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She was rapt all through his description of his work. Then she asked the poison question. “Does it scale? If you can do this with an organization of a hundred, how would you do it in one with thirty thousand?”

He spent the next two days working out how that might happen, or, more properly, utterly failing to work out how that might happen. Finally, in some frustration, he figured out something. The answer, the definitive answer to her question just had to be no. He answered her question, so why did he feel as though he’d failed?

In this culture, scaling up seems the natural validation of any great idea. Failing to scale feels like failing to thrive. Many people have asked me, because I’m a half-way decent home cook, why I don’t open a restaurant. The short answer says, “Because I like to cook.” The surest way to lose a love is to try to scale it up. Running a restaurant has almost nothing to do with liking to cook, or, indeed, cooking. There, the logistics trump everything, and if my love of logistics approached my passion for cooking, then I might consider opening a restaurant.

Much of what we do, and do extraordinarily well, fails to scale. It fails to scale because it was never meant to scale. What McDonalds managed to do to the hamburger aptly demonstrates what scaling up accomplishes. It produces an in-name-only analogue of the original, a vague memory of the inspiration lit by flashy neon and promoted by canny professionals. If it needs a skilled manipulator to anchor its reputation, it hasn’t much substance supporting it.

I see people trying to scale stuff down. Locavores seek small and beautiful. Microbreweries have no desire to quench everyone’s thirst. The artisan doesn’t survey to ask his customers what they want, he produces with the notion that enough might recognize and appreciate what he wants to make. While there are certainly economies realized at scale, many uncountable things utterly fall apart when scaling up, and some uncountable things improve when the volume discounts disappear.

Curiously, writing doesn’t scale. One word at a time, sometimes as much as a whole phrase appearing without a stop to check what’s emerging. It’s lego-like work. And reading, speed readers excepted, moves at about the speed of a walking horse. Reading doesn’t scale, either. And though we can broadcast a recording, the speed of listening hasn’t changed a lick since the beginning of time.

Snowed in this morning, effectively cut-off from the megalopolis, my horizon reaches just beyond the edge of the property. The snow muffles the subway rattle, and the coal trains whisper past a few short, impassable blocks away. This world seems plenty big enough. I am not aching to franchise my tranquility. My experiencing of it gives me no insight into how anyone else might experience it. I guess this experience doesn’t scale.

©2014 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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