top of page
  • Brendan Stec

Scalable vs. Non-Scalable Careers

If you enjoy this article, consider subscribing to my weekly newsletter, Thoughts from a Bench. I typically cover how I see ideas from psychology, philosophy, pop culture and more applying to my life…and how they might apply to yours too.



When Nassim Taleb was in grad school at Wharton, a fellow classmate gave him some interesting career advice. The classmate explained, near the corner of 34th and Walnut, that the most lucrative jobs are those that are scalable. (1)

People with scalable jobs include: entrepreneurs and business owners, writers, podcasters, professional athletes, traders, musicians, YouTubers, TV actors.

In these careers, you earn a living not by the quantity of your work but by the quality of your ideas or content. When you record a podcast or own an eCommerce website, you can earn royalties and make sales 24 hours a day, even while you're sleeping or drinking a Guinness. When you code up a software product, you can distribute it to thousands with little additional time or cost. Traders can lever up a position with a few clicks of a button. These careers are "scalable" in that your income can scale, or multiply, 10x without you having to work 10x as hard.

And that's why scalable careers are so attractive. Or, via negativa, as Taleb would say, why non-scalable jobs can be perceived as unattractive.

When you're a construction worker, consultant, lawyer, waiter, IT support technician, truck driver, middle manager, or doctor, you earn your living by renting out your time. And so you cannot make money in these professions unless you are physically working. When you take a vacation, that is time you are not billing to clients/patients, earning fees, or earning a wage.

If scalable careers are so great, then why doesn't everyone flock to them?

Primarily because they are extremely competitive. Scalable careers are plagued by winner-take-all effects, in which a small number of individuals or businesses in the industry reap a large majority of the income. The far majority of book and record sales are from only a few popular writers and artists. The far majority of startups fail, while only the ones that survive are often wildly successful. Aspiring to be an NBA basketball player? The far majority of kids with hoop dreams don't make it to the NBA, and only the few who do earn the millions.

It was not always so life or death for these professions. In 1890's, for example, you could earn a decent living as even a mediocre pianist. After all, practically every saloon in every town across America needed one to bang out some Scott Joplin. But today, since there are recordings of music, there's much less demand for neighborhood musicians; a few artists based in New York or Los Angeles fill the void.

Music recordings have thus enabled scalability. A musician can now multiply herself, selling thousands of records while only having to play the damn song once. And if she's the best in that genre, she can capture almost all of the market. Winner take all.

In general, when a career is scalable, it means you can:

1) Quickly multiply the service or product you provide without having to work all that much harder

2) Blast out this service or product to thousands of customers thanks to the Internet or physical connected networks such as rail/air lines

Today we're more connected than ever before to businesses providing products and services across the world. A manufacturer in India can put one in Missouri out of business. A basketball player can earn money from jersey sales from loyal fans in China.

And so scalability is everywhere. Look at Jeff Bezos. He's worth nearly 200 billion dollars because Amazon Web Services can provide IT services to almost any business in the world. Or Joe Rogan. He can blast out podcasts to hundreds of millions of people with a click of a button. They are extreme examples of why scalability can be so attractive. But they are also extreme examples that illustrate the challenge in breaking into a scalable career. The best entertainers, athletes, techies: they might not take all, but they sure take a whole lot.

Non-scalable careers aren't always glamorous. Billing clients day-in, day-out to do an implementation of their payroll software isn't particularly sexy. But these careers are low risk and predictable: you know if you put in X amount of work, you're likely to get Y dollars back. They provide a sustainable level of income for the large majority of people.

Nassim Taleb later decided that the advice he received from his classmate was a bit misleading. Scalable careers aren't necessarily better than the non-scalable. They just provide a different set of benefits that come with a different set of costs.



(1) The Black Swan (pp. 26-31) by Nassim Taleb

bottom of page