Challenges are different at scale

A while ago someone (unfortunately I forget who it was!) gave an example for how problems look different when you’re operating at different scales. It’s stuck with me, and I find myself using it over and over again:

Imagine that you have an external hard drive with a failure rate of 1 in 100 years. So over the course of a hundred years, it’ll fail once. As an individual, that’s probably an acceptable rate: you likely wont’ use the hard drive for 100 years, and its point of failure probably won’t happen in any given year during which you use it.

But then imagine that you have 100 of these hard drives running simultaneously (for our example, this is “at scale”). Now you can expect, on average, one of your hard drives to fail every year! This is a totally different problem with a totally different set of trade offs than the individual user with one hard drive.

It’s hard to wrap our brains around this difference in problem sets. For example, as an individual, COVID-19 presents one set of risks. But as a society, COVID-19 is a very different kind of problem because it happens “at scale.”

I’m not an expert on problems at scale. But I like to use this example to remind myself that you usually can’t take the same strategy from the individual level and expect success at scale.