There’s a nasty criticism about Steve Jobs that uses an argument about a reality distortion field. It goes something like this…
“Steve Jobs was a ruthless leader who manipulated and abused his employees. His expectations were impossibly high, but because his personality was so strong and abrasive, his workers found ways to do the impossible rather than be abused by their leader. His reality distortion field made him impossible to refuse, and he often fooled people into building things that they knew couldn’t be built.”
The reality distortion field theory is also used to explain Apple’s amazing success and their eccentric fans. Many of Apple’s critics truly believe that Apple fans are lemmings, brainwashed by marketing and superficial beauty. They believe that Apple seduces their customers by reality distortion, by inventing lies that fool people into overpaying for products that they argue have inferior specs.
I thought that the reality distortion field theory was just an invention that Apple haters invented in hindsight. I didn’t realize that it was a part of Steve Jobs vision from the beginning.
Then I re-watched a video from 1986 that documents Steve Jobs and his NeXT team on a company retreat. The video is worth watching in its entirety, but I want to call your attention to the 9:50 mark where Joanna Hoffman says,
“I don’t care what you say, reality distortion is reality distortion and it has its motivational value and that’s fine. And I think it has a very important value. However, when it comes to that date affecting the design of the product, that’s when we get into a rut. Because if we are unrealistic about this date…”
Here is evidence that in 1986, more than a decade before Steve would return to Apple, he and his team were debating openly about how to distort reality.
Is this proof of the Apple haters’ reality distortion field theory? Is it evidence that from the beginning Steve Jobs set out to con the world? No. Watch the video and ask yourself:
Do you see a maniacal boss abusing his team?
Do you see a marketing guru conniving new ways to milk clueless consumers?
Do you see a sleazy accountant scheming to minimize specs and maximize profit?
Do you see a villain insulting his team or threatening them to perform or else?
I see a person standing up and saying,
“I think we can do this. Help me figure out how.”
Reality distortion wasn’t the by-product of a delusional leader. It was the shared goal of a team that believed they could do the impossible.
And what I really see is a team that looks an awful lot like every team I have ever been on.
They are struggling with their own ambition. Goals seem too grand. Expectations seem too high. They are running out of time. The data from the “real” world is working against them. They have hit the wall.
They either need to change reality or come to terms with the mediocrity that results from accepting current constraints.
This is the thing that Apple cynics miss. Reality distortion, world-changing ideas, don’t come from the brute force of insurmountable egos. It doesn’t come from shortcuts designed to scam consumers. Change happens in the daily grind of teams that refuse to compromise.
Reality distortion isn’t controversial, it is a mandatory goal of any team that hopes to make a dent in the universe.
Nobody wants to create minimum viable products. We want to change the world because reality isn’t good enough.
Likewise, consumers don’t want to buy minimum viable products. They want to own the future, to support the people who don’t settle for the current reality.
So we sacrifice our headphone jacks willingly not because we are lemmings but because we know that reality is flexible. We choose to support a future that is distorted, audaciously better than the current spec sheet.
Was Steve Jobs aware of his reality distortion field? Of course he was. The question is are you aware of yours? Be the person who says, “I think we can do this. Help me figure out how.”
Thanks for reading. I attempt to distort your reality every week, so consider following me so you don’t miss my next essay. Stay creative.