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It was 1974 and Art Fry was spending his weekend singing for the local church choir. On this particular Sunday, Fry was dealing with a relatively boring problem: he couldn’t keep his bookmarks in place.

In order to find hymns quickly, Fry would stick little pieces of paper between the pages like bookmarks. The only problem was that every time he stood up, the pieces of paper would slide down deep between the pages or fall out of the book completely. Annoyed by the constant placing and replacing of his bookmarks, Fry started daydreaming about a better solution.

“It was during the sermon,” Fry said, “that I first thought, What I really need is a little bookmark that will stick to the paper but will not tear the paper when I remove it.”

With this idea in mind, Fry went back to work the next week and began developing a solution to his bookmark problem. As luck would have it, Fry happened to be working at the perfect company. He was an employee at 3M and one of his co-workers, Spencer Silver, was an adhesives specialist.

Over the next few months, Fry and Silver developed a piece of paper that would stick to a page, but could be easily removed and reapplied over and over. Eventually, this little project became one of the best-selling office supplies of all-time: the Post-It Note.

Today, 3M sells Post-It Notes in over 100 countries worldwide. You can find them at libraries and schools, in offices and boardrooms, and scattered around nearly every workspace in between.

What can we learn from the story of Art Fry? And is there something we can take away from this to make our lives and the world better?

Create Something Small

Art Fry wasn’t trying to create a best-selling office supply product. In the beginning, Fry was simply trying to design a better bookmark for his choir hymnal. He was just trying to create something small.

For a long time, I thought that if I wasn’t working on something incredible, then it wasn’t of much value. But gradually I discovered the truth: the most important thing isn’t to create something world-changing, but simply to create.

You don’t have to build something famous to build something meaningful. @james_clear
(Click to Tweet!)

And this brings us to the most important lesson we can learn from Art Fry and his Post-It Notes:

When the world presents you with something interesting or frustrating or curious, choose to do something about it. Choose to be a creator.

In other words, the world needs smart people to build things. We need employees who invent things, entrepreneurs who create things, and freelancers who design things. We need secretaries who make jewelry as a side project and stay-at-home dads who write amazing novels. We need more leaders, not more followers. We need more creators, not more consumers.

And perhaps the most important thing to realize is that we not only need to create for each other, but for ourselves as well. Creating something is the perfect way to avoid wasting the precious moments that we have been given. To contribute, to create, to chip in to the world around you and to add your line to the world’s story — that is a life well lived.

What will you create today?

Thanks to Andrew Yang for inspiring the title of this blog post with his book, Smart People Should Build Things.


James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he shares ideas for using behavior science to help you master your habits, do better work, and improve your health. For useful ideas on improving your mental and physical performance, join his free newsletter.

For more ideas on how to set schedules and stick to habits for the long-term, read my free 45-page guide: Transform Your Habits.

Image courtesy of Dayna Bateman.