Reality Distortion Field

Hands-down the most fascinating thing that is coming out of my reading of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Job’s biography is Jobs’ use of what his friends called the “reality distortion field”.  It was well known that Steve Jobs basically had a conflict with reality.  He often refused to accept it. Wikipedia actually has an entry for the term and it describes “Steve Jobs’ ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement, and persistence. RDF was said to distort an audience’s sense of proportion and scales of difficulties and made them believe that the task at hand was possible.”

Those around Steve Jobs saw this as both a good thing and a bad thing.  The negative part was that sometimes Jobs was wrong and when he pushed against reality, it, at times, pushed back and he was left with the cold truth of failure.  His cancer and the fact that he believed he could treat it by unconventional means combined in such a way that he put off necessary surgery until it was far too late and he eventually died from how the disease developed.  In this case he could have prevented such an early death by accepting reality and having surgery.

At other times, in many business decisions, Jobs refused to settle for unambitious “realistic” product concepts, timelines and designs and pushed his people to achieve more than they thought was possible.  He was absolutely relentless and this drive often paid off.  Today, Apple is peerless as a result of Jobs’ leadership.

When I think about my own reality distortion field I think about how I can use it for my passion of savvy, global do-gooding.  I don’t want to settle for less than the best.  I don’t want to dream small dreams, to limit myself by what others deem realistic.  Of course there is the flip side of not wanting to hallucinate.  I’ll be the first to admit that I can often err on the side of being overly optimistic.  But I think that this positive naïveté isn’t really the problem.  The problem is often my follow-up.  The halfhearted follow-up on what are obviously stretch goals. 2012 is a year that I want to dedicate to a more full pursuit of these dreams that have been born in the reality distortion field.  I am fully expecting some rude awakenings.  But there may also be some dreams that come true.



Bjorn Karlman

6 thoughts on “Reality Distortion Field”

  1. Its all in the follow through! Many people have great ideas, VERY few are willing to put in the time required to be outrageous. You have to know what you want, then you have to be willing to accept nothing else no matter what! The bio states it well “Jobs refused to settle” and was “absolutely relentless.”

    1. Jeremy, thanks for the input.. I appreciate the point about reaching for the “outrageous”… sounds kind of like the language Jobs used to describe what he wanted… he was full of superlatives that actually ended up serving him very well…

  2. I believe in stretching oneself, but as you pointed out in this post, sometimes it can backfire (e.g. Jobs’ treatment of his cancer). My question is, when do you know where to draw the line? It seems in the post that it’s best to have this reality distortion field when it comes to your business/professional life, but to leave it out of your personal life. What do you think?

    1. Hmmm… I lean towards engaging the reality distortion field in all parts of life… but having some self-awareness about it. Sounds totally contradictory but life is full of them

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