I’m not going to muck around in this debate, except to say that it seems clear that there are things that seem true and reasonably predictable, at least on the level of the phenomena that we experience. It also is evident to me that we don’t know very much at all, as individuals and as a race, so it would seem silly to draw too many lines in the sand.
I bring this up because I’ve been noodling on the concept of the reality
distortion field. Those who have read the fascinating story delineated in
Walter Isaacson’s tome on Steve Jobs, as well as those who follow Silicon Valley lore, know that Jobs had the ability to create a reality distortion field. In short, he was able to craft a story so compelling and visceral that it warped his audience’s “reality.” I put the word “reality” between quotes because we have no direct access to reality. We access reality through the mediums of our senses, our brains, our biases, and those of other people. Though we forget this at times, all data we receive about the world are actually mediated.
We craft the stories that make up our world using two main ingredients: our subset of available data and our synthesized assessment of that data. We tend to focus on the former, and forget that the assessment of that data has a dramatic night-and-day impact on our conclusions.
And this is where I give up my nonexistent political aspirations: More than a decade ago, when I was at university, I experienced some mind-altering drugs. I don’t advocate it, and would never encourage anyone to engage in it, but I will frankly say that my “art of the possible” is different and broader because of that experience. These experiences offered powerful examples of how a dramatically different story could be constructed in the context of the exact same data. It offered me the barest sense of what lies beyond the confines erected by the most common interpretations of that data.
A more close-to-home example might be the ingestion of alcohol. Now I’m well aware of the health threat presented by alcohol and the domestic evils that are inflicted under its influence. But one key reason for its inarguably wild popularity across cultures and nations is its enablement of a different story – one where risks and perceived consequences are lower, and the boundaries of what is possible are pushed outward. These boundaries are often of the social variety, an arena where many behavioral economists consider us unduly risk-averse.
Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field had an enduring power because, by and
large, it didn’t present a reality in conflict with the existing data. It presented a new interpretation of the existing data, one that directly confronted the constraints installed by the prevailing interpretations. And he was right! His reality distortion field stretched the perceived “art of the possible” and when the remarkably talented people he hired believed the new boundaries, they were able to accomplish heretofore seemingly impossible feats.
Now Jobs had his faults – which have been well enumerated in the press – but his ability to craft a cogent vision that was at the same time aligned with the existing data and told a story that inspired creativity by stretching the “art of the possible” was, I think, at the core of his success. In this world, few succeed in making an outsized impact without a team of A-players, and A-players love above all the opportunity to exercise their creativity against a Mount Everest-sized challenge.
Stories are not necessarily lies. To have power, stories have to be grounded in the truth, i.e. the available data. And perhaps a reality distortion field might be just a view from a different elevation.