from other NGOs. And as soon as that first school was built, the aspirations grew. And I found a second community, and pretty quickly I thought, what if we get 10 schools? But again, it was always measurable. And then, from 10 to 50. And then, from 50 to 100. And then from there, obviously, it continued to scale.
But it’s always been about having a measurable goal that seems incredibly ambitious, but to use the next letter, “Attainable.” Ambitious and wild, and impossible to everybody else, but to me, in my heart of hearts, attainable. And we just kind of progressed from there to get to the place that we’re at now, with the help of great people like yourself. I’m sure, hopefully, many of the listeners out there.
Interviewer: What a story, Fire Nation. And I’m going to ask the question that I know you all are thinking right now. So Adam, what was the open bar tab for 800 people in five hours?
Interviewee: So, to kind of extend it to the next level, what I would teach people when it comes to entrepreneurship and leadership is you have to surround yourself with people that can take on the things that you are not uniquely positioned to be extraordinary at. And in the early days are [inaudible] [00:17:21] COO, really, my right hand, was a young woman named Mimi. And I was actually, believe it or not, in Southeast Asia when they did this white party. So I was kind of building the back end of the ticket sales process, but I wasn’t even at that event. And so she ran it with a volunteered team – we were all volunteers back then, and I don’t know what the total bar tap was, but I know we ended pretty positively in the event.
Interviewer: Awesome. Well, Fire Nation, we are about to enter the freedom round. We’re going to take a quick minute to thank our sponsors. Adam, are you preparing for the freedom round?
Interviewee: Yes, I am.
Interviewer: Why do you feel that most entrepreneurs fail to set smart goals?
Interviewee: I think most entrepreneurs fail to set smart goals because they lack the knowledge that comes from starting things previously, and how difficult it can be, and they don’t have the structure laid out for them. It’s that there isn’t a lot of education out there that’s good education on how to be a successful entrepreneur, and I think that’s where the Freedom Journal is so incredibly valuable, as you’ve laid it out perfectly.
Interviewer: What is one action that you take every single day, Adam, that brings you closer to your current goals?
Interviewee: One action that I take every single day that brings me closer to my current goals is that I essentially make out a short list of what are the biggest things that are going to move me towards those goals. We all have small, medium, and kind of big daunting tasks that’ll move us towards our goals. Usually, the big ones are the scary ones that we delay. I try and tackle those first, and then the rest of the day actually becomes a lot easier.
Interviewer: So besides the Freedom Journal, is there a book that you’ve read in the past that will help Fire Nation in their journey to setting and accomplishing goals?
Interviewee: So I always come back to purpose. And I think that part of accomplishing your goals is first, to begin with defining the goal. In my book, the Promise of a Pencil, which [inaudible] [00:19:21] 30 chapters, each is titled with a short mantra. And one of them is titled “A goal realized, is a goal defined,” and that’s why I think just these SMART goals are such a phenomenal layout. But before you get into the action elements, you really need to kind of figure out, do that soul searching, have a set of experiences that enabled you to feel like you know exactly why you are attacking these goals. And the book that I would reference is “Man Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.
Interviewer: Love that book. Now Adam, I want to end today on fire with you sharing a parting piece of guidance for Fire Nation, the best way that we can connect with you, and then we’ll say goodbye.
Interviewee: Sure. One of the things that I’ve realized is those of us that are fortunate enough to have been entrepreneurs that have built things [inaudible] [00:20:08]. We have a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge that we’d love to share with others, but it’s often challenging to do so. One thing that I’ve seen is that a lot of people, whether they’re really successful, and now want to find a way to give back whether they’re college students or aspiring entrepreneurs. There’s this big desire to participate in creating and scaling [inaudible] nonprofits.
And having written my book, and getting the feedback from so many people, I consistently hear, “Adam, this is so inspiring. I’m excited. Can you chat with me for 30 minutes about how I can build, or create, or scale high [inaudible] nonprofit?” And many people serve on boards of organizations, and there just isn’t a definitive resource out there that will teach people how to do so. And so I decided to create one. And so as of – essentially, 2016, anyone that’s listening to this hopefully can check out this course that I’ve created called “The Nonprofit Playbook.” It’s at thenonprofitplaybook.com.
And it will teach anybody everything that I’ve learned starting from $25.00 to now, the organization raising well over $25 million. Whether it’s [inaudible] development, the early days mission statement; hopefully it’s a helpful resources to individuals. And I think there’s a couple core [inaudible] of building a movement whether nonprofit, for profit, for purpose; anything out there. And just as a good way to your audience, John, I wanted to offer that, just for free. There’s a quick e-book that I created on the six steps to defining and scaling a movement. And anyone could just text the word “Purpose” to the number 44222.
So if you sent out “Purpose” to 44222, I’ll be able to send you that quick e-book, and hopefully it’s a value to you and your audience. And then you asked also where people can find me. I’m on Twitter @AdamBraun, my full name. And I blog, and you can watch speeches, and hopefully get access to more content at adambraun.com.
Interviewer: Fire Nation, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and you’ve been hanging out with AB and JLD today, so keep up the heat. And head over to EOFire.com, just type “Adam” in the search bar. His first episode will pop up, episode 508. This episode will pop up with everything that we’ve been talking about today. Of course, definitely check out thenonprofitplaybook.com, and you can get some great information there.
Take action right now, Fire Nation; press the pause button, text the word “Purpose” to 44222 to get that great e-book that Adam is giving away. And of course, adambraun.com is where you can find out all the awesomeness about what he has going on. And I want to thank you, Adam, for sharing your journey again, with Fire Nation, and for that, we salute you, and we’ll catch you on the flip side.
Interviewee: Thanks a lot, John.
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