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The Original Macintosh:    7 of 122 
Reality Distortion Field
Author: Andy Hertzfeld
Date: February 1981
Characters: Steve Jobs, Bud Tribble
Topics: Management, Personality, Reality Distortion
Summary: Bud defines Steve's unique talent

I officially started on the Mac project on a Thursday afternoon, and Bud Tribble, my new manager and the only other software person on the project, was out of town. Bud was on leave of absence from an M.D.-Ph.D. program and he had to occasionally return to Seattle to keep up his standing in the program.



Bud usually didn't come into work until after lunch, so I met with him for the first time the following Monday afternoon. We started talking about all the work that had to be done, which was pretty overwhelming. He showed me the official schedule for developing the software that had us shipping in about ten months, in early January 1982.

"Bud, that's crazy!", I told him. "We've hardly even started yet. There's no way we can get it done by then."

"I know," he responded, in a low voice, almost a whisper.

"You know? If you know the schedule is off-base, why don't you correct it?"

"Well, it's Steve. Steve insists that we're shipping in early 1982, and won't accept answers to the contrary. The best way to describe the situation is a term from Star Trek. Steve has a reality distortion field."

"A what?"

"A reality distortion field. 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. And there's a couple of other things you should know about working with Steve."

"What else?"

"Well, just because he tells you that something is awful or great, it doesn't necessarily mean he'll feel that way tomorrow. You have to low-pass filter his input. And then, he's really funny about ideas. 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."

I thought Bud was surely exaggerating, until I observed Steve in action over the next few weeks. The reality distortion field was a confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will, and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand. If one line of argument failed to persuade, he would deftly switch to another. Sometimes, he would throw you off balance by suddenly adopting your position as his own, without acknowledging that he ever thought differently.

Amazingly, the reality distortion field seemed to be effective even if you were acutely aware of it, although the effects would fade after Steve departed. We would often discuss potential techniques for grounding it (see Are You Gonna Do It?), but after a while most of us gave up, accepting it as a force of nature.

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15 Comments     
A very interesting comment on a person whose peronsality certainly has been mystified several folds in recent years. I wonder how Steve Jobs is today. Wouldn't it be a hoot to have HIM contribute a few articles and get his perspective? He is such a mysterious character that it would be wonderful to hear his insights, if he's willing to share.
It would be amazing to read the (different?) thinking of Mr. Jobs! Do you know if his RDF acts even on written form, without his phisical presence to the reader?
The link here about grounding the RDF was probably supposed to be to <a href='http://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?story=Are_You_Gonna_Do_It.txt'>Are_You_Gonna_Do_It</a> rather than "I_Invented_Burrell". (Thanks, I fixed it -- Andy)
Spelling correction: "that he ever thought differently" instead of "that he ever though differently". (Thanks, I fixed it. -- Andy)
This seems amazing to me. Does he still have this field today? Probably. I have read accounts that he is a much more mellow person than in the 80s. Do you have any contact with Steve Jobs these days? It really is too bad Steve Jobs hasn't written his own account of what went on during Apple's beginnings. I bet it would be a very interesting, and possibly opposing, view point. I wonder if Andy had anything to do with the movie Pirates of Silicon Valley. There are a few points in the movie that seem to clash with his account of what went on. Oh well, now I am off subject and rambling...
It is ironic that I haven&#226;&#128;&#153;t paid much attention to the meaning of music in the past but I am curious about the Bob Dylan song Someday Baby. What money?
That&#226;&#128;&#153;s a classic case of being highly delusional and having a god complex in the presence of spineless insecure losers (what most geeks or non-very-pretty women *think* they are). The field is easily either short-circuited by a /spine/ or blocked by /balls/. ^^ (Brains [in that sad loser state] unfortunately are part of the problem, for a chance.) I know because I had a very bad case of that spineless state around such people, a couple of years ago. Nowadays I utterly wreck such delusional people, by hanging them with their own tactics. ^^ The key is that *you* always stay being the judge and *he* trying to get his arguments accepted, NOT the other way around. That way you make the rules of the game, and you can always make him lose. ^^ If you fold and let him flip the roles, you play *his* game, and he will let *you* always lose. (Other than stopping being so *damn* insecure about yourself. ^^)
It is also a *lot* easier, if you count to 3 (or even more, whenever possible) and think, before you speak. Because the field wears off in an exponential curve.
@bugmenot Wow. You sure make a lot of assumptions about others ... You should take your own advice and "think, before you speak".
I just saw an excerpt of Walter Isaacson's appearance on 60 Minutes talking about Steve's biography, and the way Walter describes the possibility that Steve could just will his cancer away made me think of the Reality Distortion Field. It seems to me there's a good chance Steve tried to apply the Reality Distortion Field to his own cancer. I never met him, but based on what I've read here on Folklore.org, that sounds like Steve to me.
@sam whocares AND @bugmenot Look, bugmenot, is actually spot-on with his(her) comments. When dealing with an inflated ego, the only way to defend yourself is to at least match that ego to hold your ground. And the facts are that SJ's ego was certainly inflated being a 24-yr-old multi-millionaire who was used to having things work out for him, all the while, cautiously making efforts to be the figurehead of what was to become Apple's defining product (Mac). Honestly, I think this is a common result when you are elevated above others at a relatively young age. I know I would probably be the same way. Meanwhile, Steve contributed enthusiasm and attention-to-detail rather than any actual engineering work to the project. So, while an enthusiastic leader is certainly valuable, and possibly invaluable in the case of Steve, Steve's individual contribution to the perceived/real awesomeness of Apple HQ during the 1980s is not even 50% attributable to him. Although, some fanboys would claim he is responsible for 100% of Apple HQ's awesomeness. The truth is that the real awesomeness of working at Apple HQ during that time came from the incredible team members, SJ included. However, Steve&#226;&#128;&#153;s position at Apple gave him license to treat people badly because he had the power to fire you from your dream job if you stood up to him and balancing your pride with your dream job is no easy task (think Jef Raskin). If I found myself surrounded by intelligent-creative types with an enthusiastic culture I certainly wouldn&#226;&#128;&#153;t want to throw that away just because Steve needed to dump on someone and I was at the wrong-place wrong-time. Though, I would certainly counter any attempt by Steve to make my work seem meaningless. Steve even said something about how easy it was to make Andy Hertzfeld, our beloved webmaster, cry and at one point told him he was replaceable. But the truth is everyone is replaceable, even SJ, but that doesn&#226;&#128;&#153;t mean you should treat people as though they are replaceable. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. In the end, people do themselves a disservice, yes even Andy, when they don&#226;&#128;&#153;t stand up for themselves in a struggle that is almost always psychological and rarely tangible, unless you are actually producing sub-par work. Ultimately, and more often, people respect others who respect themselves. Steve will likely always be given more than his fair share of credit. This is especially true with the nearly flawless execution of Apple&#226;&#128;&#153;s business team during the 1997-2011 era. Still, there was something great about Apple in the 80s and the 80s in general and I can only aspire to work in that kind of place with those kinds of people. Maybe I&#226;&#128;&#153;m just nostalgic, but using a Mac SE at the young age of four you could feel the commitment to excellence the engineers had for the Mac project. It was like their passion for the Mac emanated from the 9-inch screen and later you would find their signatures lovingly laser-etched on the silver-insides of the case. It seems highly unlikely that Apple would be able to retain the same kind of work environment of the booming smaller company it was in the 80s. For those of you who got to live it, I am eternally jealous for being too young to work there at that time. I was born in 1984. --Marcus Schieffert
From what I've read - both here and elsewhere - Jobs was a bully, plain and simple (just like that other software mogul bully, Bill Gates - although in most other respects the two can't be compared). And the best way to handle a bully is to stand up to them - get into their face if you have to. They'll INEVITABLY back down. They're chickenshits at heart. They downside to this of course is that with people like Gates and Jobs you'll likely get fired. You'll find this out, however, from your immediate manager - not from them directly, since they're already scared of you.
Andy, thank you so so much for these accounts. And for your style. I am like Marcus - I wish I will still have a chance to work in such an environment or able to build or contribute to build one. I felt exactly the same awe and inspiration in the workmanship of earlier Macs. The feeling that you guys were on a mission of user empowerment and exciting innovation. The fact that these environments have the kinds of Steve Jobs-alike, only makes them more real, because I don't believe in paradise. I have met many egomaniacs like Steve, and while Jobs may have been useful and worthy of some credit, I have absolutely no doubt that he would be nothing, just another ego-blabber, if he had not such amazing team of bright, even genious willing to put up and do the real innovation. Why they put up? well, Marcus nailed it. It is the same everywhere. You put up because some people in this system have the power to be arbitrary and either promote, demote or fire you, not based on any good, reasonable factor, but because they can. Shame on us if we let them also grab the laurels and credits and allow them to obscure the real actors and builders. So again I am grateful to Andy on this account to. He may have not stood up to Steve's DRF bull**, I don't know, but he is giving voice and credit to others, from his own perspective, not from the Steve fan-boys or media mercenaries. Pedro
oh, and by the way, I hate what Apple became nowadays. It represents the exact negation of using innovation to empower citizens, users at large, and to produce the best technology can achieve, that was clearly the inspiration of earlier Apple. Now, what I see is the destruction of usability to lock users and turn them into brainless consumers, forced to jump stupid loops (ex. iPads without usb or similar ports, to force users to use itunes or cloud), only for the benefit of capital owners. And most innovation introduced is spent on how to further milk users dry, not how to make them benefit from tech innovation. So in retrospective, that shows me what drives the likes of Steve Jobs, when they acquire even more control and influence. I hope these stories inspire a new generation of engineers and innovators to put the industry back on track, rather than, as someone said, one were "the brightest minds of our time are focused on how to make more users click on ads, how sad can this be". Pedro
I agree about lock-in, it's frustrating that I can't directly shoot a photo over Bluetooth from my iPhone to Nokia winphone or Google Nexus tablet. On the other hand, too much freedom & flexibility IMHO makes using Android generally a rather sub-par experience, with vendors cluttering up the products with cheap games and special offers, and of course endless takes on what an app launcher should be, each with their own themes and icon sets, etc. Giving users so many options doesn't mean they'll make optimal choices. If Steve Jobs wasn't the way he was, would someone else have spearheaded an iPhone, or iPod, or NeXTstep (to become OS-X), or iMac, or Macintosh. I'm inclined to say _maybe_ - but many years later. These were things that when introduced, looked very little like anything else yet suddenly everyone was stealing ideas. That must be some Reality Distortion Field - or maybe they were good ideas. An alternative theory, though - and one I think is more plausible - is that it wasn't that Jobs was so brilliant, it was that other companies were mostly producing junk.