Post-it Notes, Distilled
why persistence is what makes an idea stick
When I was applying to colleges, I had to write a gazillion different essays. It got so overwhelming that 17-year-old me just started having fun with it and turned the personal statement into a writing exercise to see how many different random topics I could spin into something that sounded like it had some sort of bigger Life Meaning (as I type this, I’m realizing I might be doing the same thing with this newsletter. Old habits die hard?).
For instance, I wrote an essay about the time I volunteered at a cotton candy booth and managed to make it a metaphor for enjoying the simple moments in life. I found it in my Google Drive. Here’s the ending line: “Because the sweetest things in life can be nothing but sugar and air.” See? Even cotton candy can be DEEP.
One essay question asked me about an invention I admire. I was trying to pick something super boring, because I knew how many kids were going to say something grand and obvious like the iPhone or the printing press or anesthesia. I briefly considered talking about the invention of the wheel, so that I could make some jokes about how often we keep trying to re-invent it. But I finally landed on the Post-it Note, the perfect example of a humble, everyday innovation.
I thought I knew the whole backstory, but when I did more research to write my essay, it got a lot more interesting.
The story of the Post-it Note is often cited as one of accidental genius: A chemist at 3M is trying to invent a super strong adhesive. He ends up creating a weaker, pressure-sensitive adhesive that sticks to surfaces. Voilà! It becomes the Post-it.
But look closer at the story, and the creation of the Post-it Note is anything but an accident.
Chemist Spencer Silver knew he was onto something when he created the adhesive. But he had a solution without a problem. The adhesive definitely couldn’t be used to gluing together airplanes (which is what he was supposed to be doing) but it had to be useful for something, right?
Silver proceeded to spend three years promoting the adhesive internally and pushing for someone at 3M to turn it into a product. He went around telling other departments about his invention, in hopes that someone would find a use for it. Silver said, “I felt my adhesive was so obviously unique that I began to give seminars throughout 3M in the hope I would spark an idea among its product developers.” He talked and talked about his idea to the point of obnoxiousness, and people probably knew him as the guy who wouldn’t shut up about his new glue thing.
His colleagues actually nicknamed him Mr. Persistent.
Finally, Art Fry, a chemical engineer at 3M who was looking to develop new products, found an application for the adhesive. At church choir practice he realized there was a need for bookmarks in his hymn books that stayed in place, and yet could be easily removed. He applied it to the workplace when he wrote a note to his supervisor using the adhesive bookmark, and that’s when he knew the Post-It could be used for office sticky notes.
Still, 3M was not convinced. The market research didn’t look good. So Fry started distributing Post-it Notes internally in 3M and keeping a log of their use, to demonstrate that there could be consumer demand for a sticky note. He used data to prove that people ran through sticky notes fast, faster than 3M’s existing flagship products — and fast enough that they would be buying more sticky notes over and over. 3M saw the dollar signs and agreed to launch the product.
Bringing the product to market took another three years. 3M officially released the Post-it Notes in 1980 — six years after the adhesive had been invented.
Inventing the Post-it Note wasn’t just a mad science experiment gone right. It took years of Silver advocating for his idea of “repositionable pressure-sensitive adhesive sheet material,” as the patent officially calls it. He and Art Fry had to tell anyone who would listen (and convince those who wouldn’t listen) that this was a viable idea, and that it needed to happen.
Silver passed away just last week, and the news reminded me of my essay so many years ago. I remember writing about how Silver taught me that innovation is not a bolt from the blue. It comes from someone pushy enough to make their ideas a reality.
Even though it was just for a college application, I carried that Post-it Note lesson with me through my career. The people who make things happen are not the ones who accidentally get lucky. They are the pushy ones. They are the people who follow through when they know something has merit. I think what I love about my work in PR is that I get to do that exact thing every day: Helping founders and companies push for their ideas to be heard.
Whenever you have an idea in your head, know that it doesn’t take anyone extraordinary to get it out of your head and into the world. You just need to be Mr. or Ms. Persistent. And it always helps to write it down on a Post-it Note.
New York Times: Spencer Silver, an Inventor of Post-it Notes, Is Dead at 80
Reader’s Digest: The Most Important Invention the Year You Were Born
Hop take: Beer of the week
Cerebral Brewing porter
Chris and I hosted a beer tasting in our apartment this week and I have to hand it to Cerebral Brewing for an excellent porter. We can’t remember the name of the specific porter, but everything at Cerebral is awesome so you probably can’t go wrong with any of their porters. A good beer on a rainy weekend.
Odds and ends
There Can Only Be One Josh
Hundreds of people named Josh gathered to battle over the right to be the one true Josh. With pool noodles.
It all started when Josh Swain challenged other Josh Swains to a battle royale. He was joking, but things escalated as they often do on the internet, and Joshes galore gathered in Nebraska to defend their name.
“Some have called it Josh Fight or the Josh Battle Royale. Others will remember it simply as Josh vs. Josh vs. Josh.” - NPR
I’m back! It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve done any newslettering, and it’s because life is finally happening. I’m making up for lost time doing all the things I couldn’t do for the past year, which means less free time to newsletter.
BUT! I have some awesome topics in the pipeline, so you’re not getting rid of me anytime soon.
As always, thanks for reading and taking a few minutes to see what’s going on in my brain. ‘Til next time!