Life Inside the Bubble

I used to work in the state legislature.  There was an insider political newspaper that all the lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists, and staff read every day.  Among other tidbits, it included a “quote of the day” from the goings on the day before.  Every morning, the first thing every member of the political class did was look to see who got quote of the day – or more accurately, if they got quote of the day.  It was a big deal.  Except that it was not a big deal at all to anyone outside the political bubble.

Tons of other gossip and updates filled the newsletter, and every bit was important to the weirdly sheltered state political circuit.  All the buzz in this world was about this world.  “Can you believe the committee chair held all the members there until midnight?”.  “Do you think she’ll have a primary challenger after those comments about teachers unions?”  The fate of the state hinged on every detail according to the people involved.

Of course nothing of the sort was true.  The petty bickering, posturing, and drama had almost no bearing on the world outside the bubble.  It was like a reality TV show, where every little alliance is a big deal in the context of the show, but meaningless to the world outside the artificial construct of the set.  Occasionally, politicos would get crude reminders of this fact.  They would proudly set up meet and greet hours in their districts so the people could come before them and present their troubles.  They assumed this kind of access was demanded by their constituents, and would be greatly appreciated.  But no one came, save for a few rather senile members of society with too much time on their hands.  Part of the reason was that no one knew who their state representative was – most didn’t even know they had one.

The shock of reality was severe for lawmakers who had been in the bubble for many a week and emerged to find that no one knew their name or what bills they introduced.  No one even knew that they had made quote of the day last week!  In the bubble, they were important.  Every lobbyist, journalist and staffer knew their name and their favorite drink.  They were called “Honorable”.  But outside the bubble, they were just some guy wearing a bad suit and talking about boring things.

One particularly poignant reminder of the contrast between life in and out of the bubble took place at a basketball game.  I was in a luxury box with my boss who was a then well-connected lawmaker.  Food and drinks were free, and the lobbyists who’d provided the tickets were cheerfully chatting us up and flattering us.  I looked across the court to the other side of the stadium.  There in the cheap seats, all by himself, was a rather dejected looking fellow.  It was the former governor.  My boss noticed him too, and seemed a little troubled.  He leaned over and said, “That’s good for me to see.  I sometimes forget that, when I’m term-limited out next year, that will be me, not this.”  A rare moment of foresight for someone in the bubble.

It’s easy (and quite fun!) to point out the absurdities and perversions of the artifice of politics.  But there’s a broader lesson as well.  We all have bubbles.  We have them for good reason and they serve a purpose.  We find people and places we identify with and invest ourselves there.  In these bubbles, we are interesting to our friends, and our shared goals are the most important thing in the world.  In these bubbles, we belong.  That’s a good thing.  It’s good to have a social circle that cares about you and shares your worldview.  It can also create problems if you never step out.

It’s good to move beyond the bubble from time to time.  You gain perspective.  You stay humble.  You realize that all the debates you had in the bubble about various interpretations of that world-changing idea don’t matter to the outside world.  They don’t even know the idea exists in the first place.  You can be famous in your bubble, but it doesn’t mean you’re famous anywhere else.  You need to be reminded of this.

Find your niches, make your friends, dive in, get connected.  You need it.  But step out of your circles as well, into the great unknown where you are just another person.  You need it.  It’s useful to maintain a firm belief and a tacit understanding of two facts at the same time: you are a really big deal, and you are nothing.