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CHAPTER ELEVEN THE REALITY DISTORTION FIELD
Playing by His Own Set of Rules







The original Mac team in 1984: George Crow, Joanna Hoffman, Burrell Smith, Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson, and Jerry Manock



When Andy Hertzfeld joined the Macintosh team, he got a briefing from Bud Tribble, the other software designer, about the huge amount of work that still needed to be done. Jobs wanted it finished by January 1982, less than a year away. “That’s crazy,” Hertzfeld said. “There’s no way.” Tribble said that Jobs would not accept any contrary facts. “The best way to describe the situation is a term from Star Trek,” Tribble explained. “Steve has a reality distortion field.” When Hertzfeld looked puzzled, Tribble elaborated. “In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he’s not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules.”

Tribble recalled that he adopted the phrase from the “Menagerie” episodes of Star Trek, “in which the aliens create their own new world through sheer mental force.” He meant the phrase to be a compliment as well as a caution: “It was dangerous to get caught in Steve’s distortion field, but it was what led him to actually be able to change reality.”

At first Hertzfeld thought that Tribble was exaggerating, but after two weeks of working with Jobs, he became a keen observer of the phenomenon. “The reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand,” he said.

There was little that could shield you from the force, Hertzfeld discovered. “Amazingly, the reality distortion field seemed to be effective even if you were acutely aware of it. We would often discuss potential techniques for grounding it, but after a while most of us gave up, accepting it as a force of nature.” After Jobs decreed that the sodas in the office refrigerator be replaced by Odwalla organic orange and carrot juices, someone on the team had T-shirts made. “Reality Distortion Field,” they said on the front, and on the back, “It’s in the juice!”

To some people, calling it a reality distortion field was just a clever way to say that Jobs tended to lie. But it was in fact a more complex form of dissembling. He would assert something—be it a fact about world history or a recounting of who suggested an idea at a meeting—without even considering the truth. It came from willfully defying reality, not only to others but to himself. “He can deceive himself,” said Bill Atkinson. “It allowed him to con people into believing his vision, because he has personally embraced and internalized it.”

A lot of people distort reality, of course. When Jobs did so, it was often a tactic for accomplishing something. Wozniak, who was as congenitally honest as Jobs was tactical, marveled at how effective it could be. “His reality distortion is when he has an illogical vision of the future, such as telling me that I could design the Breakout game in just a few days. You realize that it can’t be true, but he somehow makes it true.”

When members of the Mac team got ensnared in his reality distortion field, they were almost hypnotized. “He reminded me of Rasputin,” said Debi Coleman. “He laser-beamed in on you and didn’t blink. It didn’t matter if he was serving purple Kool-Aid. You drank it.” But like Wozniak, she believed that the reality distortion field was empowering: It enabled Jobs to inspire his team to change the course of computer history with a fraction of the resources of Xerox or IBM. “It was a self-fulfilling distortion,” she claimed. “You did the impossible, because you didn’t realize it was impossible.”

At the root of the reality distortion was Jobs’s belief that the rules didn’t apply to him. He had some evidence for this; in his childhood, he had often been able to bend reality to his desires. Rebelliousness and willfulness were ingrained in his character. He had the sense that he was special, a chosen one, an enlightened one. “He thinks there are a few people who are special—people like Einstein and Gandhi and the gurus he met in India—and he’s one of them,” said Hertzfeld. “He told Chrisann this. Once he even hinted to me that he was enlightened. It’s almost like Nietzsche.” Jobs never studied Nietzsche, but the philosopher’s concept of the will to power and the special nature of the überman came naturally to him. As Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “The spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers the world.” If reality did not comport with his will, he would ignore it, as he had done with the birth of his daughter and would do years later, when first diagnosed with cancer. Even in small everyday rebellions, such as not putting a license plate on his car and parking it in handicapped spaces, he acted as if he were not subject to the strictures around him.

Another key aspect of Jobs’s worldview was his binary way of categorizing things. People were either “enlightened” or “an asshole.” Their work was either “the best” or “totally shitty.” Bill Atkinson, the Mac designer who fell on the good side of these dichotomies, described what it was like:

It was difficult working under Steve, because there was a great polarity between gods and shitheads. If you were a god, you were up on a pedestal and could do no wrong. Those of us who were considered to be gods, as I was, knew that we were actually mortal and made bad engineering decisions and farted like any person, so we were always afraid that we would get knocked off our pedestal. The ones who were shitheads, who were brilliant engineers working very hard, felt there was no way they could get appreciated and rise above their status.





But these categories were not immutable, for Jobs could rapidly reverse himself. When briefing Hertzfeld about the reality distortion field, Tribble specifically warned him about Jobs’s tendency to resemble high-voltage alternating current. “Just because he tells you that something is awful or great, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll feel that way tomorrow,” Tribble explained. “If you tell him a new idea, he’ll usually tell you that he thinks it’s stupid. But then, if he actually likes it, exactly one week later, he’ll come back to you and propose your idea to you, as if he thought of it.”

The audacity of this pirouette technique would have dazzled Diaghilev. “If one line of argument failed to persuade, he would deftly switch to another,” Hertzfeld said. “Sometimes, he would throw you off balance by suddenly adopting your position as his own, without acknowledging that he ever thought differently.” That happened repeatedly to Bruce Horn, the programmer who, with Tesler, had been lured from Xerox PARC. “One week I’d tell him about an idea that I had, and he would say it was crazy,” recalled Horn. “The next week, he’d come and say, ‘Hey I have this great idea’—and it would be my idea! You’d call him on it and say, ‘Steve, I told you that a week ago,’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’ and just move right along.”

It was as if Jobs’s brain circuits were missing a device that would modulate the extreme spikes of impulsive opinions that popped into his mind. So in dealing with him, the Mac team adopted an audio concept called a “low pass filter.” In processing his input, they learned to reduce the amplitude of his high-frequency signals. That served to smooth out the data set and provide a less jittery moving average of his evolving attitudes. “After a few cycles of him taking alternating extreme positions,” said Hertzfeld, “we would learn to low pass filter his signals and not react to the extremes.”

Was Jobs’s unfiltered behavior caused by a lack of emotional sensitivity? No. Almost the opposite. He was very emotionally attuned, able to read people and know their psychological strengths and vulnerabilities. He could stun an unsuspecting victim with an emotional towel-snap, perfectly aimed. He intuitively knew when someone was faking it or truly knew something. This made him masterful at cajoling, stroking, persuading, flattering, and intimidating people. “He had the uncanny capacity to know exactly what your weak point is, know what will make you feel small, to make you cringe,” Joanna Hoffman said. “It’s a common trait in pe............
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