The Parable of the pencil

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
There once lived a pencil maker who took her work very seriously. You see, she did not see the pencils she made as merely simple instruments people use to write or draw. Instead, she understood that each pencil represented an opportunity to create something unique; something powerful; something of lasting value. 

Before putting each pencil into its box and sending it out into the world, she always made it a point to remind the pencils there are seven things they needed to know if they wanted to enjoy a productive, meaningful life. Seven things that would allow them to become the best pencil they could become. 

One: You will be able to do many great things in life if you'll but only allow yourself to be guided by another's hand. This will teach you that there is honor in learning to follow someone else's lead, even when you can't quite see where they are guiding you. 

If you do this, you will learn to trust. And with trust established, you can accomplish anything. After all, a pencil cannot guide itself. It cannot bring anything to life without the help of another. 

Two: You will experience a painful sharpening from time to time, but you'll need the pain to become a better pencil. This will teach you that achieving excellence in life isn't a destination you reach, but a process of continual growth you must willfully choose to embrace. 

If you do this, you will learn success often comes disguised in the form of hardships and hurts. Just as you will come to realize that an instrument is useful only if it's in the right shape. A pencil is at its best when it is sharp, not when it's dull. Only then can it do its finest work. 

Three: You will make errors whose consequences may not be able to be completely erased. But your failures need not be seen as an end. Instead, you must learn to see them as opportunities to start again. This will teach you your missteps and mistakes are not reasons to quit, but opportunities to pick yourself up after you've been knocked down, learn from what happened, and move forward in a better direction. 

If you do this, you will learn pencils are equipped with erasers for a reason. That is so they will not dwell on where they missed the mark and focus instead on future possibilities to start anew. 

Four: You must learn it's what's inside you that allows you to make your mark on the world. In a society infatuated with the external, it's easy to lose sight of the beauty and power of the internal. Recognizing this truth will teach you that success is not something that happens to you, but that must originate within you. 

If you do this, you will learn that being true to self is the key to living a life replete with meaning. And although being true to self doesn't always protect you from being hurt, or make life a picnic, it does make it more real, and beautiful and fulfilling. Remember, it's the small stick of graphite hidden within the pencil that makes it functional. It's what's inside that transforms ideas into realities. 

You will find that, although you are but the most ordinary of instruments, you are capable of being used to create extraordinary results. This will teach you that life has many teachers and, although you may not always fully understand what your capable of contributing to the opportunity set before you, trust that you've been equipped with what it takes to accomplish the task at hand. 

If you do this, you'll understand that your passion grows out of your purpose. And your purpose for being can only be realized if you commit to developing and improving the skills that are uniquely yours. Only then will you learn that achieving your fullest potential demands you run the race set before you with strength and determination. After all, for a pencil to know what it's fully capable of achieving, it must first be willing to muster the courage to emerge from its box. 

Six: You will be tempted to believe that your greatest work can be achieved alone. However, the truth is, just as collective wisdom exceeds the sum of its parts; different people working together will find better solutions than the most brilliant individual working alone. Remembering this will teach you that in embracing diversity, you will find greater strength, greater beauty and greater promise. 

If you do this you will discover diversity always trumps raw ability. Just as you'll find that others are made stronger when unbound by matters of race, gender, ethnicity or anything else that divides, distorts or derails. One need but marvel at the beauty of a cathedral, or experience the excitement of championship performance to appreciate how it is the combination of diverse skills, talents, ideas and efforts that transform something good into something great. Don't forget, a pencil represents but a single color, font or hue. It cannot fully capture the beauty of the world around it without the contribution of others. 

Most importantly, you will find that life as a pencil is much more meaningful when you surrender your own agenda to help others create their own masterpieces. This will teach you that true satisfaction in life is found in placing service over self-interest. 

Admittedly, serving can be tough; expanding your energies and resources in the interest of others can be exhausting. Yet time and time again we are reminded that placing service above self is not about doing what's easy. It's about doing what's right. 

If you do this you'll learn that personal sacrifice is what makes the real difference between something that's good and something that's great. A reminder of how choosing to surrender any ideas of what you might be able to get and focusing your energies instead on what you can give inspires others to do the same. For much like the pencil, even the humblest of instruments can have the most profound of impacts when they don't care who gets the credit. 

The pencil understood these lessons and promised to remember them. Excited to be set out into the world, it now looked forward to its future role with newfound purpose and a greater sense of meaning in its heart. Committed to becoming the best pencil it could become. 

Achieving meaning together 
According to a popular story, a great orchestra had gathered to rehearse with the celebrated conductor Sir Michael Costa. As the music reached a crescendo, every instrument was being played -- except one. Distracted, the piccolo player had momentarily lost his place on the page of music. He hoped his instrument wouldn't be missed. Suddenly, Costa brought down his arm and silenced the orchestra. "Where's the piccolo?" He inquired. To be a skilled conduct, and a skilled leader, you must understand that the contribution of everyone placed in your care is important. No one person is more valuable than another.

As leaders, we must come to understand that every member of our team provides something unique; something powerful; something of lasting value. As such, we must strive to help each individual discover his or her role and play it to their fullest ability. Just as we ourselves should not forget that our goal each day must be to get a little better, to build on the previous day's progress and to remember the simple lessons one of life's humblest instruments, the pencil, can teach us. Lessons about how embracing trust, struggle, forgiveness, contentment, courage, diversity and service can equip us to enjoy productive, meaningful lives.

Remember, good leaders do good things. Their lives matter. However, second-mile leaders strive to do great things. For they understand that the greatest things in life are not achieved by a single individual, but by a collective commitment to achieving something meaningful together.

Not because they have to, but because they choose to.

Simply because that's what second-mile leaders do.