The 'red paperclip guy' lives in Whistler, and he wants to start a university 

Eight years after bartering a paperclip for a farmhouse, Kyle MacDonald's still full of ideas

click to enlarge ideas start here
  • ideas start here

To call Kyle MacDonald an idealist would be like describing Babe Ruth as a mere baseball player.

Sure, the term fits as a sort of shorthand, but it doesn't begin to encapsulate everything the man is about.

By now, MacDonald's story has become the stuff of Internet legend, and if you had a beating heart at any point between the summers of '05 and '06, you probably remember the curly-haired 34-year-old as that "red paperclip guy" from the news. Or, to be more precise, as the young Montrealer who bartered his way from a simple office item to a three-bedroom farmhouse in a series of 14 trades, becoming a global media sensation in the process.

Since his year-long escapade nearly a decade ago, MacDonald moved out of the Kipling, Sask. house he called home until 2008 (he donated it to local officials who turned it into a museum and café); wrote a book, One Red Paperclip, that has been translated into 14 languages, and has shared his story with tens of thousands of people across the globe as a highly sought-after public speaker, whether it be a high-profile academic conference at Harvard, or in front of a couple dozen 12-year-olds at his elementary school.

It was a life path that no one — least of all MacDonald — could have ever predicted.

"When I was in high school, my least favourite things to do were public speaking and writing book reports, and now I make my living off of doing just that," he said.

Today, the ebullient MacDonald resides in Whistler — where he's spent the last two winter seasons — and he still gets recognized for the ambitious project that saw him rub shoulders with TV star Corbin Bernsen and sexegenarian shock rocker Alice Cooper ("None of it made any sense," he said, when I asked him about the day Cooper brought him onstage at a concert in Fargo, N.D. alongside a six-metre long paperclip and giant weather balloon).

Not that MacDonald is ashamed by his claim to fame by any means.

"I don't mean this in a bad way, but being known as the 'red paperclip guy' is way better than the alternative," he said. "It would have been worse if I had set out to do it and didn't."

And that's what separates the Belcarra native from the rest of us with big dreams, but very little to show for them: He doesn't sweat the small stuff.

"You limit yourself by constantly being worried about getting your idea out there. It's really important if you have an idea to actually make the first step, not plan the whole thing out, but make the first step that gets the ball rolling," he explains.

"Unless you actually start working towards your project, it will literally never happen, and I think that's really scary for a lot of people to hear because they have a lot of these quote-unquote paperclips they're not willing to trade because they realize it might not actually happen. It's not about coveting that symbolic paperclip but getting out there and being open to new possibilities that come along."

And keeping an open mind has evidently worked wonders for MacDonald so far. Not only has he been able to travel the globe, mainly because he rarely turns down invitations for media appearances and speaking engagements, but he's also turned his penchant for churning out quirky plots into his very own Internet company.

Check the Red Paperclip Inc. website, and you start to get the picture.

"Red Paperclip is dedicated to the art of launching ideas into the universe," it reads. "Whether you've got a small idea or The Next Big Thing. Whether it's truly inspired or just crackpot nonsense, we're probably into it."

There was the 2006 project that saw two guys hitchhike to all 50 U.S. state capitals, or the time three years ago when MacDonald and a handful of friends crammed $20,000 worth of credit card advances into a briefcase so they could buy every single item off the shelves of a struggling Manhattan bodega.

Then there's his current labour of love (www.whoaretheseguys.com), a 12-year-old inside joke that has ballooned into a global manhunt for five men from an old photo who look like they walked off the set of a Duran Duran video.

Like most, if not all of MacDonald's projects, people often wonder what the point of it all is.

And that's the point.

"I'm not trying to be cynical or ironic or sarcastic at all. If people ask, I tell them, 'Yes, we want to know who these guys are.' I like that element of making people question its legitimacy but I'm actually super serious about it," he said.

While appearing on TV in the wake of the One Red Paperclip project, reporters kept asking him what was next on the agenda. Put on the spot, MacDonald said he was trying to identify the neon-clad mystery men from the obscure image. Now, he's offering a reward for any relevant clues, and he's traveled as far away as Japan trying to solve the riddle.

"With all this technology we have — and it's a pointless thing to know — it's still fascinating that I can't figure out who they are. I've showed that picture to probably over 50,000 people at conferences, and then several million more, because it was on CNN," he said.

Now, the tireless MacDonald has turned his attention to Whistler for his latest idea, although it's not as zany as you might think.

He wants to start a university.

"There's a massive amount of talent in Whistler that's ready to teach classes, to learn and to collaborate with people," he said.

"You have these geniuses, literally, loading chairs, which is cool because they get to chill out on their gap years, but I think if that person who makes, let's say, $10,000 during a season, was able to get a $10,000 scholarship they wouldn't load chairs, they would work on something else, and that would be more valuable to the community."

Unsurprisingly for a man who loathes planning, MacDonald hasn't worked out the logistics of his concept quite yet, but said "a pop-up university" lodged in underused facilities with rotating teachers would appeal to the transient population of Whistler looking for an extra credit or two.

"I haven't really figured out the exact finances, but the idea would be that you wouldn't have to work a garbage job to then save money to go to school and then be in debt," he continued. "Instead of sitting in a class and attending lectures, I think a lot of those types of classes could be taught by a student who would get paid by the university for their work."

And before you start wagging your finger in doubt, remember: This is a man with a history of turning the most outlandish ideas into reality.

"Anyone who's saying this isn't possible, they probably won't get involved anyway, so that's fine," MacDonald said.

"There were probably a lot of people that said opening a ski hill on Blackcomb was crazy, that it wasn't possible. But somebody did it."

Visit www.redpaperclip.com for more information.

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