It is a tool that has been kicking around desk drawers and tool shops, populating the bottom of purses and backpacks, and rolling off tables for five centuries. Truly one of the most common, versatile, and useful tools ever devised: the common pencil. And plentiful, too—except when you really need one!
But did you know that it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that someone got the idea to put an eraser on the end of a pencil? And even then, it took 60 years for that bit of innovation to become commonplace? And—even more surprising—did you know that an eraser on the end of a pencil is still mostly something one finds here in North America, and not in Europe or other parts of the world? Go figure.
It just seems to me that pencils and erasers go together. We need them both. A pencil gives us the tool to express, catalog, chart, draw, map, note, record, and create. Erasers give us a way to refine, correct, extend, rethink, expand, clarify, repair, and retract.
Like needle and thread, cops and robbers, s’mores and campfires, hugs and kisses—pencils and erasers really do go together. Permanently locating the graphite on one end of the tool with the eraser on the other creates a sort of tension between the process of creating and the process of refining. It admits that we don’t always get it right the first time. It affirms the more or less constant need we have for changing and growing. It provides a way to easily admit and correct a mistake. It declares that while change can be difficult, it doesn’t need to be impossible.
So the next time you pick up a pencil, think of it as representing three important human capabilities. First, it represents our capacity to express and make note of the things we imagine and think about. Second, it facilitates the human ability to correct mistakes and to improve the status quo. And third, it brings those two qualities into alignment, so that creating or expressing is always accompanied by the flexibility of growth and change.
Expression. Improvement. Flexibility. Three qualities we use every day—in our work, in our relationships, in so many things that matter to us—all encoded into our pencils. No wonder we keep this little tool close at hand.