Reality Distortion Or Destruction?

Walter Isaacson describes the phenomenon of “reality distortion” in his stunning biography of Steve Jobs. Essentially, it was Jobs’s practice of convincing people that they could do things not based in their own reality, such as providing a technical solution to a seemingly insoluble problem, or racing to market months ahead of normal production time.

This is often a factor of people being exposed to the fresh air outside of their own paradigms, and often a factor of merely ruthlessly driving people to work beyond their normal endurance. When it works, it’s rather spectacular. But when it doesn’t, it can be ruinous.

One could posit that Jobs treated his own cancer in this manner, forestalling more conventional treatments in favor of his own style of diet, meditation, and non-proven interventions. He lived for seven years with the disease, but could he have lived longer?

In China, we are witnessing a government attempting to build infrastructure—high-speed train lines, superhighways, public works—at a rate and in a volume unprecedented for a country of its size. Yet this “reality distortion” of more expectable time frames and more modest plans has been disastrous, with new highway bridges crumbling, trains derailing, and political corruption rife (and that’s solely what’s allowed to have been reported).

Reality distortion comes at a hefty price.

That’s why we should eschew a fad or empty metaphor (“Good to Ginormous,” “The Four-Second Work Week”) in favor of a pragmatic application. We are not, like Captain Picard, in a position to proclaim simply, “Make it so.” This is also why most executive biographies and autobiographies are interesting but rarely applicable elsewhere, because the individual’s success resided in the confluence of personal predispositions, singular events, and the fates.

What Jobs did was incredible. The way he did it fit his temperament and the times. But it’s not terribly transferable.

Think about that if you’re ever in a Chinese high-speed train going over a trestle that was build by a relative of a major political figure. Reality only distorts so far.

© Alan Weiss 2012. All rights reserved.


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