Lessons from the Paperclip Challenge

This quarter, I was fortunate enough to be accepted into MS&E277: Creativity and Innovation, which is co-taught by Tina Seelig (godmother of the D.School), and Richard Cox (who also teaches at the Stanford Graduate School of Business). One our first assignments was to try the famous “Paperclip challenge,” popularized when one guy managed to trade a red paperclip for a house in one year.

For the purpose of our class, people were split into teams of 4, given ten paperclips, and told to create as much “value” as possible. I selected three paperclips from my group’s stash, and immediately set off to trade.

One Purple Paperclip

The first thing I dealt with during this project was objection handling. As a friend of mine no-so-kindly put it, “is the whole point of this paperclip thing to scam people out of as much money as possible?” The answer is no, especially when your friends tend to be the first people you reach out to. Instead, I spent my week viewing each item I had on hand as an opportunity; someone out there may need or want something I have more than I do, and in exchange, they have something that I need or want more than they do. In this way, you build value through a network of mutual exchanges, leaving everyone else better off in the process.

Figuring out these mutual exchanges was the hard part. I used a variety of resources, including friends, Stanford’s Free & For Sale Facebook group, Facebook Marketplace, and Craigslist to try and trade up or trade laterally. Thanks to some friends on campus, I made my initial paperclip trades for a SpaceX patch, a couple AA batteries, and a Stanford GSB notepad. From here, I made about a dozen more trades throughout the week.

This challenge led to some unique and serendipitous experiences. After cold-messaging someone on Facebook Marketplace who was selling a Pokemon hat, I explained what I was doing, I offered to exchange my SpaceX patch for the hat. The seller agreed, and I biked into Palo Alto to exchange my patch with her. As it turned out, I had agreed to trade with the person who runs Facebook Marketplace, which made for a great conversation (my offer to barter was a use case she hadn’t experienced before!).

Other trades emerged by actively looking to be in the right place at the right time. When a person in my dorm was in desperate need of AA batteries, I offered the batteries I had traded for in exchange for something else. Although she was a self-proclaimed “minimalist”, my dormmate ended up finding a sheet of flash tattoos and a dozen thumbtacks she had lying in a drawer that she didn’t need, and we made the trade. Depending on each person’s present circumstances, items can have very different values for different people; as another example, I traded the GSB notepad to a person I met on campus who happened to have a lot of USB drives that were cluttering his desk and wanted a physical notepad to use in a class. As a result, he was more than willing to part with one USB in exchange.

An important takeaway is to never underestimate the value of the items you have. The Pokemon hat I obtained sat by my desk for a couple days until I messaged someone who had posted a “moving out sale” in a Facebook group. I noticed a SuperSoaker he had listed for sale, and asked if he was willing to trade for one the items I’d acquired. As it turned out, he had just finished reading “One Red Paperclip,” and wanted to trade for my Pokemon hat. With that exchange, I had managed to convert a paperclip into a big SuperSoaker – not bad!

One Purple Paperclip <–> SpaceX Patch <–> Pokemon hat <–> SuperSoaker

From this one-week challenge, I got to experience firsthand how there’s a lot of value in barter and in storytelling. My initial trades were for a physical paperclip as much as they were for the intangible value of the story behind making a trade; the ways in which I told my story continued to help make trades happen throughout the week. There’s also a lot of power in pushing past fear of rejection; no one responded to my Craigslist post, and several people who I messaged on Facebook never responded or said they weren’t interested, but others did end up trading with me. By the end of the week, I was able to trade items up in value because I took the time to put myself out there and find mutually beneficial trades hiding in plain sight.

Showing someone a paperclip and asking them to trade with you isn’t easy, but you never know who that simple paperclip might be able to help. It never hurts to ask.


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