They say that when Apple was developing the Macintosh computer, the engineers took the term “Reality Distortion Field” (RDF), from Star Trek, and used it to describe the ability of Steve Jobs to convince himself and others to believe almost anything and deny reality. It was said that Jobs would routinely succeed in using charm, charisma, bravado, marketing, appeasement and persistence to overcome his team member’s denial or belief in the truth. They also said that Jobs would use the RDF to routinely adopt other people’s ideas that he would claim as his own after having rejected the very same idea when suggested by a team member a week earlier. Jobs’s reality distortion field wasn’t limited to his professional life. For example, Jobs appalled many around him when he persistently denied reality by refusing to recognize his own daughter, Lisa, despite a paternity test that showed more than a 96% change that he was the father.
The effect of RDF on the Macintosh design team was both positive and negative. Jobs’ refusal to accept reality allowed him to get the team to push through barriers and accomplish things they thought were impossible. The Macintosh team created an amazing cutting-edge machine, and despite the insanity of the experience, most say it was one of their proudest accomplishments. On the other hand, the Macintosh team missed development deadlines by more than a year, which gave IBM time to establish itself and Microsoft as the dominant players in the business personal computer market. Apple has never really recovered this market loss. This is one of the reasons that to this day people debate whether Macintosh was a commercial failure or success. The human cost to Apple and Jobs was huge. Jobs’ behavior drove off many talented engineers and employees who quit and went to work for Apple’s competition. Ultimately, due to his behavior, Jobs ended up out of the company that he co-founded. Granted, he would return to help rescue the company a decade later, but it is said that he returned more mature and seasoned, and was more subdued in his leadership.
I think about this tendency to deny reality when I read the news accounts that have been coming out of the Trump White House. I’m left wondering how similar was Steve Jobs during that time to Donald Trump today? I read in the news that Donald Trump is now accusing President Obama of bugging his campaign office, but isn’t offering any evidence. There was the whole fiasco regarding the crowd size at his inauguration in which his staff told reporters that they were putting forth “alternative facts”. There was the media statement last week that he believes the recent increase in anti-Semitic incidents is being done by Democrats to harm him, again with no evidence to support the statement. There is the denial of human-induced climate change despite the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting it. Indeed, it’s been one episode of reality distortion after another since he took office just over a month ago. The question is where does this take us? Will Trump break through barriers to create a new future for America that wasn’t previously thought possible? I’m skeptical because I don’t see the passion to create in Trump that existed in Jobs. On the other hand, will he alienate our allies and his supporters, produce little, and ultimately leave us with an expensive and deleterious outcome?
Of course, it’s not just inventors and populist politicians who are subject to reality distortion. I think people do it all the time, albeit to much lesser degrees. As a lawyer I spend a lot time trying to sort fact from fiction, and it’s amazing how often honest people manage to distort reality in order to avoid an unpleasant or inconvenient truth. The important difference between most people and people such as Trump and Jobs is that when confronted with evidence to the contrary, most people accept reality.