Learning in Ways That Don’t Scale

Why you shouldn’t always seek out balance

Jul 22 · 4 min read
“Do things that don’t scale” — Reid Hoffman

Chances are that you’ve come across someone on social media talking about their latest crack at an ambitious challenge, goal, or experiment. It’s pretty common, at least in my little bubble.

I think we can all agree that, to an extent, this is a good thing. It’s become standard practice to set goals, track your progress, and hit milestones that bring you a step closer to the person that you want to be.

One of many examples

These challenges are pretty wide-ranging. Some common ones that I often see deal with creative pursuits, health, or learning something new. For example:

To be honest, I’m all for this sort of stuff. In my experience, I’ve had the most success when learning new things by setting measurable goals and leaning into them in a somewhat extreme manner.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. I think we all are on the same page with the concept that goals and measurements are useful tools, but these challenges rub a lot of people the wrong way. Others are quick to say that these challenges aren’t sustainable and they require output too frequently to do quality work.

Both of these criticisms are correct. In most cases, you shouldn’t be writing a new blog post every day, cranking out a book a week, or shipping a new startup each month. Not only are you putting yourself at risk of burning out, but the quality of the thing itself will suffer. So, why do something like this?

They are missing the point

All of these things are true. Challenges like these aren’t scalable, and that’s okay. It’s actually the whole point. They are extreme for a reason. That’s not a reason to avoid them, it’s the reason to take them on in the first place.

The goal is to immerse yourself in whatever your thing is; it’s to learn as much as possible in a short period of time. In my experience, this is best served through focused, deliberate practice at an extreme rate.

When I began writing on Medium, I was putting out a new post every couple of months, whenever inspiration hit. This was a good starting point, but I wasn’t really learning, understanding, or improving very much.

It wasn’t until I did a 30-day challenge and forced myself to write and ship a new post every day that I really started to “get it.” The act of immersing myself in the practice of writing did more for me in 30 days than years of scattered blogging. With frequent output and deliberate practice came insight into things that I didn’t know existed.

Scaling it back

Look at most notable writers, entrepreneurs, and makers out there. Most of their output isn’t happening at an insane rate. Sure, there are exceptions. But like we said earlier, this approach usually isn’t scalable or effective.

This is the beauty of these challenges: they are temporary. Once you have immersed yourself in whatever your thing is for a while, you gain insight into most of what it’s all about.

By applying the Pareto Principle, you can analyze what you have learned and pick out the 20% that matters most. This allows you to scale back your practice while keeping the quality of the work steady or even superior to before.

The hard work you put in during your challenge turns out to be a pretty fantastic investment. You learned the rules of the game. Now you know which ones to break.

“In order to scale, you have to first do things that don’t scale at all.” — Reid Hoffman

This is where a lot of successful people stand right now. They worked their ass off early on to get to know their field or craft, and are now able to scale back their input while maintaining a certain level of performance or output.

The funny thing is that these are often the same people preaching the importance of balance. Except you probably don’t get to the top 1% of your field by taking a steady, linear path. More often, it’s the result of extreme practice for a short period of time, followed by consistency and creativity.

By doing the thing that didn’t scale first, they were able to scale later on. Ignore the importance of balance early on, and you are able to better embrace it when the time is right.

So what’s my point? Take on extreme challenges that might rub people the wrong way. Reign them in when the time is right. Look at your experience and pick out the 20% that matters most, then reap the benefits of doing the thing that doesn’t scale.


Thanks for reading! Check out some of my similar essays below and subscribe to my newsletter for weekly links to content that I found particularly helpful or interesting.

You can follow me on Twitter if that’s your thing, and for more on me and my past blog posts, check out my website.

Conor Dewey

Written by

Data scientist at Squarespace. Frequent writer. www.conordewey.com

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