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One of the most important questions you can ask about your work is whether or not it “scales.” That is, are you are paid by the hour (doesn’t scale), or by how much you accomplish (scales).
A factory employee’s work (and time) doesn’t scale: for every unit of time he can only make so many widgets. He can only work so hard and fast, leaving little room for him to work smarter and invest in his productivity.
The opposite is true for an entrepreneur—the more an entrepreneur invests in her productivity, the more she will accomplish every day. In jobs that scale, more than with other jobs, productivity is what separates those who are most successful. This is because on top of working harder, there is more freedom to work smarter. (There are certain tasks in your work that scale, too, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)
The more your work scales, the more important investing in your productivity becomes. When you are paid by how much you get done, you disconnect how long you work for from how much you accomplish. This is when investing in your productivity becomes that much more important.
On the whole, jobs that don’t scale are less risky than ones that do. The average barber, mechanic, masseuse, or tradesperson’s time doesn’t scale—a masseuse can only help one person at a time, and a mechanic can only work on one car at once. Because of this, these careers are less subject to extreme fluctuations. They will have fewer ups and downs, and provide more stability than the average athlete, author, and inventor, or entrepreneur. For proof, just look at how many struggling artists there are compared to the number of struggling electricians.
While the risks are greater, so are the potential upsides. Just look back at the people who have made the biggest difference throughout history. They had one thing in common: their work scaled.
A career that scales isn’t for everyone—people have different levels of risk tolerance. But in many jobs there are some aspects that scale.
There are individual tasks in your work that scale and make a big impact. For example, mentoring new employees scales. What you teach them can scale through their teams, and effect change beyond just the one person you’re mentoring. Engineering a future version of your product scales because all of your customers will benefit from what you create. Answering emails and attending meetings? Not so much.
This idea isn’t universal: for example, while social media can scale across thousands of people, it usually gives you a small return on your time. And some tasks that don’t scale, like email, meetings, and phone calls, are essential. But overall, even if your job doesn’t scale, there are tasks in your work that do.
Lately, I’ve made an effort to move in this direction with the tasks in my own work. Instead of coaching people and businesses, I have been spending more time writing—which scales, and lets me (hopefully) help more people. By becoming more selective about the speaking engagements I take on, I’ve had more time to launch my book, which I can’t wait to spread as far and wide as possible.
Regardless of where you work, take a step back to think deeply about the tasks in your work that scale. These will also likely be your most important tasks. Consider whether your career scales in the first place—and whether you even want it to.
The more your work scales, the more important working smarter and investing in your productivity becomes.