“If I Had a Nickel” by B. J. Novak

Quick Pick Banner with cover of BJ Novak's One More Thing

by Tony Blanco, STEM Read intern

This is the first post in a two-part series on incorporating B. J. Novak’s work into your STEAM classroom

In this math-fueled short, you’ll learn just what it takes to open a business dedicated to spilling coffee for profit. And the best part is, you’ll have interns to clean up the mess.

B. J. Novak, well-known as a writer and actor on the popular TV series The Office, also writes clever short stories which tackle life’s mysteries. In “If I had a Nickel,” a short story in his book collection One More Thing and Other Stories, Novak meticulously breaks down that infamous phrase of wonderment “If I had a nickel,” as in, “If I had a nickel for every time I [blank], I’d be rich!”  

Unlike me, Novak doesn’t count his nickels based on stubbing his toe or shoving his foot in his mouth. He takes a more refined approach, one that includes every warm-blooded American’s favorite beverage, the nectar of the gods, coffee.

Yes, Novak answers that all important question every hard-working parent and teacher has asked: “If I had a nickel for every time I spilled a coffee, I’d have. . . .well, I don’t know because I don’t have time to figure it out!”  Don’t worry, Novak has done the work for you. He plays the part of ambitious entrepreneur by calculating everything he would need to open a coffee-spilling business. He figures out equipment and labor costs, vacation time, and even the cost of a good therapist. Essentially, Novak uses a business model to mold a turn-a-phrase concept into a fun, real-world, profitable solution.  

Students love to ask, “How am I going to use math in real life?” And Novak’s short is a fun way to show students how to apply math content to the real world. 

I recommend breaking students up into teams to design a product for mass production. This product could be based on a phrase like “If I had a nickel” to provide a solution to an every-day problem. For example, “If I had a nickel for every time I stubbed my toe, I’d be rich!” Based on this scenario, I’d create a slipper with memory foam around the toes to protect my feet. Or, for “If I had a nickel for every time I forgot to brush my teeth,” I’d create a flavored mouthwash.

Limiting student profits to a nickel per sale may stall ideas, so you could substitute “If I had a nickel” with “If I had a million dollars” or any other dollar amount you think would promote fun, original ideas.  

After coming up with a product, each team must calculate business overhead: 

Equipment costs (like the conveyor belt and coffee maker Novak buys), materials, and tools. 

Will they rent, lease, or buy real estate? Their decision affects costs and strategy. 

How many employees will they need, what is their job description, and how much will they earn? Will they use interns who earn college credit instead of cash?  

Materials can be expensive, so each team can draw their product design rather than build it and then type up a description of their business costs, including expected profits. 

Another option is to break down this assignment into sections and only use that section. For example, students can come up with a product idea and draw the design.

Just like BJ Novak, your students can use math to create a business model to solve every-day problems while turning a profit. I personally hope they can come up with a product that answers the questions, “Why do my socks disappear from the laundry?” and, “Where has all my silverware gone?”  Talk about real-world application.