“We need to talk, Ed.”
My college roommate, Steve, sat down next to me on the couch where we roughly saw eye to eye. At 6’6”, it always seemed, to me at least, like there was too much of him. He crossed one leg over the other so that I could see his massive foot.
“I’m really concerned that you’re going to hurt Karen,” he began.
Steve didn’t know my girlfriend Karen personally. He hardly knew me. Between the basketball team, his girlfriend, and his many friends around campus, Steve wasn’t in our room all that often.
“Things are fine,” I assured him.
“I think she’s taking your relationship a lot more seriously than you are.”
Looking back, he was absolutely correct, but there was nothing I wanted more than for him to be wrong. In fact, I didn’t see how he could be right. It was impossible. We lived in two different worlds that rarely intersected. He lived in the popularity bubble, and I scratched together an existence outside of the bubble, vacillating between envy and hatred of those inside the bubble.
You’re wrong,” I said, mustering up a meager bit of courage to speak my mind with a sense of finality. “Karen and I have talked. Things are good.”
It was at best a half truth. We hadn’t really talked. Our talk was more like a check in—“Are you good? OK? Great!” I wanted Steve to know that I was on top of things.
Two months later everything fell to pieces, and I broke Karen’s heart. My check in hadn’t cleared up anything because I was a clueless, immature freshman. Steve had tried to help, but I wasn’t willing to listen to his advice. Steve lived in the popularity bubble, and we may as well have hailed from foreign countries with different customs and languages.
The television show 30 Rock mentioned the “popularity bubble” in a series of episodes guest starring Jon Hamm as Liz Lemon’s boyfriend. Granted, it was over the top, but it was an “Aha!” moment for me. Liz watched everyone treat her hot boyfriend according to different rules, and I finally understood my relationship with Steve.
My pastor once told me that adults behave just like Jr. High students sometimes, and there’s a measure of truth to that.
Steve was well on his way to the social fast track during the early weeks of our freshman year. Tall, athletic, good looking, smart, and committed to his faith, he was pretty much the perfect guy at a Christian college. It didn’t take a lot of imagination for me to see how I stacked up compared to him with my 5’5” height, marginal athletic ability, and an up and down faith that still lurked in the land of fundamentalist legalism.
I tried to make up for my shortcomings with a goatee.
I had daily reminders of how poorly I stacked up in comparison to Steve. Girls stopped by our room every weekend looking for him. Upper classmen regularly dropped by to see if he wanted to hang out… with them… in their rooms… far away from me and Tom, our other roommate.
One evening while all three of us were studying in our room, an upperclassman even brought over a tray full of cookies he had just baked and shoveled two of them into Steve’s hands before quickly exiting the room. It was one of many “What the hell?” moments that Tom and shared as we watched the world heap other “cookies” right onto Steve’s lap.
Everybody wanted to be around Steve and to get Steve’s nod of approval. To be honest, I wanted the same thing for myself. When Tom and I picked up a couch and carpet for our room, Steve declared that we were the best roommates ever. He was kind and sincere, and I couldn’t help thinking, “Yeah, that’s right, we are. Steve said so!”
The popularity bubble didn’t pop once we left college. Instead I found a world littered with them.
While Steve went off to what would surely be a successful career filled with plates of freshly baked cookies, I bounced around and struggled until I figured out that writing is the career for me. With my history of feeling like an insecure, unpopular outsider, writing exploited many of my weaknesses over the years. I regularly needed help from people who reside in yet another “popularity bubble.”
Day in, day out, I get to spend time quietly working and creating stuff. Most of the time it’s wonderful. However, the publishing game is a mine field of popularity bubbles. The crazy thing is that even the people who appear to be insiders feel a lot like I do. One author with an enormous following of readers and a massive marketing effort behind her new book posted publicly on Twitter that she was freaking out and insecure about her book’s release.
My initial reaction was “Oh please! Stop it! YOU HAVE A MASSIVE FOLLOWING!”
Envy is ugly. And it kept me from realizing something else about the popularity bubble—almost everyone thinks they’re outside of it.
A couple of years ago I attended a conference where I tried to meet a bunch of people for coffee. I was really eager to meet one writer in particular, and he eventually found a group of six of us just sitting around drinking coffee. He stopped by for ten minutes, and then said he had to get going.
A year later I met up with him again at another writers’ hang out, and he mentioned that he’d left after ten minutes because he felt so intimidated by ME and all of the other writers sitting around me.
“ME?” I asked him. “You can’t be serious!”
I never had a chance to be in Steve’s popularity bubble, so I settled for the “next best” thing: hating his popularity. I resented him with so much energy that I couldn’t see the very things that made so many people like him.
Sure, he was good looking, athletic, and wildly popular, but he also cared about the people around him and tried to do what was right—even if his overtures were met with my eye rolls. I saw so many people working for his approval and attention that I adopted the opposite course, resolving to oppose whatever he suggested.
Maybe Steve had more stuff handed to him because he lived in the popularity bubble, but that didn’t stop him from reaching out to me. Today I can finally appreciate what he tried to do.
I hope that Steve would approve.