How a social adventurer turned a paperclip into an exciting journey

Kyle MacDonald – The Paperclip Guy

Think of something crazy you would like to do…and Kyle MacDonald has probably done it. From buying out an entire corner store that was close to becoming bankrupt to trading a paperclip for a house, Kyle Macdonald has stayed true to his “Social Adventurer” Image. Kyle had his first TED Talk ever at TEDxVienna this year on October 31st 2015, themed “What if”. Not only did he talk about his paperclip project – trading a red paperclip for a house within year – but he also sets an excellent example of how a simple step can lead to a wonderful and exciting journey with a lot of surprises on the way. We had a talk with him after his hilarious talk that earned him a loud round of applause.

Did you have a strategy before you started the paperclip project? How much of it was planned, how much of it was spontaneous?

Kyle: None of it was planned. Zero. I had the paperclip and I just had the idea of trading it with something bigger and better just to see what would happen. Then eventually people asked me: „Well, how far is this going to go?“  and then I just said „ I’ll just keep going until I get to a house“. At first people thought I was crazy and in the beginning the idea wasn’t real. But when I said the goal would be a house, it made the idea more understandable to some people.

Where did you get this idea about selling something Bigger and Better from?

Kyle: It’s actually from a children’s game called Bigger and Better, where children go out with a small object and knock on doors and try to trade it for something more valuable. I never really played it but thought I might just try it out. When I started out with the paperclip, at first people were not interested at all. I had to create the audience out of nothing.

How did you do that?

Kyle: This was pre-social media, so I just had a website and I posted ads on websites like craigslist and then started telling a story about it. Eventually people started emailing their friends and it kind of spread all over via word-of-mouth.

I saw you have quite a big list of projects that you want to do in the future. Is there any project in particular that you are very excited about and that you really want to do?

Kyle: I got many projects that I love working on but I don’t have a specific one that I am most excited about. I’m actually also doing projects that are not online, for instance, I’ve started doing paintings last year and I just like doing more visual stuff at the moment. I’ve managed to sell quite a few of these paintings too. I like the idea of handmade things but also focusing on quantity and making a lot at once.

You call yourself a social adventurer. The Idea behind being a social adventurer is a lot about pushing limits and boundaries and doing things that are out of the ordinary. What would you say is the one most important thing that you have learnt from doing things that are out of the ordinary?

Kyle: The most important thing I have learnt is that there’s almost always an interesting way to accomplish something. For example, if there is one particular thing you want to do, people will always tell you that there is one certain way of doing that thing. For example, if you want to travel to America, they will tell you to book a flight on that particular website because it offers the best price. They always propose a set way of doing something. But I think you can also just try something completely different. You could put your hat down by the road, take out your guitar and try to play music to get to America. Maybe by getting money for the music or giving people the opportunity to just take them with you. That experience of getting to America will be completely different. Perhaps someone passing by who is from New York will take me out to dinner there, or perhaps someone has a private yet and will take me for a flight there. These opportunities never arise if you don’t let space for them to happen. And that’s what social adventurers do – give extra room to allow things like that to happen. These things will happen all the time all over the world, IF you allow it to happen.

Today your topic was “What If I could trade a paperclip for a house”. If you had the opportunity to ask yourself a second “What If” question, what would it be?

Kyle: It would be: What if some of the things that we are worrying about today in our society, tend to not be things that are worth worrying about and as a consequence we are squandering efforts on things that are inevitable? Looking back on the 1960s for instance, we were afraid of the demographic time bomb. There were large families in America and an incredible fear of overcrowding. But it never came true.

I think that’s whats gonna happen with global warming. I don’t think for one minute that we should stop trying to progress things. But I think there is the possibility that in like 10 to 20 years we will look back and say „Why did we fight against these things so hard? The way it is today is so much better“. Also when we deal with real issues today such as refugees- it might all turn out a lot less severe than we think.

Coming to the topic of refugees: As a social adventurer, any idea how you could help tackle the problem?

Kyle: Enable more movement of refugees across borders. Countries have to work together to allow more people to live in more places and open the borders right up. I am totally convinced that there is enough technological knowledge, money, resources and energy to give everyone a decent living standard. A part of me thinks that by opening borders to refugees, we allow people to come in, which I strongly support. Another part of me thinks that by doing so, we are approaching the problem more like a bandaid. The real issue here is that you shouldn’t have a huge part of the earth erupt in a conflict. Allowing the refugees in should be only part of the goal, not the entire goal. You could see it as a fire escape; you only use it if there is a fire. But you don’t want to have fires in the first place – you want to prevent the fires from happening. We could do a lot better and it should be a worldwide political goal to do so. I like the idea of one the other speakers at TEDxVienna, who said that we should view refugees as the opposite of a burden and more as contributive assets. There is a problem in mindset among people, especially the older generation. But I think younger generations are more open to this and are more likely to enable change. We can just hope that the young mindset will outgrow the old one.

Would you do something like a trading project again?

Kyle: I am more focusing on other things, but I do really like the interactive element that I experienced with the paperclip project. Trading something for something bigger and better was a bit like pushing up a big rock up a hill. It was a very hard thing to do but it was rewarding for everyone above. This integration with other people, meeting and trading with them, also made me never completely sure what was going to happen next and it  was often also really unpredictable. There was this surprise factor that I really liked. The adventure of it all was not counting it out. And I think people that were involved in it also enjoyed it much, just like people who weren’t involved in it and could watch the whole adventure unfold.

Watch his TED Talk here:


We want to thank Kyle MacDonald for his time and also, more importantly, for being part of our TEDxVienna Event “What If” this year and inspiring us with his incredible story. 



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About Olivia List

Olivia is doing her Master's in Business studies and has specialized in marketing before. She is interested in health topics, innovations in the health industry, psychology as well as digital marketing and media and loves to eat, think, talk and write about food ;)

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