How Do You Break Into The “Reality Distortion Field”?

by Brett Gibson

There are many things in life that can be taught, learned and practiced.  Programming can be learned, developers can be purchased, coding can be practiced. 

Repetition and practice help people become great at many things, but there are some things in life that cannot be taught.  In 1981 Burrell Smith at Apple Computers founded the term “Reality Distortion Field” to describe the charisma of Steve Jobs.  It’s evident to me that some people have it and some people don’t. 

Contagious enthusiasm, intoxicating vision, distorted reality.  Sharing your vision with someone and having them embrace your ideas and take ownership is a gift that many people strive for, but few people have.  Vision is the ability to see something in your dream-like world and know that you can build it, then inspire others to join and help you.  Steven Covey describes this power in his New York Times bestseller, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” as “beginning with the end in mind.”  Some authors and self-improvement experts call it “positive self-visualization.”  In the tech community, it’s called the reality distortion field.  It’s the ability to see beyond the horizon into a technology powered world that is more efficient, connected and meaningful than the present.  My modern heroes are people that have the risk-tolerance and risk-management skills to inspire the world into believing (and purchasing) their way into a new paradigm of solutions and ideas.

We are entering a world that will be driven by people that shape the reality distortion field.  I recently had lunch with Brent Grinna (HBS ’10).  Brent showed me his I-phone app to connect university alumni in cities worldwide.  His eyes lit up as he described the functionality and value of knowing there are University of Virginia grads in Brussells, Belgium (in the event I need a partner in crime on a chocolate binge in Europe!).   I intently followed Brent’s vision as we talked.   The hypothesis that drives his reality distortion is that if alumni knew they were neighbors, they would help one another and interact in new and meaningful ways.

David Vivero also has a reality distortion contagion.  David sees the world in a different way than you and I.  As the founder of RentJuice, David sees efficiency, awareness and transparency created by online platforms to connect renters with landlords and brokers.  David was so intoxicated with his idea that he taught himself how to code so that he could always inspect his team’s work and contribute to the solution.

As I embark on my start-up journey, I wrestle with reality versus distortion.  I have the passion for distortion but too often use the lens of logic and reason.  The true visionaries of our time have been women and men who see into a world that does not currently exist.  These people view information as currency and technology as the bridge.  They are shaping the world we live in, designing the products we use and improving our lives and our future daily.  I’m excited for the remainder of our semester in Tom Eisenmann’s HBS course, Leading Technology Ventures.  My horizon continues to be expanded. 

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