The Stanford Bubbles

As I was elected to be the Sloan Fellows representative to our school’s newspaper The GSB Reporter for this year and even though I have (see Herbert’s reflection on organizing our flash mob) and will be recruiting classmates to do most of the writing, I did submit an opinion below into the first issue that came out this week. Re-posting it here as getting the paper fully online is one of the priorities for the editorial team, but a work in progress. And for the non-local readers, have spiced the text up with some hyperlinks for background & context.

The Stanford Bubbles

The heat of the Summer quarter on campus, a luxurious head start the Sloan Fellows of GSB had this year left us a little space to ponder where have we landed. Walking one day between our campus lawns maintained exclusively with nail clippers, so lush green on the backdrop of deeply burned hillsides around The Dish it suddenly struck me:

We are truly living in a bubble here.

The mental image that developed is of a glass sphere, like a toy snow globe or maybe of a dome that has been designed to look real for those inside á la in The Truman Show movie. And taking it even further, it is easy to imagine our current location in space and time here at the GSB to be in the middle of several concentric spheres. Bubbles inside bubbles.

The well-groomed environmental perfection and raw intellect uniquely twisted with entrepreneurialism you can sense on the Stanford campus is distinct from Palo Alto, with its cutely worn-down residential streets and probably a world record in the shortest distance between Apple stores. University Avenue is just a bridge between these two bubbles.

Now, Palo Alto is itself a bubble inside broader Silicon Valley. One into which most people need to CalTrain in from nearby areas where you can still rent a room for less than a $2k or buy a house under $2M. One from which the next hot startup needs to find their way out, pulling their tentacles from entire areas of scattered buildings into full-blown campuses by the Bay, in Mountain View or further south.

Silicon Valley is also a bubble (and no, I am not the one to suggest the common similar metaphor using soap-based formula instead of glass) inside California. May the good people of Lost Hills (they do exist!) or Imperial County forgive me, but browsing around the wealth maps of the Golden State I am not convinced things with their education, medicine, security and probably happiness are quite on par with the area where the worlds bits are consistently turned into billions.

Zooming out: California, of course, is yet another bubble, inside the United States of America. If it were to live to its Republic-tagline on the flag and drifted away from the remaining 49 states, California would be still #9 economy in the world, breathing to the neck of Italy and ahead of Canada, Russia and India. But leaving pure econometrics aside, you could just compare the climate of San Diego with North Dakota to sense the difference. And would you imagine the people of California electing someone who claims the Earth is 9000 years old to represent them in the Science and Technology committee of their nation’s parliament? Yeah, somehow neither do I.

Wait, United States of America, the land of the free and home of the brave in itself is a bubble on Earth. Even if things all over stateside can look quite bleak in your average Presidential campaign speech, there are places where famine, suffering, suppressed dreams of the rule of law and risk of disappearing for a wrong word spoken are what people worry about, not the size of their mortgaged house or the price of oil flowing into their multigallon-engined SUV.

And so on and so forth – you get the point. I will stop before defining a trans-Pacific bubble with US & China inside and spare the analysis of whatever happened to Europe, my home, which I rarely even hear mentioned here in our Stanford bubble.

Now how is all this is relevant to us at Stanford?

First, having this protective shell, this separation from the worries of the world outside is really helpful for the learning and research happening here. What you’ve heard over and over and over about the “safe learning environment” is true. Having people come from all over the world into this distraction free, collaborative, meritocratic space to experiment, fail trying new things and stretching the boundaries is a luxury available for only a few. We should acknowledge and cherish it. And both contribute to, and take from it as much as we can while in.

Secondly, once you think about these concentric bubbles, these invisible borders that separate us from the people and cultures and problems outside, you can truly appreciate the conscious effort you see that Stanford is making to avoid you completely losing touch with the world. The mass of external speakers, venture capital lecturers with offices on the Sand Hill Road (hello, more distinct bubbles?) and political communication professors who remember who sits where in the West Wing and most admirably, the programs such as the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability taking students to solve real hard problems for the people so far from our bubble than you could imagine. Yes, while being in the Stanford bubble, losing touch with the outside would be too easy, but inexcusable.

And last but not least: the time you personally have to exit the Stanford bubble and return to the “real world” is always almost tomorrow. Just 2.5 quarters (or 5.5, if you’re a lucky MBA1) away. What will you take along and what will you leave behind?

Which unnecessary bubbles around us will you try to break, which ones you feel are unique and important to retain?