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109. When it comes to problems, some solutions lie within the differences in scale

A couple of months ago an aquaintance of mine wrote on social media that things were bad. Rent needed to be paid or they’d lose their apartment. All options had been exhausted and desperation had set in.

It wasn’t that they needed a large sum of money (in my book). A couple of thousand kroner spelled the difference between doom and considerably less doom. And while a couple of thousand kroner is also money, it’s money that I can easily lay my hands on.

That doesn’t mean that we just have money lying around. We don’t. But the numbers have grown bigger, and in our cash flow budgets anything less than 15,000 euro on the bank account worries me. A couple of hundred more or less doesn’t.

What it meant was that I could solve this problem without it really impacting my financial situation. It didn’t make it worse in any truly noticeable way – the irony of our problems being bigger than that.

But for the person who was in dire straits, that money made a hell of a difference. And because of that, I reached out and said “Hey – we’re not exactly close, but I know you, and I can help. Here’s money to solve your problem. Pay me back when you’re on your feet again.”

I couldn’t have done that five years ago. I definitely couldn’t have done it ten years ago. Then, I remember being one of those where a couple of hundred euro more or less was critical. I remember the moment when I bought a sandwich at a cafe and feeling that I could afford it. I’ve been there.

Moneywise, my life is harder now. Even if there’s more of it. There’s more uncertainty and the numbers are a lot bigger. When you pay a 40.000 euro bill for a castle, it matters a lot whether the zloty exchange rate to Danish kroner is 1.65 or 1.75. We’re talking more than ten thousand kroners difference.

Once, landing a lecture gig that paid 10.000 kroner was heaven. Now, it’s still great news, but it doesn’t even show as a small spike in our overall revenue. Running a 32-person business is very different from a two-man show. And nowhwere is it more clear than when it comes to other people’s problems.

Because often you can make a big difference in someone else’s life without it making a big difference in your own. Not necessarily with money, but with skill, time or care. It’s just so clear when it’s about money. Scale is everything.

In this particular case it meant that I could swoop in and provide a helping hand to someone where it made a difference without costing a lot. Just like there’s someone out there who looks at the financial worries I have, and thinks “But that’s just petty cash to me.”

It doesn’t mean that you have an obligation to throw your money (or your other resources) around, just because you have them. I’m not advocating that Bill Gates should give me a million dollars just because it would mean the world to me and very little to him.

What I am saying is that it’s sometimes worth it to think in terms of resource scale. Both up and down. Those who operate on a bigger scale than you can help you without it costing them a lot, if they feel like it. Those who are on a smaller scale, you can help.

And I think it’s important that we remind ourselves that no matter how hard our troubles seem and how thinly our resources are stretched, there’s almost inevitably someone else who we can help without it severely impacting our situation.

To me, that’s a comforting thought, even if it doesn’t exactly solve my own problems. ;-)

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Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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