UCL School of Management

Zelong Qin | 15 December 2021

From a paperclip to a necklace, the art of negotiation at its best

The paper clip challenge has increased in popularity over recent years with individuals setting out to trade a mere paperclip for a much more prized possession or an end goal. BSc Management Science student Zelong Qin shares his recent experience of embarking on his own paperclip challenge. 

What is the paperclip challenge and how did you find out about it?

The paper clip challenge is essentially where you trade nothing more than a paper clip with others with the aim of upgrading it to see how far you can go. I was inspired by an assignment our lecturer, Nina Seppala asked us to write about the paper clip challenge as I had never heard of the concept before, so it piqued my interest. To get started I watched a Ted Talk about the founder of the challenge, Kyle MacDonald. He has had some fascinating experiences and was an excellent storyteller. He shared how he went from a single paper clip and in the end traded it for a house. I was completely shocked after listening to his story and it made me want to give it a try. 

What prompted you to take up the challenge?

On the one hand, I think Kyle is a very good and humorous storyteller, but the reason I wanted to do the paper clip challenge was not with the intention of getting a house, I actually wanted my own fun story to tell and become a good storyteller like Kyle. I have always loved telling stories and even started to write my own novel when I was a junior at high school. The paper clip challenge seemed like a great opportunity for me to get a good story to tell and I didn’t want to pass it up. On the other hand, as the challenge featured in the assessment, I wanted to make sure I fully understood the process, the video was great, but I wanted to dig deeper. So actually doing the challenge helped me with the assignment overall.  

What did you upgrade to?

As a storyteller, this is my favourite part because I can share my sotyr. I started this challenge with a single paper clip just like Kyle. My first trade was for a lighter, which I think was quite a fair one. I then used the lighter to get a Rubik’s cube, so in half an hour, the paper clip became a Rubik’s cube. It was a great start. But then it got much more difficult as I discovered that no one wanted a Rubik’s cube. I stood in Old Street station for 20 minutes but no one wanted to trade for the cube, to be honest, it was quite an embarrassing experience and I felt a bit uncomfortable. I realised the tube station was not the best place to carry out the challenge, so I went to UCL’s Student Centre as I thought students might be more willing to get involved. Fortunately, I was correct and I quickly swapped the Rubik’s cube for a hand sanitiser. I knew this was a terrible trade, the worst of the day, but I just wanted to give out the Rubik’s cube and I thought there would be a higher demand for the sanitiser in the current climate.
It took a while to trade the sanitiser, but after approaching more than 10 people, I swapped it for a pen. Whilst in the Student Centre one student in particular took an interest in the challenge and asked if they could meet me the next day to trade soemthing. I agreed and said I would let her know what I had by the end of the day. The last two trades I made that day were very smooth and quick, first I got some scissors and then an Apple changeover plug. I was so grateful especially for the changeover plug, as I knew I could use this to upgrade. The next day the lady that showed an interest in the challenge came back with a book and necklace with her and asked which I wanted. Without hesitation, I picked the necklace and stopped trading, as I felt this was more valuable to me and that if I swapped it, it would lose its value. I’ve decided to keep the necklace so that I can tell a good story about my personal paper clip challenge. That was my goal with the entire challenge, to have an interesting story to tell, and I accomplished it in the end! That’s why I’m so happy with this result. I can tell others how I used a mere paper clip to create a good story. This is the best upgrade I made throughout this challenge.

DO YOU THINK THE SKILLS YOU LEARNT ON the Management Science programme helped you to make this challenge a success?

Yes definitely. I learned a lot from the programme, from how to study more effectively to developing my leadership skills. However, I think the most important thing that the Management Science programme has done is help me develop my communication and interpersonal skills. Some of my peers are experts in social networking which is hugely beneficial as just by socialising with them, I’ve learnt a lot about how to converse with others and ask for help properly. These skills have helped me immensely in building my confidence when talking to strangers which was essential for the paper clip challenge - I wasn’t afraid or embarrassed when I approached people to make trades. 

Why do you think challenges like these are important, how can they help you develop?

This type of challenge is a good way to develop creative thinking and the ability to understand things from different perspectives. But, for me, these types of challenges are more of a way to relax from studying, which can be quite stressful at times. I think it’s important to do practical activities and not solely focus on theoretical frameworks. Challenges like these are a great opportunity to try different things and gain valuable experience in a different remit, which I believe will be helpful to my future studies and career ambitions, for me that is the most valuable thing about this challenge.

would you do something like this again?

This is my first time doing this something like this and to be honest, I cannot believe that I did it! I’m an international student and where I come from in China students don’t have the same opportunities to try something, like this. So I’m grateful to UCL for giving me the chance to do something so creative. I think I might even do it again, as this time, I mainly did the challenge to help me understand my assignment, so I had to complete it quickly and only focused on trading with students. I think next time, I’ll do this challenge the same way Kyle did it. I’ll put information about the item I want to swap with others on social media, and just leave it there until someone who is interested contacts me. This would save time, so I could make it a long-term project over a couple of years. 

Zelong Qin

Last updated Tuesday, 4 January 2022