Non-Scalable: What It Means, Its Effect on Your Job + Pay

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Black Swan" by Nassim Taleb. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What does it mean for something to be “non-scalable”? What does it mean for something to be “scalable”? Can a job be scalable or non-scalable?

We’ll cover examples of jobs that are non-scalable and jobs that are scalable to give you a better idea of the benefits of a scalable job.

Scalable and Non-Scalable Jobs

One reason that Black Swans are so profoundly disruptive is that they occur in the “scalable” parts of our lives—where physical limits don’t apply and effects tend toward incredible extremes. When a particular thing—an income, an audience for a particular product—is “scalable,” it can grow exponentially without any additional expenditure of effort.

“Massage therapist,” for example, is a “non-scalable” profession. There is an upper limit on how many clients you can see—there’s only so much time in a day, and therapists’ bodies fatigue—and thus there’s only so much income you can expect from that profession.

In contrast to non-scalable professions, “Quantitative trader” is a “scalable” profession. It takes no additional energy or time to purchase 5,000 shares of a stock than 50, and your income isn’t limited by physical constraints.

Artists, too, are in a scalable profession (at least in the age of digital reproduction). For instance, a singer doesn’t need to perform her hit song each time someone wants to hear it. She performs it once for the record, and that performance can be disseminated widely.

The problem with scalability is that it creates vast inequalities. Let’s look at the singer example again:

  • Before the advent of recording technology, a singer’s audience was limited to those for whom she could physically perform. That is, a singer in one town wasn’t likely to prevent the survival of a singer in another town; they might have different size audiences—based on the populations of their respective towns—and thus different incomes, but those differences would be comparatively mild. Singing was a non-scalable profession.

  • After the advent of recording technology, however, a small number of singers come to dominate the listening public. Now that we can pay pennies to stream Beyoncé any time we want, why spend the $10 or $20 to see a local singer we’ve never heard of? Suddenly, differences in audience and income become vast. Singing became a scalable profession. With scalability comes extremes

“Mediocristan” is Taleb’s term for the facets of our experience that are non-scalable.  For example, like the income of a massage therapist, human physical traits such as height and weight hail from Mediocristan—they have upper and lower bounds, and if you were to graph every human’s height and weight, you would produce a bell curve. 

“Extremistan,” oppositely, describes those facets of our experience that are eminently scalable. In Extremistan, inequalities are vast enough that one instance can profoundly affect the total. This is the opposite of a non-scalable environment.

Key Qualities of MediocristanKey Qualities of Extremistan
Typical member is mediocre (“average,” in the statistical
Most members are dwarfs, a few are
Best-off are only
marginally better than
Best-off are considerably better off than
Events are predictable from
available information
Events are highly unpredictable from
available information
Probability distribution is a
bell curve
Probability distribution accords either with Mandelbrotian “Gray” Swans or is
dominated by Black Swans

Although there’s more fairness in non-scalable professions, scalable professions may be better for the lucky individual who finds the way to scale up.

Non-Scalable: What It Means, Its Effect on Your Job + Pay

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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