How to Make Trees Sing

On a recent trip to the doctor, the receptionist asked me to take off my new, N95 mask and replace it with one of their surgical masks.

It was an odd request, since they were asking me to put on something objectively inferior to what I had brought with me. But creating standardized procedures always requires compromises.

I imagine the hospital administrators’ logic went something like this: If we allow everyone to wear whatever mask they bring with them, we’ll have a wide range of PPE in the office, some of which may not provide much protection at all.

So by requiring everyone to wear the same mask, we can ensure all patients have something good enough on their face, even if it means sacrificing the extra protection some people might bring with them.

This decision – between raising the floor to limit the worst consequences, in exchange for lowering the ceiling of best possible outcomes – shows up everywhere in our lives.

Most personal finance advice, for example, strongly encourages individuals to maintain a diversified portfolio. Over a long enough period of time, sticking your money in an index fund with low fees and forgetting about it will net you higher returns than trying to actively pick stocks.

But at what expense? You’re limiting your risk, but you’re also cutting yourself off from the outsized returns you’d get from putting all your money into what might be the next Google.

This is a tradeoff most people are willing to make: In exchange for security, you cap your overall potential returns.

At the core of bureaucracy is this tension: Every time we create a system, we’re eliminating many of the edge cases – both the ones that might ruin us, and those that might lead us to exceptional success.

Startups typically move quicker than established enterprises, because they have less to lose, and therefore can afford to take bigger risks.

Or consider the tradeoffs in manufacturing: If you’re in the string instrument business, you could build a factory of machines to create thousands of violins every month, but your product will be mediocre.

Because an industrial system can’t make trees sing the same way a skilled craftsman can.


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