Don’t Just Think Outside the Box: Ignore It

Don't just think outside the box: ignore it


A Stanford professor once gave her class the following assignment: using a $5 investment as seed money, earn the largest amount of money you can, in just two hours. Each of the fourteen teams in the class was given a few days to plan what they would do, with the rule being that once they open the envelope with the cash, they have only two hours to run their scheme. Afterwards, the money would be tallied, and they would have to present their project to the class.

If you want, you can take a few minutes to think what you would do in this scenario before continuing. Otherwise, read on to see what happened.


The projects

When this assignment is presented, people’s first instincts usually fall under two categories. The first is to suggest something along the lines of “buy a lottery ticket” or “go to a casino”. While this could work in theory, the odds are inherently against you, and you’ll just be relying on dumb luck. The second thing people often do is suggest traditional business ideas, such as setting up a lemonade stand or a car wash, using the $5 as seed money in order to purchase the necessary supplies. While this method is less risky, the problem is that it only has a low potential for success.

However, after giving it some thought, the teams often manage to come up with more creative solutions, which allow them to make much more money than they would otherwise, without having to take on any additional risks.

  • One team identified a common problem in college towns: the frustratingly long lines at popular restaurants on Saturday night. Their idea was to help people solve this problem, for a fee. First, they walked around and made reservations at several restaurants. Once the time for their reservation approached, they went to customers waiting in line, and sold each reservation for up to $20, to people who were happy to pay in order to avoid the long wait. As the night went on, this team also noticed that they had an easier time selling their reservations in restaurants that use a pager to let customers know that their table is ready. They attributed this to people being more comfortable paying when they receive something tangible in exchange, which led them to focus on this type of restaurants. This new focus also offered an additional benefit: after switching the original pager with the new one which had a reservation for a later time, the team could wait a bit and then sell the newly-acquired pager to a new customer, who gave them a new pager in return, thus creating a profitable cycle.
  • Another team set up a stand in front of the student-union building, where they offered to measure the tire pressure on people’s bikes for free. Then, if the tires needed to be refilled, they offered to do so for the price of $1. Initially, they were worried that they were taking advantage of their fellow students, who could fill their tires for free at a nearby gas station. However, after serving a few people, the team realized that the students were grateful, because this service offered them a valuable degree of convenience, for which they were happy to pay a small price. Like the first team, this team also adjusted halfway through the two-hour period, and started asking for donations, instead of a fixed payment. Because students were grateful for this service, the team’s income soared.
  • The team that made the most money took a completely different approach. They realized that the most valuable asset that they have isn’t the $5 or the two hours dedicated to running their scheme, but rather the three-minute class presentation, where they hold the attention of all the students in their class. This group sold their presentation time to a company that wanted to recruit students from the class, and spent the three minutes pitching the company to their fellow students.

All these teams had one thing in common: instead of trying to solve the solution within the constraining $5 framework, they took a completely different approach, and managed to make much more money than they would have otherwise.


Summary and conclusions

  • Students were given a simple task: using $5 and two hours, make the largest amount of money possible.
  • The winning teams were those who ignored the $5 completely, and who were therefore not constrained by this limiting amount.
  • One team made reservations to restaurants during peak times, and then sold them to people waiting in line. Another team offered to add air to people’s bicycle tires, for a fee. The team that made the most money was the one who sold the time allotted for their class presentation to a company that wanted to recruit students from their class.
  • The lesson here is that sometimes, when trying to find a solution to a problem, you can benefit from attacking the problem from a completely new angle that bypasses any limiting constraints, rather than trying to work within the framework of these constraints.
  • Another lesson from the winning teams is that you should adjust your solution as you go along. For example, the team selling the reservations realized that their scheme works better at restaurants which use a pager to alert customers about their reservations, while the team filling tires realized that they can make more money by asking for a donation, instead of a fixed-fee payment.


The Handicap Principle: Why Accepting a Disadvantage is a Show of Strength

The Handicap Principle


The handicap principle is the idea that in order to guarantee honesty in communication, the signals that you make must be costly in some way. Therefore, if you want to showcase your strength, you must be willing to pay a price, and the greater the price, the more reliable your show of strength will be.

For example, think of a peacock’s tail. Aside from looking pretty, it serves little to no functional purpose. At the same time, it takes a considerable amount of resources to grow and to carry around, and makes it harder for the peacock to escape predators. Because of this, the bigger the tail, the more impressive it is, since it signals to other peacocks that the individual walking around with it is fit enough to find food and evade predators, despite his handicap.

In this article, you will learn more about the handicap principle and about the theory behind it, and see how understanding it can benefit you in practice.


Theory of the handicap principle

The basic idea behind the handicap principle is that reliable signals must incur a cost to the signaler, and the heavier the cost, the more reliable the signal is.

For example, let’s go back to the peacock’s tail. A large tail serves as a reliable signal, because the cost of carrying it is high, in terms of the resources the peacock must consume, and in terms of the difficulty of avoiding predators. The female peacocks therefore trust it as a signal, because a male that is not fit enough to carry his big tail around, generally won’t be able to survive for long.

Humans are no different, and showcase their strength through their willingness to pay a price in some way. Often, this price is monetary, as people buy expensive products in order to demonstrate their financial strength. For example, a person might buy a luxury watch as a signal that they are wealthy, since buying the watch shows that they can afford to spend a large amount of money on something that serves mostly as a status symbol.

However, the price that a person pays doesn’t always have to do with money. In sports, for example, there is the concept of a golf handicap, which refers to the number of golf strokes that a player is limited to during a game. Under this context, the better the player is, the greater the handicap that they play with.

Since a player’s handicap is determined based on their past performance in golf matches, it serves as a direct indicator of their golfing ability. If a weak player claims to be better than they are in reality, they will have to prove it by playing with a significant handicap. Because they’re not actually good enough to play at that level, they will simply end up losing most of their matches, until they accept a handicap that matches their true abilities.


Signal inflation

The value of a signal can degrade over time, because once a signal becomes affordable to everyone, its value shrinks, in a process of inflation.

For example, in a park where food is plentiful and there are no natural predators, a peacock’s extravagant tail might not serve as a good indicator of fitness, since even weak males could afford to carry a tail like that around.

The same is true with cars. Once, simply owning a car was a status symbol by itself. Eventually however, cars became ubiquitous, and owning a luxury car became the new status symbol.

Now, thanks to leasing and loans, even this signal degraded, since people can drive around in relatively expensive cars, without being wealthy enough to own them in a responsible manner. This makes such a signal less reliable, and means that people have to either buy more expensive cars, or turn to other status symbols in order to demonstrate their wealth.


Altruism and prestige

The handicap principle can explain a lot of altruistic behavior, since altruism, or the willingness to care for others, serves as a signal of personal ability, which increases the prestige of the signaler in the eyes of others.

For example, when a male bird gives some of his food to weak members of his flock, he is demonstrating his ability to easily get food, which increases his prestige in the eyes of other members of the flock.

This can be so beneficial to one’s social standing, that sometimes competitive altruism develops. When this happens, different members of the group will fight for the opportunity to show others how altruistic they are, and how much they can help others, in order to improve their standing within the group hierarchy.


The value of understanding the handicap principle

You can use the handicap principle to make your signals and communication appear more honest. Understand that the greater the cost you incur when signaling others, the more reliable your communication will appear. Cost can be anything of value, including your willingness to spend time, money, or effort.

You can also use the handicap principle in order to interpret other people’s signals. If you’re unsure about how honest someone is, ask yourself what cost they are incurring by signaling whatever they are signaling, and what price they will have to pay if they are being dishonest.

Key points to remember:

  • A high cost does not ensure honesty, but it does contribute to the signal’s reliability.
  • Cost is relative to the situation and to the signaler’s ability. A $100 donation from a poor college student can be a much stronger signal than a $1,000 donation from a large corporation.
  • The cost must be relevant to the signal, and of interest to whomever you are signaling to. For example, if someone wants to see that you care about them through your willingness to spend time and effort, spending all the money in the world might not help.


Summary and conclusions

  • The handicap principle denotes that in order to guarantee honesty in communication, the signals that you make must be costly in some way.
  • Therefore, if you want to display your strength, you must be willing to pay a price, and the greater the price, the more reliable your show of strength will be.
  • For example, a peacock’s tail serves no functional purpose, and requires a lot of resources to carry around, while also making it difficult for the peacock to escape predators. Because of this, it serves as a good signal of fitness, since weak males who grow a big tail likely won’t survive for long.
  • A common way for people to display their strength is by buying expensive things, which signal others that they are strong from a financial perspective.
  • When communicating with others, always keep in mind that the greater the cost of the signal, the more reliable it is. This is important both when you try to get others to trust your signals, as well as when you consider the honesty of other people’s communication.


If you want to learn more about the handicap principle, beyond the basic information outlined in this article, take a look at the original book on the topic “The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle“.


Learn How to Sew Things Instead of Throwing Them Away



Sooner or later, the things that you use start falling apart. Clothes are no exceptions, and eventually they start to tear, split at the seams, lose buttons, or suffer from other minor forms of damage.

When this happens, a lot of people tend to just throw the item away. However, in most cases you can easily fix the issue with some basic sewing. This allows you to significantly extend the shelf-life of the items, which saves you time, money, and can also help you in situations where you can’t immediately replace the item in question.

This isn’t a guide for people who want to master the art of sewing intricate patterns. Rather, this guide is for people who want to learn, in about 5 minutes, how they can sew and fix stuff that gets damaged. This guide isn’t limited to fixing clothes, and can also help with other items, including anything from backpacks to pillowcases. If you want to learn this simple but useful skill, read on.


Items you will need

Thread- the closer the color of the thread to the color of the item you are sewing, the less noticeable it will be. A single spool of thread costs almost nothing and will last for years.

Sewing needle- the bigger the eye, the easier it will be to thread it. Overall though, size shouldn’t really matter unless it’s so small that you can’t thread it at all, or so large that it makes holes in whatever you’re trying to sew.

Scissors/knife- designated sewing scissors/shears are best, but anything that can cut the thread will work. Don’t use your teeth: it’s bad for them, and they do a bad job at this anyway. Besides, finding something to cut with isn’t that hard.

Pins (optional)- these can be used to hold the fabric in place while you’re sewing. Not crucial in most cases, but useful in some.


Tip: a lot of hotels give out, for free, small sewing-kits which contain all of these items (except for scissors). You can stock up on a few extra kits whenever you stay in a hotel. In fact, you could generally just walk into a hotel and ask for a sewing kit, and you’ll probably get it without any questions asked. You can also ask them for a disposable razor, and add its blade to your mini sewing kit (after carefully removing it), to ensure you always have something to cut with (though it’s not a very convenient tool to use).


Free hotel sewing kit
Credit to Reddit user ‘photolouis’


It’s worth it to keep a spare sewing kit in your bag. It barely takes up any space, and you never know when you need it. People almost never think of carrying something like this, so not only is it convenient, but you could also end up saving the day for someone with an unfortunate clothing malfunction.


Setting up the materials

First, you’re going to have to cut the thread to the desired length. A rough estimate is to cut thread about 6 times longer than the length of the stitch you’ll make. When in doubt go with more thread, since you can always trim the excess if necessary (try not to overdo it though).

Next, you’re going to thread the needle. Simply pinch the thread near the tip, and lower the needle onto it. Once the string is securely in the eye, pull the rest of it through until the needle is hanging in the middle. Tie the ends of the thread together. If you’re struggling to thread the needle, try the following things:

  • Make sure there are no frayed edges that are catching on the edge of the needle’s eye. If there are, trim the end of the thread and try again.
  • You can compress the end of the thread by wetting it and/or pressing it hard.
  • You can try pushing the string into the needle, as opposed to lowering the needle onto it (some people prefer this method).
  • If nothing works, you’re going to have to get a bigger needle, or a sewing kit where the needle comes pre-threaded.


Threaded needle


How to sew

Now that you have everything ready, you can start sewing. All stitches generally revolve around the same concept, of pushing the needle across two parts of the fabric, in order to connect them.

The following 3 commonly-used stitches are usually your best bet:

Running stitch- place the two pieces of fabric you’re going to sew over each other to create some overlap. Sew in a straight line from the start of the overlapping section, while passing the needle up and down through the fabric. If you want the stitch to not show too much, you can alternate in terms of how much of the stitch appears on each side of the fabric.


Running stitch example
Credit to Jessy Ratfink, “Sewing How To: Running Stitch


Backstitch- this one is the same as a running stitch, with one change: you produce a full stitch going forward on the bottom side of the fabric, and then a half-length stitch going backward on the top side.


Back stitch example
Credit to Jessy Ratfink, “Sewing How To: Backstitch


If that doesn’t make sense, try looking at the following diagram. The odd numbers show when the needle is pulled up from below the fabric towards you, while the even numbers show when it’s being pushed down away from you.


Back stitch diagram


Whip stitch- usable mainly when sewing edges of a fabric together. Simply align the two edges, and perform a spiral sewing motions through them.


Whip stitch example
Credit to Jessy Ratfink, “How to Sew


(Variants of this are also referred to as an overlap stitch, but for our purposes the distinction isn’t important).


Things to keep in mind:

  • You can either hold the fabrics in place yourself, or use pins to keep them aligned.
  • If something is ripped or if there is a split seam, always start sewing a bit before the beginning of the rip, and finish the stitch a bit past it, to prevent it from ripping again.
  • When you start sewing, secure the stitch by making a few passes through the fabric at the starting point. When you’re done, do the same at the end of the stitch. Finish by tying a knot near the base of the string, and trim any loose remains.
  • Make sure to pull the thread completely through at each pass, without leaving any loose thread behind. However, don’t pull it too tightly, as this could weaken the thread, and distort the fabric.
  • The smaller the length of each individual pass, the stronger the stitch will be, but the longer it will take to sew.
  • If something is starting to rip, fix it as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more damaged the material will get, and the more work it will require. In addition, small tears are relatively vulnerable, and can grow into big one quickly.


Fixing specialized items

The guidelines above are intended to provide you with the basic knowledge that can be used to fix the majority of items.

However, if you need to fix something that requires additional, specialized knowledge, simply search online for a further explanation on how to fix it. This can be helpful for example if you’re looking to learn how to darn a sock, or how to fix a button that fell. Feel free to improvise a bit, as these guides sometimes lean towards the overly-complex side. This is especially true if you’re mostly interested mostly in ensuring that you have a strong stitch, and don’t care too much about how it looks.

The most important thing to remember is that most sewing fixes are pretty straightforward and easy, so don’t be afraid to try and sew things instead of just throwing them away.


Summary and conclusions

  • Learning how to sew items that get damaged is easy, and can save you time and money.
  • You’ll need a needle, some thread, and something to cut with. Hotels often give out free sewing kits you can use, and it’s worth it to keep a spare one in your bag in case you need it.
  • To start, you will first have to thread the needle by lowering the needle’s eye onto the thread. After this is done, tie the edges of the string together.
  • Then, you will sew whatever you need to fix using one of a few simple techniques which are explained in the article, such as the running stitch, the back stitch, or the whip stitch.
  • The article also lists some other useful advice, regarding how to thread the needle if you’re stuck, how to make sure your stitch is strong, and what to do if you’re trying to fix things that require more specialized knowledge.