This post is in response to The $5 Challenge! by Tina Seelig

I count "The 5 Dollar Challenge”, described in my last blog post - in which I give students $5 and 2 hours to make as much much as possible - as a success in demonstrating that with an entrepreneurial mindset, opportunities are abundant. But it left me feeling a bit uncomfortable. I didn’t want to communicate that value is always measured in terms of financial rewards. So, I added a twist the next time I assigned the project. Instead of five dollars, I gave each team an envelope containing ten paper clips. Teams were told they had four hours over the next few days to generate as much “value” as possible using the paper clips, where value could be measured in any way they wanted. The inspiration for this was the story of Kyle MacDonald, who started with one red paper clip and traded up until he had a house.1  It took a year, but step-by-step he reached his goal. He traded the red paper clip for a fish-shaped pen. He then traded the pen for a doorknob and the doorknob for a Coleman stove, and so on. The value of the items increased slowly but surely over the year until he had his dream house. Considering what Kyle did with one paper clip, I felt quite generous giving the students ten paper clips. The assignment began on a Thursday morning and presentations were scheduled for the following Tuesday.

By the time Saturday rolled around, however, I was anxious. But, these concerns couldn’t have been further from the mark. The seven student teams each chose to measure “value” in different ways. One decided that paper clips were the new currency and went about collecting as many as possible. Another team learned that the current world record for the longest paper clip chain was over twenty-two miles and set out to break that record. They rallied their friends and roommates, pitched local stores and businesses on their plan, and showed up in class with a mountain of paper clips linked together.  (I’m pretty sure they didn’t break the record, but it’s a good measure of the energy the team was able to generate.)

The most entertaining and provocative team came to class with a short video, with the song “Bad Boys” blaring in the background, that showed them using the paper clips to pick locks and break into dorm rooms to steal tens of thousands of dollars worth of sunglasses, cell phones, and computers. Just before I fainted, they announced that they were joking and showed another video documenting what they really had done. They traded the paper clips for some poster board and set up a stand at a nearby shopping center with a sign that read, “Stanford Students For Sale: Buy One, Get Two Free.” They were amazed by the offers they received. They started out carrying heavy bags for shoppers, moved on to taking out the recycling from a clothing store, and eventually did an ad hoc brainstorming session for a woman who needed help solving a business problem. She paid them with three computer monitors she didn’t need.

Over the years, I’ve continued to give groups similar assignments, changing the starting material from paper clips to Post-it® notes, or rubber bands, or water bottles. Each time the students surprise me, and themselves, by what they accomplish with limited time and resources. For example, using one small package of Post-it notes, students created a collaborative music project, a campaign to educate people about heart disease, and a public service commercial—called Unplug-It—about saving energy.

Here is a fabulous video clip showing what a team of students did with rubber bands:

This exercise ultimately evolved into what has become known as the “Innovation Tournament,” with hundreds of teams from all over the world participating. In each case, participants use the competition as a means to look at the world around them with fresh eyes, identifying opportunities in their own backyard. They challenge traditional assumptions, and in doing so generate enormous value from practically nothing. The entire adventure with Post-it notes was captured on film and became the foundation for a professional documentary called Imagine It.

The exercises described above highlight several counterintuitive points. First, opportunities are abundant. At any place and time you can look around and identify problems that need solving. Second, regardless of the size of the problem, there are usually creative ways to use the resources already at your disposal to solve them. Third, we so often frame problems too tightly. People who participated in these projects took this lesson to heart. Many reflected afterward that they would never have an excuse for being broke, since there is always a nearby problem begging to be solved.

Note: This is abbreviated excerpt from the first chapter of What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, released by HarperCollins in April 2009.

About the Author

Tina Seelig

Tina Seelig, Ph.D., is a professor at the Stanford School of Engineering. Her latest book is Insight Out.

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