In 1958, Leonard Reed wrote a wonderful little essay entitled, “I, Pencil.”

It was a story told by one of those world-famous, yellow, No. 2 pencils that children get in school, about its family tree and where it came from. Leonard wanted to write an essay about the amount of work that goes into creating the simplest of things.

Discuss: Try to guess how many people there are in the world that know how to create a standard, number 2 pencil.

Answer: Zero. Not a single person on the face of the earth knows how to make a pencil.

What? How is that possible? The point of Leonard’s essay is to show that even something that seems so simple, like a little pencil, can require a vast complex system, one that involves a lot of people, to produce. When someone sees a need, they can creatively work to bring it about. But he or she is likely to need the help of a lot of other people with different kinds of skills and knowledge. This process drives all the innovation and advances in society. Just like the automobile replaced the horse and buggy, the pencil replaced the ink quill as better technology. But people had to work together to make that happen.

Discuss: Try to name all the jobs and materials required to create an ordinary, yellow, number 2 pencil.

After discussing, here is a partial list:

  • People to log the trees and cut them down
  • People that run the railroads to transport those logs to the mills
  • People that cut the logs into 1/4″ strips
  • People that dry and tint the wood so the pencils will look nice
  • People that build the machines in the mill
  • People that keep that mill clean
  • People that supply power to that mill so it can operate
  • People in Ceylon that mine graphite
  • People in Mississippi who mine clay to mix with the graphite
  • People in Mexico that prepare wax and fats to mix with the graphite
  • People who grow castor beans which go into the creation of the yellow coating
  • People who apply the lacquer coating
  • People who mine zinc, copper, nickel, for the metal band
  • People who mine rape-seed oil in the Dutch East Indies to mix with sulfur chloride to make the eraser
  • People that invested in every operation above so they could have a business

The bottom line is, millions of people who care nothing about a pencil work to create that ordinary, plain, standard pencil we toss aside all the time. In Leonard’s conclusion he states a couple points:

“The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand.”

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About the author : Oak Norton

Father of 5 children, husband to 1 amazingly patient woman, entrepreneur, and education advocate.

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