Do Things That Shouldn’t Scale.

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Essays

This post should be obvious. But this realization surprised me, so it might be useful for you, too. ‘Scale potential’ drives a lot of successful fundraising, non-profit and for-profit. To successfully win a grant from a foundation or donor, a non-profit often has to demonstrate not only the ability to spend efficiently, but also that the solution to problem they are solving is systemic or sustainable, and has scale potential. The ideal impact is both vertical and horizontal. In the vertical sense, each action the organization takes has a lasting impact, and helps to remake the system to be more humane, and to allocate resources more effectively. In the horizontal sense, the types of actions the non-profit engages in can be carbon-copied and exported, thereby multiplying the horizontal effect. In for-profit startups, it’s the same: venture firms ask “how big is the market” to get a sense for how far and wide the solution, assuming its a good one, can reach.

As a result of this conceit, ‘scale potential’ has been lionized, to the point that in both of these circles, “is it scalable?” is often deployed as a moral question as much as a structural one. And I think it’s dangerous, if not dead wrong.

At the end of August, I spent some time at Uncle Bill’s Farm, run by my dear friend Sarah and her partner Alex. I learned a lot over a short evening and morning. They grow tomatoes, leeks, onions, chard, kale, cucumber, basil, beets, watermelon, potatoes, and much more on a farm that covers only a few easily-walkable acres.

She explains growing science. To be a good farmer they have to be precisely tuned to weather and seasonality. If the summer is colder and rainier than usual, crop yields will be lower, and margins thinner with some of the crops that grow in hot, dry climate. She grows ‘cover crops’ over certain parts of the soil to keep the soil rich for growing potatoes. They don’t have livestock, because being a livestock farmer is basically being a grass-scientist (because of the incredible amount they consume). As a result, however, she has to compost heavily and buy cow manure, to naturally fertilize the soil. She knows an extraordinary amount about chemistry, and how crops and processes leave more nutrients in the soil than others, and how certain plants grow more easily than others. They rotate crops, as overworking the soil depletes it of nutrients, and without using pesticides and fertilizer, the plants need excellent soil. Michael Pollan says that you can tell a healthy farm just by closing your eyes, because of the sound. You’ll hear bees buzzing, birds chirping, chickens squwaking after butterflies, mosquitoes and fruit flies issuing a steady hum over the land, and so on.

She explains farming business. Her CSA has 80 people, and they won’t let it go above 100, because they will then have to hire, and to pay salaries for the team, they’ll have to clear a greater profit margin, which means they will either have to use more land, or be more efficient in their process. And certain parts of their process are necessarily inefficient. One area of their farm, fenced off, is never touched by a tractor or any machine, and is what they refer to as the “high-intensive” unit. They grow vegetables in there that require a lot of attention and care. That land would be better used for other, easier crops, if they were to scale. They know each of their customers by name, and these customers often bring their kids to the CSA pick-up, so they might learn about where their food comes from.

Sarah and Alex work all day every day, never toiling brutally, but always working, always thinking about the next thing they should do. Their lives are thoroughly full, and while they aren’t easy or narrowly pleasurable lives, they are always full of Zadie-joy. They will have to think deeply about how to grow their business if their family grows, but they will know where and how, and will do it patiently, purposefully, properly. We always talk in the Silicon Valley about whether or not something can scale, and something about that always rubbed me the wrong way, but now I think I understand. Some things aren’t meant to scale. And those things which don’t scale tend to be what life is made of. Love doesn’t scale. Raising kids doesn’t scale. Sleeping and exercise don’t scale. Eating doesn’t scale. No matter how much you do today, you’ll always have to do it tomorrow. My friend Rob Spiro says that food is a “negotiation between man and nature on a daily basis.”

Now I am guilty of the very same mentality that I seem to be exhorting others against: I’ll only make a living if I find things that scale. That’s how my job works. Our obsession with scale created agriculture, which created the city, which created the networks of hypercreativity, with both incredible magic and vast swaths of collateral damage in the process. None of this is all-bad. But none of it is all-good. It is simply powerful. And so in response, I just hope you’ll take a moment to remember how powerful that which shouldn’t scale can be, too. I hope you’ll celebrate, and nurture, those moments in your work, and in your life, too.

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