The Bubble

Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

Life on the Bubble

National Lampoon’s European Vacation transports the Griswalds across the Atlantic. They live out the trope of the”ugly American” with endearing charm, while poking gentle fun at European stereotypes. The overly polite Englishman. French cabarets. Italian fashion.

Early in the film, on a sightseeing tour of London with the family, Clark Griswald turns into a roundabout and promptly gets stuck. “Look kids! Big Ben! Parliament!” he says with every cycle around the never ending bend.

They spend hours in the roundabout. Night falls. His family sound asleep, Clark’s mental state completely deteriorated, he clutches the wheel and giddily exclaims, “It’s amazing. I cannot get left!”

That is what it feels like to live life on the bubble.

You have a destination in mind. You pull into traffic. You see your goal, but you just can’t seem to break through. You’re moving. You’re making forward progress—or so it seems. You’re at least putting on miles. Maybe it’s your unfamiliarity with the roundabout, maybe it’s the other traffic. Regardless, it’s amazing. You cannot get left.

An Early Bubble

My dad’s a minister. When I was a kid, Dad was an enthusiastic booker of song evangelists. Our churches and homes played host to the Whitey Gleason Singers, Janie White and the Sonlights, the great Jimmy Dell, the incomparable Jeff Steinberg, and many others whose names are lost somewhere in my memory.

My wife and I watched the 2021 flick The Eyes of Tammy Faye over New Years Eve weekend, and it brought back all these memories. In part because on one of his visits back in the early 80s, Jeff Steinberg brought a VHS tape with his performance on the 700 Club. 

Dad had a low opinion of televangelists in general, and Jeff wasn’t too keen on his experience with Jim and Tammy Faye, but you couldn’t deny the popularity of PTL. It was a big booking for Jeff, and we were all excited for him. (The man has incredible pipes and an inspiring story, by the way.)

These song evangelists were my first interaction with show business, and they were my earliest role models for how to make a living as an artist. Be professional. Show up on time. Give the audience your all.

I even had my own micro-experience with that life. On a few occasions, our family was brought to other churches for revivals, a two or three day series of services filled with music (our family singing pop gospel tunes) and sermons (that’s Dad’s bag).

We were on the bubble. My family was just nomadic enough—I went to 13 different schools in as many years—we could have made the leap from Rev. Moore and family to the Moore Family Gospel Singers. I think we had the talent for it. Dad is certainly a captivating storyteller and minister. Everytime we loaded up in the family Caddy and drove to a nearby town to “headline” a revival, dressed in our absolute best and warming up our vocals on the way, I could see the potential.

I could see Big Ben and Parliament, but the family Caddy continued to go around and ‘round.

I vaguely recall the family chatting about maybe doing it full time, but for some reason, we never really followed up on it. The last time we sort-of discussed it as a family, we were living in Chicago. Dad was pastoring a huge, multicultural inner-city church. We had enough on our hands without adding touring into the mix.

We took on gigs when they arose, but largely abandoned any notion of taking our act on the road around the same time Dad took a sabbatical from the ministry.

High on Your Own Supply

They say you’re supposed to practice creative visualization to achieve a goal. I think that’s survivorship bias. We never hear about the failures who clung onto their visualizations like a junkie, while their goals drifted further and further away. 

Life on the bubble can have an intoxicating effect. When I look back on my own experiences with various bubbles, I see the commonalities: Getting all fired up with potential energy, playing the “what if?” game, and visualizing myself having accomplished some seemingly impossible task. Do it right and you feel ten feet tall and bulletproof, to borrow a line from Travis Tritt.

We are exceptionally talented when it comes to self-delusion. As the great playwright Tom Stoppard once said, “Almost everybody today is more trying to match himself up with an external image he has of himself, almost as if he’s seen himself on a screen.” True when he said it back in the mid-1990s, and so much more true in the age of Instagram and Tik Tok.

Filtering everything through a social media lens, we develop parasocial relationships with people we actually know. We need to be careful not to develop parasocial relationships with ourselves.

Steve Martin has an interesting take on creative visualization: “Through the years, I have learned that there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.” Those delusions do charge you up, and it is so incredibly important to work on those moments of valid inspiration.

The performance-enhancing drug can’t be an end unto itself. It has to propel you into action. Otherwise, you’ll continue to race around the roundabout, pointing out the landmarks you’re trying to reach, but never quite getting there.

Leaving the Bubble

There’s a similar phenomenon written about by marketing guru Seth Godin, in his book The Dip:

The Cul-de-Sac (French for “dead end”) is […] a situation where you work and you work and you work and nothing much changes. It doesn’t get a lot better, it doesn’t get a lot worse, it just is.

That’s why they call those jobs dead-end jobs.

There’s not a lot to say about the Cul-de-Sac except to realize that it exists and to embrace the fact that when you find one, you need to get off it, fast. That’s because a dead end is keeping you from doing something else. The opportunity cost of investing your life in something that’s not going to get better is just too high.

He compares this to “The Cliff,” where you can’t quit until you fall off, and the titular “Dip,” which is that spot where you feel like you’re maybe failing, right before you hit the breakthrough that takes you on to new heights. The Cliff and The Cul-de-Sac both lead to failure.

I’ve learned a thing or two about sunk costs, and the need to reassess where you are, to make sure you aren’t holding onto something simply because you’ve already invested too much of yourself in it. I’ve quit relationships, jobs, hell, entire towns where the only thing keeping me in was the sunk cost. It stings, but ultimately I can see where it was the right choice.

When you add the bubble to sunk costs, you get something else. A peculiar kind of trap where the sunk costs feel like a smart investment, because you can see the landmark you’re trying to reach right over there. Maybe you see members of your own cohort somehow cross through that thin, shimmery boundary that turns to brick when you approach it.

So you charge yourself up. You continue your rounds. You get nowhere. But you could get somewhere… you could. 

Pulling yourself out of that situation feels awful. It feels like a personal failing. You wonder what it all meant and if you actually accomplished anything with your time. You didn’t just commit time and treasure to the sunk cost, you committed yourself.

And what do we do when our ego gets bruised? Lash out. My father-in-law had a great adage: “If you can’t want it, hate it.” Your psychic survival is on the line, so playing the sour grapes game only makes sense. You need to insulate your bruised ego and nurse it back to health. But allowing yourself to get embittered by the bubble is just one more way the bubble wins.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that at any given moment, you’re making the best decisions you can based on your best understanding of the situation. You can’t beat yourself up for dreaming big and going for it. Most people don’t get that far. 

So what if you couldn’t navigate the roundabout? Most people never leave the driveway.

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