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Many moons ago, our society existed in simpler times. We refer to this epoch as “PS,” or Pre-Starbucks.

Once upon this “PS” time, we didn’t have the ubiquitous green logo on many city corners or in country stores. (There was once even a time when a Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t exist in every village in New England, but we digress.)

These days, many people around the world can walk into a Starbucks and without a trip of the tongue order their caffeinated drinks -- not in small, medium, or large -- but as short, tall, grande, or venti.*

When Starbucks first started to make its way beyond its Seattle roots, most people were understandably baffled. What are these sizes and what do they mean?

While confusion could have reigned indefinitely for the coffee and tea lovers of America, something interesting happened: we figured it out. It turns out that it didn’t matter that – at least at first – we didn’t really know how many ounces or milliliters a short or a venti held.

We quickly learned that a tall was bigger than a short, a grande was bigger than a tall, and so on. We were able to navigate this new information by comparison.

This might seem like a trivial accomplishment for those who have the will and means to enter a Starbucks, but it holds a lesson that applies to many other areas.

We can learn new concepts and get meaningful perspective on a slew of topics by using familiar experiences to relate to unfamiliar ones. All you need are a few tools to help draw useful comparisons.

Take, for example, the economy. Most of us can visualize a thousand dollars and many of us can fantasize about a million dollars. But what about a billion or even a trillion dollars?

Here we can employ a useful term: “order of magnitude”. In most cases, each “order of magnitude” represents the multiplication or division by ten. The difference between a thousand and a million is three orders of magnitude. (A thousand times ten is ten thousand, times another ten is a hundred thousand, and another is one million.)

Once you have orders of magnitude down, you can quickly assess that the difference between a million and a trillion is another factor of three – or a thousand times. We can relate one entity to another by knowing how many orders of magnitude separate the two.

It’s not just in the economy where really big numbers come into play. Natural disasters make many of us wonder how bad are these storms – is this really a lot of wind or water and, if so, how much? Or, perhaps you want to know how much extra storage or power the latest smartphone delivers compared to its predecessors. Knowing magnitude gives all of us the power to compare.

This is when we can return to our short-tall-grande-venti. We might not know all of the details of what is happening throughout the world, but we can understand the magnitude, or scale, of current events by comparing them to things that we can comprehend.

But for a break from the world and its issues, perhaps we will head off to our local Starbucks to enjoy a favorite beverage. We know which size we want.

* In Starbuckese, a “short” is 8 ounces, a “tall” is 12 ounces, “grandes” are 24 ounces, and a “trenti” beverage is 31 ounces. Consume that last amount of caffeine at your own risk.

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