Nothing Scales Like You Think It Will

Shit doesn’t scale like you think it will.

I first experienced this when I made 20K in my first summer in the oilpatch. If I could make that much in one summer, I could triple that if I worked a whole year!

Ah, yeah. Not so much. In the first place, taxes. In the second place, the oil patch has two peak seasons, summer and winter, and two off-seasons.

I thought it would scale geometrically, that is, in a straight line, and it doesn’t. Things almost never scale geometrically. Bastards.

How this applies to your life

Remember when you took quadratic equations in school, and you whined at the teacher, “This is bullshit. What the hell am I going to need high-level math for?” Mr. Deobald, you were right.

This is why: So you don’t default to assuming things scale in straight lines.

How about time? How often have you fallen into the trap of figuring that if you got x work done in a 4 hour time period, you’ll get identical productivity in subsequent 4-hour blocks. Sounds good, right?

And yet if you actually tried to put it into practice you would quickly discover that even on your best day, your second 4 hour block would be worth 70% of your first, and your third would be worth less than half.


To make matters worse, over a period of weeks, months, or years, productivity will degrade even further (you know, in case you were going to argue, “Well, if it takes me twelve hours to reach my daily goals, so be it.” First it will take you 12 hours, then 15, then 18. And then it really craters.)

Nope, you’re not going to scale productivity by simply multiplying time.

You know what else doesn’t scale? Happiness.

You don’t scale happiness geometrically by multiplying money, or possessions, either by size or frequency. Actually, the happier you think you will be when you get such and such a thing, like, say, a Mini-Cooper, the less likely it is to make you happy, because you’re still focussed on the things you still don’t have, and will now put your efforts towards working for.

In the second place, your baseline happiness adjusts quickly, the way one adjusts to caffeine after a few days. Earlier this spring I started frequenting the plethora of local coffeeshops, simply because I love all the varying personalities of them. But I quickly found a few favorites, and my visits there, along with the treat of their coffee, became routine. And routine is not joyful, unless you make it that way.

The scalable factor of happiness is mindfulness.

Your Turn

What have you discovered doesn’t scale? Or, how have you figured out how to scale the things you want more of?


19 thoughts on “Nothing Scales Like You Think It Will”

  1. I’ve never read happiness explained in a mathematical way before.  I’m not sure I could every scale happiness based on the attainment of anything – that rarely scales.  I’m happiest when simple needs are met though – personal time, health, and if I have at least a couple of meaningful friendships.  And of course the health of my children factor in as well.
    What NEVER scales for me is time.  My life is too unpredictable or I should say my mind is and my change of interest and moods are too unpredictable to scale time.
    The message you have here is right on, though – nothing scales as expected!

    1.  @deniseurena I am geeky that way. I liken it to the Pareto Principle, which is simply a ratio, but with better pictures! The interesting thing about happiness is that each individual has a particular happiness set-point. Nobody likes to talk about that because nothing can be done about it, so they spend their grant money quantifying exactly how much happier children (for example) make you.
      I think it’s for the best that time never scales for you, because IME, time is absolutely the worst way to quantify anything. So not having time scale for you keeps you from developing bad habits around the spending of time. Just my $.02 ! 

  2. Hey Shanna,
    One big thing that never scales with me are friends. Not the Facebook variety but real, “I can count on you” friends.
    Having more friends does not mean more support, more happiness, and a better life. It can if the right new people come along but having 25% more friends at the end of the year doesn’t make you 25% more (or less) of anything. Besides, designating someone as a friend doesn’t inherently make you any better or worse. So having more or having less just doesn’t scale for me. There’s about a 25% chance this makes sense in anyone else’s head except mine.
    And sometimes, having less friends (a.k.a. cutting the people loose who hold you back or bring you down) means much more of the things you want in life. If a picture is worth a thousand words then one great friend is worth a thousand mediocre friends.

    1.  @joeyjoejoe Brilliant, Joel – totally makes sense. Quantity does not equal quality.
      I suppose the base assumption of linear scalability is quantity=quality so wherever the opposite is true, we have a non-scalable situation?

    2.  @joeyjoejoe I think experience in general scales badly; in fact can backfire and have the opposite effect. But relationships in particular: they require a consistent investment of time and energy, and if you get too many (oy gevalt! What a problem to have!) then you get over extended and they all start to suffer. 

  3. Ahhhh, thank you for the time-doesn’t-scale discussion. I forget that one all the time… “Oh, I finished this thing in one hour. I can totally do another one in another hour.” Yeah, no. So what’s the scalable factor of time?
    Also, I totally missed “the scalable factor of happiness is mindfulness” until I scrolled back up the page. I love that…

    1.  @sarahemily I know, right? It seems so reasonable and automatic. You just did it in an hour. That ought to be replicable, right? But it’s so, so, not.
      I find that the scalable factor of time is spaciousness. I was actually toying with writing an article on this very thing. When you have looooooads of time to get where you need to be, time seems to stretch forever. If feels like you’re dawdling, but your really not. You’re just really savouring the time in a way you can’t when you feel pressured by constraints.

  4. When my second child, my first daughter, was born, I had just moved to Texas, where I spent very little time doing the accounting I had been trained for, and lots of time swinging a pick and shovel.
    I learned, very quickly, that not only were the hours before 10am when you got *any* real work done, and the hours after 3pm were a misery of nothingness, but I also learned that your first child changes your life in ways no one can possibly imagine until a few years after it happens, your second child requires you to buy more applesauce, and probably another car seat, and not a whole lot more.
    Nope, nothing scales. Time, money, kids, love. My dad once said “The capacity to live is infinite” and I believed it enough to write a song about it. But it’s just not true. You can’t love 100 people or 100 books or 100 hobbies the way you can love a handful.
    Groups don’t scale, neither. Can’t hire 9 women to have a baby in 1 month. Can’t hire 9 men to mop the kitchen floor, period. That’s nothing to do with scaling, just my understanding of the failings of most members of my gender. Having rambled ineloquently this far, I suspect it’s time to go watch Endgame.

    1.  @spinhead You can’t. I just wrote you an email and I want to see what you say. 🙂
      Oh, I think that stuff scales, but it scales negatively. Relationships bring responsibility, and responsibility breeds like Tribbles. 
      I’m coming to believe in constraints quite strongly, with a few glaring exceptions. I like my large, spacious house, and my large, spacious yard, and I’m not looking to downsize. But I could do with fewer books, fewer clothes, fewer responsibilities and fewer meetings. Space. Space seems to scale well.

      1.  @Shanna Mann  @spinhead “Space” only scales well, up to a certain point – as long as we’re talking about ‘personal space’. My large, spacious Space has dragged with it: “More things to put into that space”. That’s no doubt a function of something-else-entirely, including somebody-else’s-stuff, which I now have to deal with….
        But, overall, this is an excellent thought-provoker! Well done, Shanna! 🙂

  5. So true! Especially in business for solo-preneurs like video production, graphic design, etc. They get booked solid and then hit a wall. They need to hire someone to scale but they don’t know how and/or don’t want to change the nature of their business, going from creator to leader/manager.
    I think about this a lot for my own business. I think in our “industry”, the key to scaling is offering products along side of services. The products are really what help you scale. 
    Great post!

    1.  @ethanwaldman I was actually just considering a post on ‘right-sizing’. I think it fits really well into the discussion about what you want your business to do for you. As a service provider, you can raise your rate until you get some breathing room, but I agree, products are truly the best place to scale to, especially because you can use them to pre-qualify clients for you. Part of the reason I’m working on a business plan template is because, while I can help clients with creating business that aligns with their values and visions for life, they really don’t need me for any part other than telling them what to think about– and that’s a perfect role for a product. 

  6. “The scalable factor of happiness is mindfulness.” YESSSSS. Love that. I’m starting to learn it for myself.
    I think part of my ongoing journey with physical stuff has a lot to do with the scalability of happiness. It isn’t owning more that makes us happy, because like you said, we’ll just keep focusing on more, looking at what we don’t have. Before you know it you’re drowning in stuff and not any happier. In fact, if feelings like guilt and regret sneak in, happiness might take a downturn.

    1.  @remadebyhand I know, that is the tough part. But I think it’s a necessary step in our world of abundance. You have to try having stuff before you can fully realize that it’s the stuff that has you. 🙂 And that’s the beginning of mindfulness…

      1.  @Shanna Mann Yes, like most great realizations! I don’t think they’re nearly as powerful and lasting if you don’t go through the “bad” parts first and then “wake up,” if you will 🙂

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