Applying Steve Jobs' Reality Distortion Approach to World Problems

By John McNeel in General
April 07, 2015 04:00

Apple's famous manifesto celebrated the "crazy ones" who set out to change the world. Is it time for the brand to do the same?

At Apple, Steve Jobs was famous for having a larger than life personality that could captivate and convince though sheer charisma; his force of will and blinding vision seemingly made barriers disappear, made the impossible seem possible, and suspended the disbelief of even the most stalwart cynics. It was known as Steve’s “reality distortion field” — and arguably, without it, Apple would not be the valuable company and brand it is today.

Unfortunately, Jobs’ ability to put on blinders when it came to challenges others believed to be insurmountable also extended to areas that have left one of the century’s greatest tech entrepreneurs with a tarnished legacy. He had vision but little empathy; he turned a blind eye to those closest to him, including his family, and he never adopted the kind of philanthropic commitment to give back to his communities or to the world that have redeemed many other successful entrepreneurs throughout history.

So it was refreshing this past week to see Jobs’ successor as Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, announce that he would be leaving his entire fortune of nearly a billion dollars to philanthropy when he passes away. Although this is an admirably generous gesture, it is also a highly personal one; the glow may “rub off” on the Apple brand by extension, but the fact remains that — as a company — Apple has yet to apply its proven ability to change the world to, well, actually changing the world— from a social cause perspective.

This week in Los Angeles I visited the offices of the Not Impossible Labs, the brainchild of Mick Ebeling who, with his partner and content wizard Elliot Kotek, have successfully adopted the principle of the “reality distortion field” to put technology to use to extend human capabilities. As beautifully told in his book, Not Impossible, Ebeling tackled his first project — allowing the paralyzed graffiti artist Tempt One to communicate again, then to create art again — without initially having a clue about how it could be done.

More recently, Project Daniel has provided prosthetic arms to the African child of that name who lost both limbs in an explosion in war torn Sudan. For months, at a fraction of the cost of manufactured prosthetics, the “Not Impossible” team worked to develop a way to give Daniel back his arms through 3D printing.

Both projects involved a desire to do good that was so powerful it overcame all obstacles in the way; they involved imagining what the solution would look like before even knowing whether it could be done; they involved people reshaping the lives of others for the better through sheer determination, perseverance and pluck.

It reminded me of the conviction shown by Nancy Frates (which I’ve blogged about earlier). Inspired by her son Peter, who was afflicted with ALS -- the same disease that paralyzed Tempt -- the family set out to change the world through their own “reality distortion field.”

Here’s what I wrote about how the Frates became responsible for starting one of the most noteworthy philanthropic movements of recent time, the Ice Bucket Challenge:

Starting with the day of the diagnosis, Peter himself set the tone, saying “We’re not looking back, we’re looking forward. Whatever we do, we’re going to change the world.” At the time, he had no idea how he or anyone else for that matter could achieve that lofty goal — the ice buckets and the YouTube videos were still months away — but from that very first day, he rallied first his family, then his friends, then an increasingly expanding circle of others, around him in his quest to “be the change.”

Today, the world needs more Mick Ebelings and more Peter and Nancy Frates — in addition to more Tim Cooks. Beyond the “traditional philanthropy” of the latter, the former have inspired and created change simply by willing it, not by showering it with money. They have set out to change the world by refusing to acknowledge that anything might stand in the way of that goal. They have applied the “reality distortion field” to the one big thing Steve Jobs lacked: empathy.

It’s time as well for Apple, as one of the world’s most admired brands and its most valuable company -- one that literally touches millions of peoples' lives with technology every instant of every day -- to carve out its own bold and ambitious agenda to make the world a better place. If Apple’s founder could make the impossible possible when it came to technology, how about harnessing that vision and that power, which is still deeply embedded in Apple’s DNA, to become a force for good.

Steve Jobs was justifiably proud of Apple’s famous Think Different campaign, which provided the rallying cry for the spirit that eventually brought the company back from the brink. That beautiful manifesto celebrated “The crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels...

“…Because," it concluded, "the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

Will Apple now embrace its own philosophy and show it can change the world, by applying the "reality distortion field" to the traditional models of philanthropy and paving the way towards a new model of corporate giving?

(This post was published earlier on LinkedIn.)

John McNeel LinkedIn Posts: