Andy Falconer


3 Life Lessons From A Pencil

5 Jul 2018 | Leave a Comment |

The humble pencil. It doesn’t look like much does it? Yet a pencil is the direct connection between our thinking and the page.

There once was a pencil maker who imagined the pencil as a person and said “There are some things you need to know before I send you out into the world, always remember these things and you’ll become the best pencil you can be!”


The first piece of advice was that from time to time you will experience a painful sharpening, but remember that this will make you a better pencil.

No one likes to go through difficult times or experiences. It’s not usually something that people volunteer for. However, when you think about it, it is something that people experience regularly. If you want to get fit, then it can be a painful process, until your body gets used to the demands of the new stresses and strains. Ben Fogle, when he climbed Mount Everest a few months ago, went through very painful sharpening as his body got used to coping with extreme altitude, but he wouldn’t change it for the world; Victoria Pendleton, the ex-Olympic cyclist, was on the same expedition but her body reacted badly to the altitude and she had to fly home. For her it has been really hard and she is struggling to come to terms with her painful sharpening experience.

Sometimes the painful sharpening occurs when we have to suffer with the consequences for a bad decision we’ve made. Perhaps it’s something we’ve said, or typed online, or done. A bad decision can’t be taken back and we have to face up to the hurt we’ve caused to someone else. However, the lessons learnt will hopefully make us a better person in the long run and ensure we don’t repeat the mistake.

Resilience is something that most people need, to make it through the painful sharpening times of life. We will experience difficulties, and some people will experience events that create huge upheaval in their lives. Resilience is that invaluable process by which people adapt to changes or crises. Resilience can be learned by anyone, but learning it does require time and effort – the sharpening of the pencil.


The second piece of advice was to keep in mind that you will be able to correct any mistakes you make along the way.

On the end of many pencils is a rubber, or eraser. It’s not there to stick up your nostril despite what many small children think. It’s there to help correct any mistakes you make. That’s why people who love things to look perfect prefer using pencils to pens. Knowing that failure is a key to success provided we are learning from our mistakes, is one of the fundamental precepts to how we learn at St Olave’s.

The well-known composer Stravinsky famously said, ‘A mistake is the first step in learning. Success comes from mistakes’. When Stravinsky was trying to put all those instrument sounds together he didn’t get it right first time … or second time … or even third time. He was actually quoted as saying that he learned more from his mistakes than from all the great music teaching he had received. So whenever you are struggling to master a tricky piece on your musical instrument, remember that.

It’s easy to talk about learning from our mistakes but sometimes the hardest thing of all is admitting our mistake in the first place. Our pride gets hurt when we make mistakes and we feel embarrassed, we don’t want to talk about it, and we certainly don’t want the teacher or our parents to talk to us about it; however this stops us from learning from our mistake. Sometimes making a mistake feels so bad that it stops us from even trying the next time. That’s why we should never laugh or tease someone who has got something wrong, as it doesn’t help them to get better and learn.

Making mistakes, admitting them, learning from them and correcting them are the habits of people with courage. Everyone makes mistakes. What’s important is how we learn from them. Yet, children are growing up in a society that pressures them to be perfect and intelligent – to achieve the highest exam results, win scholarships, attend the best universities (however that is defined). Some parents reinforce this pressure at home when they cover up children’s mistakes, correct homework or insist their children always get it right. We know through research that stress is increased when children are constantly praised for their intelligence and where the focus is on perfection. Dr Marilyn Price-Mitchell has some great thoughts on how can we help children and teens believe in themselves by accepting their mistakes and learning from them:

  • Acknowledge that you don’t expect your children to be perfect.
  • Let them know you love them regardless of their mistakes or lapses in judgment.
  • Don’t rescue children from their mistakes. Instead, help them focus on the solution.
  • Provide examples of your own mistakes, the consequences, and how you learned from them.
  • Encourage them to take responsibility for their mistakes and not blame others.
  • Avoid pointing out their past mistakes. Instead, focus on the one at hand.
  • Praise them for their ability to admit their mistakes.
  • Praise them for their efforts and courage to overcome setbacks.
  • Teach them how to apologize when their mistakes have hurt others.
  • Help them look at the good side of getting things wrong.


The third piece of advice was to remember that the most important part of you is what’s on the inside.

We all come in different shapes, sizes and colours – just like pencils. Without the lead on the inside of a pencil, it’s just a piece of wood. So it’s what is inside that matters the most; or at least that is what we say to people in a kind, well-meaning way. Usually when they’ve just looked in the mirror and not liked what they’ve seen.

What people mean when they say that it’s what’s inside that matters the most, is that it’s our personality, our character, our values that are important, more important than how we look or dress. And this is true. To a point. Because of course there’s a dichotomy here, as how we look and dress often is important. If I strolled around school in a pair of flip flops and shorts, you probably wouldn’t be too impressed but if you met me this weekend wearing the same flip flops and shorts you wouldn’t bat an eye lid.

There’s nothing wrong with having pride in our appearance, in wanting to look our best. The problem comes, like with most things that are fundamentally good, when we take them to excessive levels. This is the challenge for our young people with their Instagram lives, trying to portray what they want people to see about their lives, trying to keep up or out-do others – but of course it isn’t really just young people, you and I as parents are as guilty of fuelling the social media lies as any teenager, with what we put up on Facebook or Instagram.

So saying that the most important part of you is what is on the inside, is true, because you can have an important impact on others by believing in who you are and what your purpose is. Knowing these things and holding them firm when people or circumstances try to cause you to doubt who you really are or what you really believe, is vital. We see too many examples of people who have held high profile positions but haven’t been able to hold firm to what they once believed in, when market forces or other temptations have come their way. But we only know about them because of their high profile, we don’t hear about the many more ‘ordinary’ people who go through similar situations. Part of growing up is both finding out just who you are and what is important to you, as well as developing the resilience to stand up for those beliefs when they are called into question or temptation comes along.

There’s only one ‘us’ in the world; our decisions, our thoughts, our values and the consequences of these are unique to us and our situation. Our outward appearance is nothing in comparison to our morality, our integrity and our emotions. No one has our exact same mindset. Changing our outer presentation to the world is easy to do and it is our choice on how we present ourselves; what we hold true is different because no one can quite match this. When someone says “It’s what’s on the inside that counts,” we should know that it does count.

So, next time you hold a pencil, remember these three things:

  1. A painful sharpening can make you a better person
  2. You can correct any mistakes you make, by learning from them
  3. The most important part of you is what is on the inside, not what you look like.