Business Strategy | Leadership / Management

A 6-step guide to changing the world

We all have grand plans to change the world.

And then life gets in the way.

That’s reality, isn’t it? Despite all of the need for change, innovation, and outright intervention, most of us are too busy living our own lives to make a difference.

So how does that difference get made?

How does someone like Adam Braun found one of the world’s most innovative philanthropic organizations, one that’s dedicated to educating children in areas of the world where education doesn’t exist? How does he build more than 200 schools from the ground up in less than four years, then end up on Wired magazine’s list of “50 People Changing the World?” How does he earn a Distinguished American Leadership Award, and a Fast Company Innovation Agent award, and a spot on Forbes’ “30 Under 30 list” in the same year?

Through foresight, and service, and a whole lot of courage.

Braun, founder and executive director of Pencils of Promise, stopped by the 2014 DigitalNow Conference in Nashville to share his story. And while it’s clear that few of us have the time or the will to do the kinds of world-changing things that Braun has done, we can each make a difference in our own way. Braun offered some words of wisdom to help us take the first step.

Find your passion
Live with your eyes open. Be open to the idea that your most important work lies ahead. A near-death experience aboard a ship during the Semester at Sea program forced Braun to re-evaluate his purpose in life, as did a chance encounter with a young boy in India during the same trip. Braun asked the boy what he would want if he could have anything in the world. The boy answered, “A pencil.” Connecting pencils to education, Braun found his way. “There is nothing more powerful than discovering your purpose,” he said. “You become unstoppable.”

Tell the world
That’s not true, though. You become unstoppable only when you act on that purpose, and that’s more difficult than it sounds. As our busy lives roll on, it’s easy to make excuses for why we can’t do something new. Breaking the gravity of the status quo might be as simple as telling the world what you want to do. Want to quit smoking, or lose 10 pounds, or start a new business that might just change the world? Tell everyone you know. It’ll drive you to action, and you might find a few partners at the same time. “Say what you want to do out loud,” Braun said. “Speak the language of the person you want to become.”

Serve others
As we chase our own dreams, too often we forget why we do what we do. Case in point: Non-profit organizations. “I hate that term,” Braun said. “We’re not non-profits. We’re for-purpose.” True happiness, he said, is found in service to others. “Every single one of us has the ability to change a life for the better,” Braun added. “We just have to believe it.” And be committed to it, he didn’t have to add.

Take risks
What got us here won’t get us there. In a world as chaotic as this, said Braun, “(the) only way to lead in our space is to keep innovating.”

Get uncomfortable
Eleanor Roosevelt’s belief that we should do one thing every day that scares us is more than an overused business cliche. There is true power in escaping our comfort zones. How can we possibly hope to make a difference if we don’t try new things? Braun drove that point home by channeling Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: “If your dreams do not scare you,” he said, “they are not big enough.”

Embrace your inner underdog
“I get inspired by people who take on challenges that others deem impossible,” Braun told me after his presentation. “I get inspired by the underdog. That’s why I love March Madness — I want the 15 (seed) to make it to the Final Four. As a culture, I think we’re inspired by stories of people who overcome adversity. It demonstrates that the improbable things can be made real, and that it takes real courage to try.”

You can hear more about Braun’s story here:

If you’re so inspired, the DigitalNow team is raising money to help Pencils of Promise build yet another school. You can contribute to that effort by visiting


Bill Sheridan