The Spice of Life

When I was a teenager, my hometown decided to mandate that all trash and recycling bins had to be exactly the same.

The reason was greater efficiency. If everyone used a specific model of trash can, trucks could use a claw arm to more reliably grab each one and dump its contents inside.

Almost overnight, identical bins appeared on the sidewalks in front of every home. Seeing the same bins everywhere was a little weird β€” not quite dystopian, but it felt like a step in that direction.

That kind of uniformity is common in industrialized societies. On a road trip last weekend, I got deja vu multiple times while pulling into rest areas that featured the same collection of national chains.

Variety is the spice of life, so the saying goes, and this tension between consistency (and the efficiency it affords) and variety plays out in so many areas.

When professional musicians record their music, they often use a computer to get every note perfectly on the beat. But we lose something when music is β€œperfected” this way.

This is part of the reason why seeing musicians live is so exhilarating. Slightly imperfect rhythm makes their work more human and more expressive.

Chipotle considered this principle when they designed Chippy, a robot to make their chips. Here's Chipotle VP of Culinary Nevielle Panthaky:

Everyone loves finding a chip with a little more salt or an extra hint of lime. To ensure we didn’t lose the humanity behind our culinary experience, we trained Chippy extensively to ensure the output mirrored our current product, delivering some subtle variations in flavor that our guests expect.

If every chip is perfectly, uniformly seasoned, it’s actually an inferior product.

Because the anticipation of something a little different keeps us coming back for more.


Reflections on creating systems to sustainably grow your impact on the world.
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