The assignment was simple, if not a little daunting: Walk up to a stranger with a red paperclip and convince him or her to trade it for something bigger and better. Then repeat the process with the new item.
Based on the children’s game Bigger and Better, the One Paperclip Challenge took off on the internet in 2006, when it was the subject of a TED talk by a Canadian blogger who managed over the course of a year to trade his way up for a house. It’s also part of Professor Zoë Chance’s Mastering Influence and Persuasion course, where it’s intended to help students improve their powers of persuasiveness, while also getting used to rejection.
Students in the course were given one week to pull off as many trades as they wanted. The task isn’t easy, which is the point, says Chance, an assistant professor of marketing.
“When students experience rejection repeatedly, they build resilience,” she says. “And after getting rejected and rejected, we find students are actually more willing to take risks. They end up learning to not feel uncomfortable and self-conscious in this way that turns other people off when you’re asking them.”
At the end of the week, students presented the items they wound up with, from a glass of wine to boxes of books to vacations, and each section of the course voted on whose item was the biggest and best. In one section, though, there was little suspense who would win. Manus McCaffery, a student in the Jackson Institute Class of 2018, and Thomas Powell ’18 arrived in class with the keys for a 2000 Volkswagen Passat (which they plan to donate to charity). Students streamed out of Evans Hall to find the car parked in front of the building.
The pair explained that it took 10 trades to get to the car, beginning with a $5 gift card from Caseus, a local bistro. In the final trade, they swapped a painting for the car from New Haven’s Unique Auto Sales, where he spoke with sales manager Caroline Heffernan. “I told Caroline what we were doing and she immediately said yes,” says McCaffery. “There’s a good story here. Turning a paperclip into a car and giving it for a good cause, this is something everyone can get behind.”
From a Paperclip to a Car
From a Paperclip to a Car
We asked Manus McCaffery to tell us the story of how he and Thomas Powell turned a paperclip into a Volkswagen Passat.
Right after class, we hit the ground running. The very first store we went to, Caseus, offered us a $5 gift card. We took the gift card and traded it for $12 worth of cupcakes from Katalina’s. The cupcakes from Katalina’s were traded to Gilden’s Jewelers for a brooch worth $20, and the brooch was traded to Koffee? for a coffee mug worth $23. The coffee mug was traded for a gift card to Crepe Choupette for $25 (the owner didn’t want the mug so I kept it). I traded the gift card from Crepe Choupette to Toad’s Place for a gift card worth $36.
I traded the gift card with the Koffee mug to Gant for a cologne worth $90. Then we went out trick or treating for Halloween and traded the Gant cologne for a Halliburton luxury camera bag.
I traded the camera case to EBM Vintage for a painting valued at $1,500.
I traded the painting for a 2000 Volkswagen Passat from Unique Auto.
I had an amazing time doing this challenge. I really got to know the community a lot better and found that even those who could not give me anything were more than happy to be a part of the experience. I think how we approached people was important; we were always smiling, positive, and very respectful while recognizing that there was some degree of silliness to what we were asking. I was also consciously pushing myself to ask people that I never thought would say yes. In addition, I think that there is some power to setting higher goals for yourself. Tom and I set a team goal of getting something worth $200 (which we were always going to donate to a charity), but I told my classmates from the beginning that I wanted to get a car. People laughed and I don’t think anyone took me seriously but I knew that I could find a way.