Smart People Should Create Things

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.’” [1]

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.

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?

Click here to leave a comment.

  1. Daydream Achiever by Jonah Lehrer
  2. Thanks to Andrew Yang for inspiring the title of this blog post with his book, Smart People Should Build Things


  1. Love it! Creativity is not just for “creative” people because we all have the capacity to create! And the world seems to need out unique contributions now more than ever.

    Really enjoy all of your articles. Thanks for contributing to the inspiration of so many!

    • Now I’m confused. Years ago, I was told that the Post-it note was the product of a “failure” in that it’s inventor was actually trying to invent another type of adhesive but that it did not work and the paper you applied it to could easily be separated from the other piece of paper. This “failure” then turned to be a huge success years after. So, can you confirm that the church story is actually the true version?


      • Tony — the version you originally heard may have been about the other 3M employee I mentioned, Spencer Silver. Silver was the guy behind the adhesive used on Post-It Notes and in some of my research I read that he had developed the adhesive years before, but failed to figure out a marketable product for it. So, in that sense, it was a failure until Art Fry came along with the idea that became the Post-It Note. (I’m not sure if Silver originally developed the less-sticky adhesive while trying to come up with something stronger, as you suggest.)

        Summary: Art Fry had the idea of the Post-It Note while Spencer Silver developed the adhesive used on the paper.

        Hope that helps and if you have more information on the version you heard, feel free to share. Thanks for reading!

  2. “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.” Beautifully said, James. Words worth framing. Thanks for the article.

  3. Love this, “Secretaries that create jewelry.” That would be me, but then when I couldn’t afford to include art glass beads because of the cost, I learned to create the beads myself, which opened up a whole other avenue for sales and made my jewelry even more unique. I’ve taken a little break from the business, but I’m gearing back up again and can’t wait to be in full production mode. Life is good.

  4. “…when the world presents you with something interesting or frustrating or curious, choose to do something about it. Choose to be a creator.” — fantastic line, belongs on a motivational poster. Really enjoyed this piece — short, sweet and powerful. Keep on creating. :)

  5. This reminds me of a few other quotes… One from “Conversations with God”, where “god” continuously repeats that it is our Spiritual Quest to be the Grandest Version of the Grandest Vision of ourselves. Basically to be ourselves, but the best we can possibly be and beyond our imagination. Also, no one can be me, but me. No one else can fulfill the unique expression that is me, therefor no one can make the art that I am. Be it, breathe it, believe it, and create IT. James, you always inspire. :)

  6. Well said! I would add that being a good problem finder makes you a better creator. Sometimes it is harder to notice those annoying little problems like Fry noticed. They are invisible because there is a seemingly simple solution and our mindset don’t register them as problems. You can’t create something new and solve a problem if the problem itself is invisible. One of the most frustrating things to confront as someone who is trying to encourage improvement and innovation is someone who tells you “It’s really not a big deal”.

  7. Great stuff! I love your blog. It’s the only one I read regularly.

    Piggybacking on Anna’s comment, that reminds me of the line from Walt Whitman: “That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.”

    • Thank you for sharing that quote. I aspire to contribute a verse to the ongoing play by creating what is uniquely in me.

  8. An app. I won’t say what it is, but it definitely fulfills a need in my industry. And I’m using the idea to learn programming from the ground up, so whether it’s a huge hit or nothing at all, I will walk away with a skill set. As a bonus, I’m loving the process of learning something completely new and challenging. So much fun!

  9. Funny. This truly spoke to me. I have retained a list of “ideas” for years. You know “Bump-Its” for women’s hair??? I had on my list, many (too many) years earlier, “Hair lifts” with different colors to match hair and varying sizes for desired lift. I have always been a day late and several dollars short. I am not big on attention though. So probably better. Right? I’ll forever remain a benched player. ;) Hardly.

  10. Although I knew something of the “post-it” story, I was unaware of the church connection (the choir). Years ago when I was in pastoral ministry, I liked to have my sermon notes in my bible, to remind people that what I was saying was (hopefully!) biblically based. On one fateful Sunday, my notes slipped to the floor — not once, but twice, to the amusement of the congregation!

    Aware that 3M produced an offshoot of the post-it adhesive in the form of removable clear tape, the next Sunday, I demonstrated to the congregation that I could hold my bible open and upside-down without losing my notes, once again, to their amusement! A strip of tape along each side of a page of notes held them in place and could easily be removed and reused week after week, freeing me to concentrate on what was really important!

  11. Created one very tired body by running today. Not really all that far, just less than 5 miles, and not fast, but I did it.

  12. Thank you Mr. Clear!

    As your surname implies, all of your postings contain transparent panes of truth, within life’s stain glass edifice.

    Well done! I sincerely enjoy receiving your observations.

  13. Hi James,

    Your message today was wonderful and gave me some insight! At 14 I became manic-depressive which has given a great deal of creativity. I’ve always said, “I have ideas coming out of my wing-wang!”. Now, at 67, feeling I need to contribute to the world in a BIG way, I realized that the satisfaction I get from completing the personalized, beautiful and unique bookmarks I make for family and friends is just as important. The joy they get from receiving them is a very special feeling.

    It’s true for me too. Yours is the only newsletter that I read in full. You inspire us all. Thanks a bunch. Keep ‘em comin’!

  14. You CLEARED things out for me. Thank you!

    My dilemma is choosing brilliance over mediocrity. But I am more aware now that the former starts with the latter. Just continue to create and eventually, you will be able to make a masterpiece. =)

  15. James, I think the older one gets the more important the creativity becomes. I know it becomes more cherished,if not indulgent. Now at 64,I no longer care about appeasing and the quality of creativity is soaring, the palette is growing; it is a wonderful time to drop fear and take on the big challenges; albeit wishing to be 30 again to execute faster. I have had a very creative life but never as important or fun as now. Without fear, no dream fails.

    Newsletter growing on me, thank you.

  16. We begin this life with total simplicity and it is pure and truthful.

    We spend this life trying to make it complicated and then let ego fuel that feeling so we can boast about how complicated we have made it.

    We end this life seeking simplicity once again.

    James you do a nice job helping us find our beginning without suffering our ending … keep up the great work!

  17. Thank you James for such wonderful and inspirational article.

    I also wish to be a creator rather than a follower, but I don’t get any ideas. May be I am not creative enough or I am not thinking the right way. Can you help me with this problem?

    • Pooja, James Altucher speaks often of how he exercises his “idea muscle” by writing down ten ideas every single day. I’ve tried it and I aspire to a daily practice of doing it. If you google his name, his blog will come up. He is my other favorite “James” to read.

  18. After enjoying a long weekend, and not particularly feeling like getting back into the swing of work today, this was just what I needed to get back on track!

    I little inspirational jolt to put things in ‘creative perspective’.

    Thanks James – I do look forward to your newsletters!

  19. Incredibly timely piece for me, as I am beginning my adventure as a small business owner this week. While working with a business coach, they asked me why I had to be a part of the work I am looking to pursue. I said, “Because I want to create something. And it will be great. And it will be my own.” Like I said, INCREDIBLY timely article. :) Thanks, James!

  20. Great article James. I am trying to create some architectural designs for free download on the internet. Thanks again!

  21. I think it is very clear that we all come to earth with a gift we bring to solve a certain unique problem. Our birth is therefore a solution to that problem(even though this can be thwarted). The only problem with this also is that, because we are a unique solution to some unique problem somewhere in the earth, we are therefore deceived to thinking that it can only take a unique WAY to bring about this life changing result on our journey to taking our place in history. Your story here James, has perfectly enforced the truth that, we do not necessarily need to do great things in great ways in order for us to manifest our greatness, but rather, to only concern ourselves with doing small things in great ways. Beautiful article!


  22. Thanks James,

    This post ties in nicely with a talk at Google I was watching last night on happiness. The definition of happiness: “The joy we feel striving to reach our full potential.”

    Creating is a huge part of sustainable happiness (not pleasure, but happiness). Below is the link and it is well worth watching.

  23. Thank you, James, for this encouraging and affirming post. Today I am creating responses to challenges raised for me by the recent reading of “The ONE Thing” by Gary Keller.

  24. Great post James. I see you brought comments back, why? What drove the decision, what did you learn while not having blog comments that influenced your decision to bring them back?

  25. I recently created a slow-cooker curry recipe that my friends seem to love. And since I love sharing recipes…

    1 lb boneless chicken breast, chopped up
    2 cans chickpease, one strained and one with liquid
    1 can diced tomatoes, with liquid (I use the kind with diced jalapenos mixed in)
    1 cup marinara or pasta sauce
    2 TBSP butter
    4 ounces of cashews (I get the cheaper “halves and pieces” can)
    1/2 cup dry rolled oatmeal
    3 TBSP curry powder
    1 1/3 cups frozen peas

    Toss everything but the peas in the slow cooker and cook on low for at least 6 hours and up to 12, stirring a couple of times to keep it from sticking to the sides.

    Add the frozen peas 1-2 hours before serving.

    According to, the whole batch comes out to 2866 calories, 259 grams of carbs, 102 grams of fat, 232 grams of protein. It makes three full meals for my husband and I, splitting each third of the recipe 60/40 for our individual servings.

    Enjoy! :)

  26. Love this “We need secretaries who make jewelry as a side project.” But, “We need more leaders, not more followers.”

    Who will the leaders lead if everyone is a leader?

    • Fair question, but I think you can file this one under, “Everyone will never do it.”

      It’s sort of like telling people not to travel because if everyone was traveling, then nobody would be there to open the hotels, fly the airplanes, and run the businesses. (It will never happen, so that’s not a good reason for not traveling.)

      Also, the nice thing about being a human is that we can change our minds. If everyone magically becomes a leader, then you can choose to follow someone who inspires you. In the meantime, choose to lead.

  27. Thanks again, James, for your encouragement and proding by example! I followed through a door you opened and started my blog: If you had not walked us through the steps last November, I don’t know how I would have started at all. You said the thing to do is to be consistent first and not worry about beauty, but since I am writing about food, a friend is helping me bring my site to life with pictures. This is an exciting learning curve and the realization of a two year dream. Still tweeking; trying to get a leave a reply and subscription options, but all in good time. I will be teaching some food classes at church next week! Flying on the wings of faith! Thanks again!

  28. I loved this article James.

    Make small, meaningful, impacts on your own life as well as the people around you. Create things that will make those impacts that much more meaningful.

  29. Creativity is the spice of life. I can’t imagine my life without it. Luckily, I don’t have to. I grew up in a family of creative people, and it has always been around me and is natural to me. As an entrepreneur, I am always creating my business, whether it’s programs, marketing, events, income-producing ideas. My clients are artists and art collectors. We all appreciate having creativity in our lives.

    When I’m not being creative, I feel like something is missing.

    I encourage more people to look to art and artists for inspiration. They are the makers. Creativity is the act of making something out of nothing, or making something out of something that didn’t exist before. Support artists by bringing art into your life by buying an artwork that you like and bringing it home to live with. When you connect with the creativity in art, it will inspire you in ways you never knew possible. I encourage you to open yourself up to this.

  30. Thanks again for motivation, that our life must matter. We exist each for a purpose and our time is limited, so create for others to continue to enjoy!

    Love, peace and happiness! We share our love every chance we have, results – inner and outer peace; around us others will be happy base on each life we touch – thus multiplication of/into happiness over and over again.

  31. Since I subscribed several months ago, I have read every article. This is one of the most touching for me so far. I create something every day and it makes me incredibly happy. I wish everybody who has the inner must to create something would discover what he or she could create. Nicely put last two paragraphs, almost made me cry. :)


    P.S. I have had an “idea rush” in the last few days. Now I want to make short movies out of your articles, Mr. Clear! :)

  32. James, what an interesting and inspiring post indeed. I missed reading it earlier, while browsing thru old mails came across this.

    I too believe in the purpose of creation to be of utility for the benefit of mankind.

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