The Powers and Pitfalls of Reality Distortion

Matt Serna
Sep 22 · 10 min read

Reflections on the life and death of Steve Jobs

The reality myth

Rashomon, the classic Akira Kurosawa film, presents viewers with four competing portrayals of a single event — the rape of a woman and the murder of her husband — as seen through the eyes of each participant and eyewitness. These narratives explicitly contradict each other throughout the film. The film does not address whether this is due to selective honesty on behalf of the storytellers, or an actual difference in how they perceived what occurred.

In doing so, the film speaks to the blurry line between perception and reality, and to the inherent arbitrariness of how we define what is real.

Steve Jobs’ genius lay in understanding this inherent flexibility of how people perceive reality. In the early 80s, Bud Tribble, a member of the original Macintosh development team, famously coined Jobs’ now infamous “reality distortion field.”

“In his presence, reality is malleable” described Andy Hertzfield, who documented the encounter. After encountering the phenomenon firsthand, he described it as “a confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will, and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand.”

While not himself a world-class engineer or product designer, Jobs was able to consistently drive teams towards execution of seemingly impossible feats of engineering by bending their perception of what they thought possible.

The majority of Jobs’ biggest successes and most infamous failures can be traced back to his unique relationship with reality, and the way in which he was able to successfully impose his own interpretation of reality on the world around him. His life is a testament to the magic and terror that can unfold when one chooses to believe and act on what others see as impossible or untrue.

Another side of the coin

The malleable nature of reality and our perception can be challenging to intuit, since at any given moment, we are locked into our own, solitary and self-absorbed perspective. It’s for this reason, among others, that many turn to psychedelics as a way to unlock new perspectives on life. Those who have not had a psychedelic experience often associate them with simple visual and auditory hallucinations, a temporary “trip” from reality. Many who have had these experiences come away with a deeper understanding — that there is nothing more or less true “real” about what is perceived in a hallucinatory state compared to a non-hallucinatory one. They are simply different manifestations of consciousness, applying different lenses for looking at the same world.

The real epiphanies don’t come from what you see while on the trip, but how you see afterward.

It wouldn’t be entirely disingenuous to infer that the core of Jobs was formed by his experience with LSD, from his values, to his understanding of the malleability of the world around him, and to his rejection of the status quo.

He suggests so himself:

“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”

NeXT

Like a strong trip, Jobs and his reality distortion field permanently altered the views of those whom it encountered. At Apple, his product keynotes became events, mesmerizing crowds. The marketing, from the infamous 1984 Super Bowl Commercial to the notorious “think different” campaigns of the late 90s and early 2000s, left a permanent imprint on the culture.

Yet, it was Jobs’ experiences at NeXT, a company he founded between his two tenures at Apple, that provides the most trenchant insight into the power and perils of his tenuous relationship with reality.

Walter Isaacson shares in his critically acclaimed biography of Jobs, at NeXT, “Jobs was able to indulge all of his instincts, both good and bad. He was unbound.”

Unencumbered by the “suits” that he felt had stifled his creative expression at Apple, NeXT embodied Jobs’ vision to create a company entirely on his own terms.

It started with an initial investment of $100,000 in 1985, not on product or R&D, but on a logo. According to Isaacson, nearly two years into NeXT’s history, almost $7,000,000 had gone into the company, with nothing but a “neat logo”, some “snazzy offices”, and no revenue, products, or anything on the horizon.

Jobs’ dilemma: to build a computer with an esoteric and expensive design, while still hitting a low-enough price point to meaningful market share.

For example, according to Jobs, the NeXT computer simple had to be in the shape of a perfect cube. This, claims Isaacson, was “a Jobsian example of design desires trumping engineering considerations.” Circuit boards, designed to fit inside rectangular shapes, had to be reconfigured to support the cube. Furthermore, the cube itself was challenging to manufacture. Developing the parts with 90-degree angles required the use of specialty molds that cost $650,000. And to remove the lines where the finished mold faces met, Jobs authorized the purchase of a $150,000 sander.

Like with Jobs’ other category-defining successes, he had a vision for a product that few others understood, and that fewer still thought would be possible to bring to market. The classic Jobsian end to this story we expect to hear is that somehow, someway, his unique vision translated led to market dominance and unparalleled commercial success.

In fact, NeXT launched a product without a market. Its engineers were not able to develop a product that simultaneously fulfilled Jobs’ design vision while keeping costs at a reasonable level. The launch was a flop, and Jobs’ vision to transform the computing industry with his perfect cube had failed.

Months later, it tried to reposition itself into the less price-sensitive personal workstations market. Even then, NeXT barely eclipsed 1% market share.

And yet.

While the NeXT machine never amounted to much, the underlying operating system which was developed to power it — NeXTSTEP — turned out to be of enormous value, and actually served as the platform on which the World Wide Web was built.

So when Apple found themselves in need of a UNIX based operating system like NeXTSTEP, NeXT was a logical place to turn. Originally considered a dark horse candidate against candidates like Microsoft to supply Apple with the OS, Jobs not only helped NeXT win the deal, but ended up talking Apple into buying NeXT and acquiring the OS instead of licensing it.

He took home a cool $120,000,000 in cash and $37,000,000 in stock as part of the deal.

Gil Amelio, then CEO of Apple during the NeXT acquisition, shared Gates’ outraged reaction to the deal:

“Don’t you understand that Steve doesn’t know anything about technology? He’s just a super salesman. I can’t believe you’re making such a stupid decision…He doesn’t know anything about engineering, and 99% of what he says and thinks is wrong.”

Antennagate

Jobs’ learned the hard way at NeXT what can happen when a monomaniac focus on design outweighs marketing and engineering considerations. And early in his second tour as CEO at Apple, he was able to transform the fate of the company through products like the iMac, the iPod, and the iPhone, which were not only designed impeccably but marketed and engineered brilliantly.

By the development of the iPhone 4, however, he had reverted back to bad habits.

Jobs was obsessed with providing the new model a distinctive design via a metal rim that lined the edge of the phone. Engineering shared that this could interfere with antenna performance. In response, Jobs directed the team to simply engineer around the design requirements (and the fundamental laws of physics), rather face the prospect of designing around the engineering requirements.

Soon after the launch, it was discovered that the phone would often drop calls due to these very engineering concerns. Apple was left marketing a phone that was positioned as a cutting edge piece of technology, yet could not make calls. Consumer Reports and others said they could not recommend it.

At first, rather than confronting the reality of his mistake, Jobs engaged through the lens his own distorted reality, claiming that product concerns simply must have been ginned up by competitors, and that it was impossible for there to be problems with the phone Apple had designed.

As the crisis continued to escalate, Tim Cook, then COO of Apple, was finally able to convince Jobs of the legitimacy behind the complaints. In response, Jobs agreed to put on a press conference, one that is now looked back on as perhaps his most awe-inspiring display of the reality distortion field.

In front of an army of reporters, Jobs publicly admitted fault with the design. Yet, the way in which he did so completely reframed the crisis in a way that deflected fault from Apple.

“All cell phones have problems.” Jobs said. “We’re not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy.”

With these simple words, Jobs had reframed the crisis by lowering the bar for what consumers ought expect from Apple and its products. By grounding the public in the assumption that all phones are imperfect, he defused any objections from critics that called out the iPhone 4’s flaws. He did so with a humility that was uncharacteristic of himself or his company. And to boot, the company gave anybody who had bought the phone a free case that would fix the reception issues.

In the days following this press conference, the wait list for the iPhone 4 expanded from two weeks to three, and it remained on track to become the company’s fastest growing product at that time.

“This is a level of modern marketing, corporate spin, and crisis management about which you can only ask with stupefied incredulity and awe: How do they get away with it?” said Michael Wolff, confounder of the headline aggregator newser.com.

“Or, more accurately, how does he get away with it?”

Death

It was in 2003, 7 years prior to the famed antennagate press conference, that death came knocking on Jobs’ door.

It started with a seemingly routine CAT scan prescribed as a 5-year follow-up to a bout of kidney stones from the late 90s. Everything was fine with the kidneys, but the scan picked up a shadow on his pancreas.

A few days later, Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is considered largely incurable. Even with treatment, only one in five patients survive longer than a year after diagnosis. This explains why Jobs’ doctors teared up with joy when they discovered that Jobs had a rare, slower growing version of the cancer that was much more likely to be treatable through surgery.

Much to the doctor’s chagrin, Jobs refused to have surgery. Instead, Jobs opted for less “accepted” alternative treatments, including a strict vegan diet, herbal remedies, bowel cleansings, and vigorous expression of negative feelings.

“He has that ability to ignore stuff he doesn’t want to confront,” explained Laurene Powell, his late wife. “It’s just the way he’s wired.”

It wasn’t until 9 months later that he finally opted to have the surgery. As the surgeons operated on Jobs, they discovered that the cancer had spread to his liver. It is impossible to know whether or not the delay to have surgery played a role in the return of the cancer that took his life in 2011.

“I think Steve has such a strong desire for the world to be a certain way that he wills it to be that way,” speculated Art Levinson, former CEO of Genentech and close friend of Jobs. “Sometimes it doesn’t work. Reality is unforgiving.”

At Jobs’ funeral, Laurene shared that, “his mind was never a captive of reality. He possessed an epic sense of possibility. He looked at things from the standpoint of perfection.”

Beginnings

Prior to founding Apple, Steve Jobs enlisted his friend Steve Wozniak to partner with him on a project commissioned by Atari to develop a single player version of Pong.

Atari asked Jobs to design the game and was offered a bonus for every chip fewer than 50 used. Jobs, in turn, went to Wozniak, telling him that the game needed to be complete in four days — a lie, but Jobs needed the money. He also shared that it needed to be built with the fewest chips possible.

“A game like this might take most engineers a few months,” Wozniak recalled. “I thought that there was no way I could do it, but Steve made me sure that I could.”

Fueled by Jobs’ belief, Wozniak accomplished what he had thought impossible, working through three consecutive days and nights without sleep to ship the game. He did so using only 45 chips, earning the team a well-deserved bonus.

As it so happened, only Jobs knew about the bonus. He gave Wozniak his half of the base fee — $350 — and pocketed the entire $5,000 bonus for himself.

It wasn’t until years later that Wozniak discovered that he had been cheated by his friend. When asked about it, he surprisingly came to Jobs’ defense.

“Nobody’s perfect. [Everybody is] going to have cases where they did something bad to somebody, said something nasty to them and maybe regret it later,” said Wozniak.

“When you judge Steve as a person — the great things he brings to the world versus, maybe, these encroachments on personal decency or personal honesty with other people or disrespect of people…those are probably outweighed by the good that he does for the world.”

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