In February of 2008, my cousin Armando Zavala played the cruelest birthday joke that anyone can perform on a relative, or so I first thought. Upon opening a blank card, I immediately checked to see if either cash or a gift card might have slipped out; however, neither of the two was present. Thus, to the best of my ability I tried to hold back the perplexed look on my face and pretended to read the front of the card; after all, he was sitting right next to me. But deep down, I asked myself three questions. First, why did he do this to me? Second, should I continue pretending to read the front of the card? Finally, should I say thank you? At that instant, he must have read my mind because he laughed and then proceeded to give me the real gift, a red paperclip. Soon after, I really contemplated saying, are you serious? A paperclip?! Fortunately I wisely refrained, because what happened next changed my outlook on life forever. He gave me the YouTube link for “The One Red Paperclip”, and challenged me to barter for something bigger than a house.
After I saw the video, I could not wait to return to UCLA in order to post the paperclip for barter on Craigslist. Much to my expectation, nobody responded back. As a result, I was disappointed and waited several months before I would post again. It was in November that I finally summoned up the courage to change my approach; after all, I had nothing to lose. This time, I presented myself as a UCLA student conducting a bartering experiment and who was open to any non-cash related trade. Even though I hadn’t heard back for several days I didn’t give up. As a result, a friend of mine had heard about this project and traded me an old Levi Strauss belt buckle in exchange for the paperclip, plus one Friday night as his designated driver. I gladly accepted because I was excited to execute my first transaction, no matter how horrible the LA Friday night traffic.
Soon after, I posted a picture of this Levi Strauss belt buckle I quickly received two offers. The first was a trade for a newer belt buckle and the second was a $50 cash offer. I was so excited that my dad came over to my computer to see what the buzz was about. Not before long he said, “If that belt buckle is worth $50, it’s staying with me. I’ll trade you one old speaker for it.” Before I committed, I looked up the speaker on eBay and immediately shook his hand upon noticing that its market value was priced around $75.
Next, I posted a picture of the speaker and within an hour received a message from a NYC transplant living in LA. He was open to trading one of the following: a Nintendo dsi, an IBM ThinkPad laptop or a PlayStation 3. I chose the laptop and then met him in the parking lot outside of Knott’s Berry Farm. I brought my cousin Mondo with me and the other party brought a friend of his. Then he carried the laptop to the trunk of my 1988 Chevy Blazer and I showed him the speaker. In retrospect, this probably looked like a very suspicious transaction to most spectators, but in the end I went home with a big smile and a used IBM ThinkPad laptop for my next play.
The following day I posted the ThinkPad for barter and agreed to exchange it with a gentleman who needed it for parts in order to restore his wife’s computer as her Christmas gift. I was sold on the story and then asked him what he had to offer. He proposed a 5 DVD player and I politely told him that I wanted to help, but under no circumstances could I accept that offer. As a result, he then proposed to trade his mountain bike. Consequently, I shook his hand and went home with a new bicycle.
That very same evening I posted the bike for trade, because in a week I was moving to Thailand to become a Gilman State Department Scholar at Thammasat University. I had various offers, but decided to trade with a gentleman who wanted the bike so that he and his wife could ride together. In exchange he gave me a really nice set of golf clubs.
Two months into my program in Thailand, I couldn’t help but think of what could’ve been had I continued to trade my clubs. After all, this was only my 4th transaction after the paperclip. However, I didn’t reflect too long, since I knew my biggest and most calculated trade still loomed, obtaining my first job upon graduation.
It was in Bangkok where I reflected on the three most important lessons I learned from my bartering experience. First, you can’t start your journey without the help of your family and friends, i.e. the belt buckle and the speaker. Second, sometimes you must persevere and not quit when things don’t go your way, unlike what I did early on, because you owe it to those who helped you along the way. Finally, when life throws you a curveball, you must be resourceful and pivot in a new direction, by changing your mental approach. If it wasn’t for these important lessons, in addition to my study abroad experience, which was made possible by the State Department, I never would’ve obtained my first job upon graduation. Thus, no matter what stage of life you’re in, bartering is not only a vehicle towards discovering who you are in the face of uncertainty, but it is also an educational journey with no end in sight. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end”. So friend remember this, no matter who you are or where you may be, I have one question, what will you do with your paperclip?
I have had some very unique opportunities to serve in the U.N and the U.S. Federal Government, but getting there wasn't very easy; therefore, I want to share my story in hopes of inspiring other young individuals to consider entrepreneurship or public service during a time of much need.