Today I’m thinking about a strange pattern of human behavior that I’ve been able to witness on occasion. It’s far from universal, and most people probably won’t ever see it. Still, it’s been on my mind and I’d like to explore it a little.
I know a handful of people who, specifically in the time that I’ve known them, have gone from being private individuals to being public figures in some way. I’m not talking getting elected President or becoming Taylor Swift-level famous, but definitely people that have entered the spotlight.
Importantly, this transition also came with some amount (in some cases all) of their income or status (or both) coming from that. So people whose blog or YouTube channel or whatever “took off” and now that’s what they do.
This puts me in this interesting position where I know these people, privately and personally, but I also know their public persona. And how they differ.
Now, a quick aside – everyone is different in different situations, and that’s fine to a degree. I act differently in a professional context than I do with my friends or relatives. I don’t act radically different, but I do show different sides or emphasize different things, and that’s fine. So in the sense that someone’s public persona is their professional context, it’s fine that it doesn’t map perfectly onto their private life.
But sometimes the gaps are pretty huge.
A few things I note: one, the more time you spend in the public eye, the more you’re dragged towards the extremes of whatever you do or say or represent. You pretty much have to in order to keep adding fuel to that fire, but that’s a dangerous road.
Two, that particular direction – more and more extreme versions of yourself – starts to become the only way you can grow. Deviations are punished. Learning, changing your mind, evolving – punished. Even starting over fresh is hard, because your old reputation follows.
So, you either get repetitive or you keep pushing further and further out, which in turn isolates you further and further. Your own Overton window moves with you; the further out you push, the further behind you leave the majority of reasonable voices until you start to believe that the rest of the world really is within 20% of your viewpoint, even though by now you’ve gone really, really far afield.
I think this is maybe a macro version of a micro concept I think (and talk) about a lot – not investing your own agency into other people. I talk about it a lot in one-on-one or small group settings; how to retain your independence, how to not let other people take power away from you, etc. But if you become a “personality” with ten thousand followers, that’s ten thousand people who you’ve given control of your life to.
We think of these big public figures as manipulating their public, but it’s the other way around. They push you. The only thing you can extract back is resources, but not opinions. A massive online pundit can get his followers to give him money, but he couldn’t make them change their political views.
That’s why the only people who can survive under those conditions for very long are the people who only care about the money/wealth/personal power, instead of actually caring about an agenda. Who cares if you can’t evolve if you never cared about your topic in the first place – if it was just a vehicle to extract power?
Be careful out there. The best bubbles are small ones.