It’s easy to take for granted the small tools we use every day.  We forget that even mundane objects are the result of remarkable human ingenuity.

Take, for example, the humble pencil — an item still in active use, even with the prevalence of computers and smartphones taking the place of handwriting for many people.  A pencil is a simple thing, but could you make one from scratch entirely on your own?  Probably not.

It seems straightforward in theory: it’s just a long, thin piece of graphite ensconced in wood, then sharpened.  But to get the precise measurements and dimensions, you’d need some specialty tools.  Plus, anyone who has written a bit too forcefully on a desk knows that pencils can break pretty easily, so how do you design a manufacturing process to account for the necessary delicacy?

We take pencils for granted, but the process of their creation is a global effort.

The beauty is in the process, and there are so many pieces to this process that people probably don’t even know about.  That’s the gist of this famous essay called “I, Pencil” by economist Leonard E. Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education.  “I, Pencil” is a beloved parable about the free market and how the “invisible hand” leads to imagination and innovation.

In this essay, Read personifies a pencil and takes the reader through the origin story of how a pencil is created and the many, many people involved in the process.

The journey begins with a cedar tree grown in Northern California or Oregon; the logs are then sent to San Leandro, California for the millwork.  The graphite is mined in Sri Lanka and mixed with clay from Mississippi.  Even the eraser is made up of resources a world apart: rubber from Indonesia, pumice from Italy.  All of these elements are then combined through numerous stages of manufacturing at countless factories.

But what’s so fascinating about this process is not just the global scale (which is so expansive, even for a simple item like a pencil!).  It’s all of the people and additional resources involved in every single step, contributing indirectly to the whole operation.  Read writes this about the first part of the logging process to harvest the cedar:

“Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the loggers drink!”

When you apply that same thought process to everything we use and rely upon on a daily basis, it’s truly mind-blowing.

What’s even more mind-blowing is how Read relates this back to the free market.  He notes how the most remarkable part of this process is that no one person — whom Read calls a “master mind” — is in charge.  No one person or entity is controlling the whole operation.

“There is a fact still more astounding: The absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being.”

Read’s thesis is that, when left to imagination, most of us can figure out how to do big things without government intervention.  He uses the mail system as an example: over time, people have come to believe that the mail system is impossible for any one person to manage.  This is true.  This, then, leads people to believe that the mail system can only be facilitated by the government.  This part is untrue – it’s only a lack of imagination and creativity that has led people to believe so.  What problems could we solve, what new processes could we all come up with when given the chance to do so without meddling masterminds?

I don’t want to spoil the last paragraph of Read’s essay, which is beautifully written so I encourage you to read it on your own, but I did want to share this specific line with you in closing: “The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited.”

You can read the full essay here, or watch the delightful video version we’ve included below.  I highly recommend sharing this essay with the young‘uns in your life.