Do you get really random thoughts in the shower, or is it just me?
Today’s shower thought is the title of this post. It’s impossible for any one person to know everything that goes into making a pencil.
It doesn’t sound sane at first. I mean, a pencil is a really simple thing, right?
OK, so you want to make a pencil.
Where do you get the graphite from? Maybe a geologist would know how to find the right rocks, but how would you extract the graphite – using metal tools? Now you need to be able to find and smelt iron and add carbon to make steel, then work it into a tool.
And what about the pencil’s plastic coating? Oil is a key ingredient so you need to know how to find an oil field, which probably requires sonar. You’ll therefore need to have a doctorate in computer tech and be able to make computer circuits, speakers and microphones from nothing. So you’ll need purified silicone, plastic (ironically) and copper, at the very least. You’ll also need to be able to generate your own electricity and supply it in a steady stream, just to find the oil in the ground. Then you’ll need to build an oil rig.
Need I go on?
Of course there are always shortcuts we can take – perhaps we could use plant oils for the plastic coating or scrap the pencil altogether and just dig up some chalk. But the point is this: people don’t make pencils, society does.
I have a theory that the greatest strength we humans have over the rest of nature is our ability to communicate what’s in our heads as this allows us to collaborate very well. Being able to speak allows us to express complex thoughts and create immensely complex societies. Consider this: the greatest leaps forward the human race has made have been through greater communication, from the invention of writing to the printing press and the internet.
More efficient ways to communicate allow for greater collaboration. Being able to speak, read and write allows you to learn much more, but conversely it also means you don’t need to learn so much as being able to communicate means you can collaborate with others, relying on their expertise. If a society goes on like that long enough eventually the shared human knowledge will grow beyond what any one member can possibly hold in their head, and soon that society will be able to make a pencil.
This is why I think communication and collaboration are the most important skills in life and business. Not sales, not marketing, not a sound grasp of economics or amazing creative genius. All these are great but come to nothing without the ability to communicate. When you can communicate, you can collaborate. When you can collaborate, what you’re able to achieve simply snowballs.
I’ll never look at that humble communication tool, the pencil, quite the same way ever again.