The world is small. Except when it isn’t.

Posted: September 14, 2009 at 9:20 pm in community, people

Golly. Three months without posting. But things have calmed down at work, I took a few days off for Burning Man two weekends ago, and I slept most of this past weekend, and, hey, look, I have things to say again. Well, actually, I’ve had things to say for months, but not the energy to write them up after work. And it didn’t help that I felt like I had to write something _really_ insightful or amazing to justify posting after such a long drought. But that’s silly, so this week I’m going to try to post multiple times to try to start the habit back up again.

I had a small-world moment with a friend I was meeting at Burning Man, where we discovered multiple separate paths through social space by which we could have known each other (otherwise known as small world syndrome, where it seems like new people we meet always know people that we know). I’ve talked about small world syndrome before as an example of reality coefficients, where our social worlds are so small because we only interact with people who share our view of reality.

I also had a large-world moment a few weeks ago, when I attended a housewarming party where I really only knew the host, putting me in a large room of people where I didn’t know anybody. And I chatted with several folks and realized that their social world didn’t overlap with mine at all except through this one friend we had in common. It was an interesting experience, as what little social time I have had outside of work over the past year has been spent with my close friends, so I’d been enveloped in my small world. It was good for me to step outside it and remember there are all these people I don’t know, whose worlds might be interesting and worth checking out.

I think there’s value in both experiences. Being in a small world is comforting – it provides a place where our values are reinforced and where basic worldview assumptions don’t have to be defended. But it is also limiting in preventing us from having new experiences, from challenging our beliefs – it makes it more difficult to grow. Part of the reason I moved to New York was that I felt like I was in a rut in the Bay Area, where my world had gotten too small, so it was time for me to step out into the larger world.

However, being in a large world has a separate set of issues. It does provide challenges and new experiences, but it also requires one to be always “on”, which can become exhausting. Some people thrive on the constant shiny newness, but I am not one of them. That was one of the reasons I moved back to California, with the goal of taking what I’d learned about large-world living in New York and balancing it with my small worlds in the Bay Area.

We choose the mix of small worlds and large worlds we live in. Some people choose to live within a small world their entire life (e.g. somebody living in a small town, or somebody who spends all their time on one interest like sports or video games), prioritizing comfort over growth. Others choose the large-world life of novelty, traveling the world, constantly throwing themselves into new situations for the sheer thrill of it. And every possibility in between is available, with small worlds and large worlds overlapping in interesting and unexpected ways, such as becoming the common element between multiple small worlds.

I also think it’s interesting that we call out “small world moments” when we find a surprising social connection that makes the world smaller, but don’t similarly call out “large world moments” when we step into a new and different world. I suppose that’s because “large world moments” are the default, as we don’t expect to know strangers, and our brains are wired to remember exceptions. But it might be good to observe the “large world moments” as well, to remind ourselves that the default expectation is the default for a reason.

I don’t really have a point here, but thought it was interesting to contemplate both why the world is occasionally small, and, more regularly, large, and how we can choose the mix of small and large worlds that we live in. And it is a choice – it’s up to us to change our worlds when they are not currently suiting our desired identity (if we change our environment, we change who we are). We design ourselves by choosing our context, and we must choose to be active designers.

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