Lesson from a Paper Clip

Don’t underestimate simple

Don’t underestimate the potential of a small piece of wire.

The Backstory

There are some things that we use everyday that we just don’t think about anymore; the items that are nothing more than wallpaper; things that our minds have chosen not to focus on anymore… we take for granted the things that make our lives easier.

When reviewing potential ordinary objects to write about for this story, it happened again. I sat in my office chair spinning around and looking closely at things I haven’t paid attention to in a long time. Aside from thinking that we need to have a garage sale(!), I slowed down… and tried to look passed the surface.

It wasn’t until the 15th or 25th spin around in my chair that I took notice of various types, colors, and makes of objects that help keep our piles of soon-to-be trash in some kind of order… yes, the paper clip.

The Object

The “Gem” paper clip seems so simple, but in reality, it has grown into a complex tool that doesn’t just hold paper together. Just look at the photo with various colors. Somebody decided to make money on modifying the original wire design by introducing new materials, different shapes, and coatings. Even ridges!

Look closely at the gray one… see the notches on it? I’m betting those help with paper grip. Yea.

The invention and design of the paper clip seems so simple… who thought that bending a piece of wire into a specific shape would create such an amazing product? We don’t even think about them anymore, because they’re so common. But if you’ve read any of my past stories, you know that I had to dive into a bit of history to find out more.

Paper Clip History

It turns out the invention and perfection of the paper clip is complex and dates back to the 1860s. According to the “Early Office Museum” (who knew this resource even existed?!), the first patented paper clip was introduced in 1867 by Samuel B. Fay to attach tickets to clothing instead of pins, and it eventually had the name of “Clinch” in the 1890s, when it started to become more popular in office environments.

Slate.com has a very detailed and interesting article related to the history of the paper clip:

Unfortunately for most people, the article is “tl;dr”… too long; didn’t read. There’s so much information there, and some of it contradicts other historic information documented by other sources and government documents, but it’s still a great skim.

The Art of Office Creativity (or Evidence of Boredom)

Who has used paper clips for things other than keeping piles of paper together? Probably everyone. It’s a great utility and way to express yourself. I’m not going to spend time going into the ways these can be used… I’m assuming you already get it… and if you’ve miraculously read this far into the story, you’re thinking about what you’ve done with a paper clip recently.

I’ll leave you with this article of paper clip photo ideas to stimulate your creativity:

I particularly like the X-wing made out of paper clips from the article. Ingenious. Some people really do have too much time on their hands… or they were on a conference call.

The Lesson

As mentioned, we take for granted the items we use everyday. It’s amazing how long it has taken for the paper clip to improve to the way we know it… years… a lot of years.

Nowadays, we expect exponential growth, immediate perfection, or short-term return-on-investment from products and services; good offerings take time to make functional and penetrate the marketplace… and our everyday lives.

Take-aways from the Paper Clip

  • Don’t underestimate simple.
  • People will steal your thunder or copy your idea.
  • Good products take years to become great… not days.
  • Even the most basic products have room for improvement.

There’s a popular quote that the paper clip reminds me of:

“The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

A product or service’s life is never finished and will probably get emulated by someone. Enhancements don’t always have to be significant, but they must focus on being relevant to stay alive. The paper clip is over 125 years old. That’s a long time for a small piece of wire to be so popular… and useful.

BONUS: I think the office supply, “staple,” falls into this same category of under-appreciated office tools. You know, the thing that holds paper together and stuff on bulletin boards. Simple. Just don’t give me a red stapler and tell me to move my desk to the basement while you fix the glitch.

Written by Shaun Holloway.