Reverse Scale: It’s A Practice Not A Place

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We leave in three days for rural Tanzania with 14 local high school students in tow. They’re an elite group of students who competed to be part of our Chocolate University high school program. We launched the project in 2009 and have been taking students to Tanzania ever since. Hold that thought.

We write about reverse scale extensively in the book. What is it? It’s a practice of recognizing the value of not scaling. One of our beliefs, coined by Lawren, is that our vocation is not necessarily getting bigger but getting better at staying small. We’re conditioned by our business culture to believe that unless the idea is big and capable of rapid scale then it has little value. Can we take a step back and reconsider this dogma? Could we assess value even if our idea helps only one person or if it only transforms us? True sustainability lies within the answers to these questions. If more of us answered the call to action on the supposedly “small” ideas then imagine the kind of social problems the world could address.

We tend to think “more” and “bigger” will always be better, that somehow they will allow us to finally breathe easier when we arrive. The problem is that it’s often an illusion because we never really arrive at the place that’s just out of reach. Scale demands that every single person in the chain focus on what’s next and on finding someone to do the thing that’s now ‘below’ them in order to move themselves up. Anything less than that and you will lose the race for scale, because someone else is more focused than you.

Reverse scale could also be called human scale. It is in the smallness of one on one relationships that we find meaning because we’re not insulated from the pain and sorrows of these connections. We tend to lose this when we’re so focused on scale and growth.

Could we have scaled Chocolate University nationwide or worldwide by now? Probably. Perhaps I’d be managing (not leading) multiple trips a year with students from around the world to more than one destination. It would be possible to do that right alongside accelerated growth of my chocolate company. That’s scale!  Reverse scale, on the other hand, says, “This is it.” Today, right here, right now. This student, this cocoa farmer, this meal, this village. That’s all I really possess. There’s a lot of power in that. I know I’d lose these important human connections if I were managing, delegating, and looking at spreadsheets instead of practicing this discipline of reverse scale. It is this practice that allows me, at times, to experience my True Self as Thomas Merton calls it.

Back to the high school students I’ll be traveling with on Monday. When we arrive in remote rural Tanzania our students will be embraced by the village farmers as “members of the family” because we’ve been their partners for nearly a decade. We have a packed schedule of “doing” but have left ample time for “being.” In the coming days I will remain a student too as we’re welcomed by farmers who practice radical hospitality.

More Is Not Enough: At Least In Mababu, Tanzania It’s Not

A cocoa tree canopy overhead made it seem even darker than it was as the sun was setting. I was walking on a narrow trail in the maze of other trails crisscrossing each other in the Tanzanian rainforest with a small group of cocoa farmers and pretty sure if I didn’t keep up that Google Maps would be of no help. Anyone who knows me knows that I love walking and talking. It’s my chance to ask questions. We’d just visited Wilson’s kinfolk on his little farm who were mourning his death a month ago. We went to pay our respects to his family and say “pole sana.” We sat under a large shade tree in front of his house and as I listened to his siblings tell stories I remembered his kind face. He’d been sick for a long time they said. He was an original member of the small cocoa farming cooperative where I’ve been sourcing beans for many years. We gathered for a moment of silence around his tidy dirt grave decorated with a small wooden cross next to his wife’s and a few feet from their house. The walk back to the village center with Mama Mpoki – the Chairwoman of the cooperative – and four other farmers got me thinking which led to conversation.

 As we walked back I was pondering the ways in which the villagers respond to each other in times of death and grief. I played the tape in my mind from a few days before when the farmers all gathered at their central fermentation and drying site in the middle of the village and worked together to move our fermented cocoa beans onto the nearby drying pads in the sun. They stand shoulder to shoulder–men and women and mothers and grandmothers carrying babies in a sling–and pass buckets of beans to each other, all the way down the line. They laugh, talk, and gossip and I loved working right alongside them. The word is joy. Joy is pretty much universally recognizable in any culture. I’ve observed it during shared meals, at worship, while working and walking. So I asked Mama Mpoki, “What is the secret to your joy at work, I saw it, I don’t think it was made up for the sake of my visit?” Her answer confused me, “We will not permit more than 65 members in our cooperative.” I said, “OK, but what does that have to do with farmers staying after meetings lingering and clearly enjoying each other?”

 Mama Mpoki explains “We’ve written this membership limit into our constitution. We decided that 65 members is enough. The secret is that we trust each other. If there were more members then we might not be able to manage that trust in the same way we do now.”

 Make no mistake about it, the farmers want better education for their children, sturdier housing that won’t blow away in a storm, greater access to basic medical care, electricity, running water. Yes, they have hope for these things but somehow in their absence, in their poverty, they have dignity and joy. This daily living of a “more is not enough” life inspires me and gives me great hope in the future of humanity. Spending time with them over the years as their friend gives me hope for myself.