Genius is the ability to put into effect what is in your mind. There’s no other definition of it. —F. SCOTT FITZGERALD
Steve Jobs was famous for what observers called his “reality distortion field.” The part motivational tactic, part sheer drive and ambition, this field made him notoriously dismissive of phrases such as “It can’t be done” or “We need more time.” Having learned early in life that reality was falsely hemmed in by rules and compromises that people had been taught as children, Jobs had a much more aggressive idea of what was or wasn’t possible. To him, when you factored in vision and work ethic, much of life was malleable. For instance, in the design stages for a new mouse for an early Apple product, Jobs had high expectations. He wanted it to move fluidly in any direction—a new development for any mouse at that time—but a lead engineer was told by one of his designers that this would be commercially impossible.
What Jobs wanted wasn’t realistic and wouldn’t work. The next day, the lead engineer arrived at work to find that Steve Jobs had fired the employee who’d said that. When the replacement came in, his first words were: “I can build the mouse.” This was Jobs’s view of reality at work. Malleable, adamant, self-confident. Not in the delusional sense, but for the purposes of accomplishing something. He knew that to aim low meant to accept mediocre accomplishment. But a high aim could, if things went right, create something extraordinary.
He was Napoleon shouting to his soldiers: “There shall be no Alps!” For most of us, such confidence does not come easy. It’s understandable. So many people in our lives have preached the need to be realistic or conservative or worse—to not rock the boat. This is an enormous disadvantage when it comes to trying big things. Because though our doubts (and self-doubts) feel real, they have very little bearing on what is and isn’t possible. Our perceptions determine, to an incredibly large degree, what we are and are not capable of. In many ways, they determine reality itself. When we believe in the obstacle more than in the goal, which will inevitably triumph? For instance, think of artists. It’s their unique vision and voice that pushes the definition of “art” forward. What was possible for an artist before Caravaggio and after he stunned us with his dark masterpieces were two very different things.
Plug in any other thinker or writer or painter in their own time, and the same applies. This is why we shouldn’t listen too closely to what other people say (or to what the voice in our head says, either). We’ll find ourselves erring on the side of accomplishing nothing. Be open. Question. Though of course, we don’t control reality, our perceptions do influence it.
One week before the first Macintosh computer was supposed to ship, the engineers told Jobs they couldn’t make the deadline. On a hastily assembled conference call, the engineers explained that they needed just two additional weeks’ work before it was ready. Jobs responded calmly, explaining to the engineers that if they could make it in two weeks, they could surely make it one—there was no real difference in such a short period of time. And, more important, since they’d come this far and done so much good work, there was no way they would not ship on January 16, the original ship date. The engineers rallied and made their deadline. His insistence pushed them, once again, past what they ever thought possible. Now, how do you and I usually deal with an impossible deadline handed down from someone above us? We complain. We get angry. We question. How could they? What’s the point? Who do they think I am? We look for a way out and feel sorry for ourselves. Of course, none of these things affect the objective reality of that deadline. Not in the way that pushing forward can. Jobs refused to tolerate people who didn’t believe in their own abilities to succeed. Even if his demands were unfair, uncomfortable, or ambitious. The genius and wonder of his products—which often felt impossibly intuitive and futuristic— embody that trait. He had pushed through what others thought were hard limitations and, as a result, he created something totally new. No one believed Apple could make the products it made. In fact, Jobs was pushed out in 1985 because the board members at that time felt that Apple’s foray into consumer products was a “lunatic plan.” Of course, they were wrong. Jobs learned to reject the first judgments and the objections that spring out of them because those objections are almost always rooted in fear. When he ordered a special kind of glass for the first iPhone, the manufacturer was aghast at the aggressive deadline. “We don’t have the capacity,” they said. “Don’t be afraid,” Jobs replied. “You can do it. Get your mind around it. You can do it.” Nearly overnight, manufacturers transformed their facilities into glass-making behemoths, and within six months they’d made enough for the whole first run of the phone. This is radically different from how we’ve been taught to act. Be realistic, we’re told. Listen to feedback. Play well with others. Compromise. Well, what if the “other” party is wrong? What if conventional wisdom is too conservative? It’s this all-too-common impulse to complain, defer, and then give up that holds us back. An entrepreneur is someone with faith in their ability to make something where there was nothing before.
To them, the idea that no one has ever done this or that is a good thing. When given an unfair task, some rightly see it as a chance to test what they’re made of—to give it all they’ve got, knowing full well how difficult it will be to win. They see it as an opportunity because it is often in that desperate nothing-to-lose state that we are our most creative. Our best ideas come from there, where obstacles illuminate new options. One of the most intimidating and shocking developments in modern warfare was the German Blitzkrieg (lightning war). In World War II the Germans wanted to avoid the drawn-out trench fighting of previous wars.
So they concentrated mobile divisions into rapid, narrow offensive forces that caught their enemies completely unprepared. Like the tip of a spear, columns of panzer tanks rushed into Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France with devastating results and little opposition. In most cases, the opposing commanders simply surrendered rather than face what felt like an invincible, indefatigable monster bearing down on them.
The Blitzkrieg strategy was designed to exploit the flinch of the enemy—he must collapse at the sight of what appears to be an overwhelming force. Its success depends completely on this response. This military strategy works because the set-upon troops see the offensive force as an enormous obstacle bearing down on them. This is how the Allied opposition regarded the Blitzkrieg for most of the war. They could see only its power and their own vulnerability to it. In the weeks and months after the successful invasion of Normandy by Allied forces, they faced it again: a set of massive German counteroffensives. How could they stop it? Would it throw them back to the very beaches they just purchased at such a high cost? A great leader answered that question. Striding into the conference room at headquarters in Malta, General Dwight D. Eisenhower made an announcement: He’d have no more of this quivering timidity from his deflated generals. “The present situation is to be regarded as an opportunity for us and not disaster,” he commanded. “There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.” In the surging counteroffensive, Eisenhower was able to see the tactical solution that had been in front of them the entire time: the Nazi strategy carried its own destruction within itself.
Only then were the Allies able to see the opportunity inside the obstacle rather than simply the obstacle that threatened them. Properly seen, as long as the Allies could bend and not break, this attack would send more than fifty thousand Germans rushing headfirst into a net—or a “meat grinder,” as Patton eloquently put it. The Battle of the Bulge and before that the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, both of which were feared to be major reversals and the end of the Allies’ momentum, in fact, were their greatest triumphs. By allowing a forward wedge of the German army through and then attacking from the sides, the Allies encircled the enemy completely from the rear. The invincible, penetrating thrust of the German Panzers wasn’t just impotent but suicidal—a textbook example of why you never leave your flanks exposed. More important, it’s a textbook example of the role our own perceptions play in the success or failures of those who oppose us. It’s one thing to not be overwhelmed by obstacles, or discouraged or upset by them. This is something that few are able to do. But after you have controlled your emotions, and you can see objectively and stand steadily, the next step becomes possible: a mental flip, so you’re looking not at the obstacle but at the opportunity within it.
As Laura Ingalls Wilder put it: “There is good in everything if only we look for it.” Yet we are so bad at looking. We close our eyes to the gift. Imagine if you’d been in Eisenhower’s shoes, with an army racing toward you, and you could see only impending defeat. How much longer would the war have gone on? How many more lives lost? It’s our preconceptions that are the problem. They tell us that things should or need to be a certain way, so when they’re not, we naturally assume that we are at a disadvantage or that we’d be wasting our time to pursue an alternate course. When really, it’s all fair game, and every situation is an opportunity for us to act. Let’s take a circumstance we’ve all been in having a bad boss. All we see is the hell. All we see is that thing bearing down on us. We flinch. But what if you regarded it as an opportunity instead of a disaster? If you mean it when you say you’re at the end of your rope and would rather quit, you actually have a unique chance to grow and improve yourself. A unique opportunity to experiment with different solutions, to try different tactics, or to take on new projects to add to your skillset. You can study this bad boss and learn from him—while you fill out your résumé and hit up contacts for a better job elsewhere. You can prepare yourself for that job by trying new styles of communication or standing up for yourself, all with a perfect safety net for yourself: quitting and getting out of there. With this new attitude and fearlessness, who knows, you might be able to extract concessions and find that you like the job again. One day, the boss will make a mistake, and then you’ll make your move and outmaneuver them. It will feel so much better than the alternative—whining, badmouthing, duplicity, spinelessness. Or take that longtime rival at work (or that rival company), the one who causes endless headaches?
Note the fact that they also: keep you alert raise the stakes motivate you to prove them wrong harden you help you to appreciate true friends provide an instructive antilog—an example of whom you don’t want to become Or that computer glitch that erased all your work? You will now be twice as good at it since you will do it again. How about that business decision that turned out to be a mistake? Well, you had a hypothesis and it turned out to be wrong. Why should that upset you? It wouldn’t piss off a scientist, it would help him.
Maybe don’t bet so much on it next time. And now you’ve learned two things: that your instinct was wrong, and the kind of appetite for risk you really have. Blessings and burdens are not mutually exclusive. It’s a lot more complicated. Socrates had a mean, nagging wife; he always said that being married to her was good practice for philosophy. Of course, you’d want to avoid something negative if you could. But what if you were able to remember, at the moment, the second act that seems to come with the unfortunate situations we try so hard to avoid? Sports psychologists recently did a study of elite athletes who were struck with some adversity or serious injury. Initially, each reported feeling isolation, emotional disruption, and doubts about their athletic ability. Yet afterward, each reported gaining a desire to help others, additional perspective, and realization of their own strengths. In other words, every fear and doubt they felt during the injury turned into greater abilities in those exact areas. It’s a beautiful idea. Psychologists call it adversarial growth and post-traumatic growth. “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” is not a cliché but a fact. The struggle against an obstacle inevitably propels the fighter to a new level of functioning. The extent of the struggle determines the extent of growth. The obstacle is an advantage, not adversity.
The enemy is any perception that prevents us from seeing this. Of all the strategies we’ve talked about, this is the one you can always use. Everything can be flipped, seen with this kind of gaze: a piercing look that ignores the package and sees only the gift. Or we can fight it the entire way. The result is the same. The obstacle still exists. One just hurts less. The benefit is still there below the surface. What kind of idiot decides not to take it? problems are rarely as bad as we think—or rather, they are precisely as bad as we think. It’s a huge step forward to realize that the worst thing to happen is never the event, but the event and losing your head. Because then you’ll have two problems (one of them unnecessary and post hoc).
The demand for you is this: Once you see the world as it is, for what it is, you must act. The proper perception—objective, rational, ambitious, clean—isolates the obstacle and exposes it for what it is. A clearer head makes for steadier hands. And then those hands must be put to work. Good use. We all have to make assumptions in life, we have to weigh the costs and benefits. No one is asking you to look at the world through rose-colored glasses. No one is asking for noble failure or martyrdom. But boldness is acting anyway, even though you understand the negative and the reality of your obstacle. Decide to tackle what stands in your way—not because you’re a gambler defying the odds but because you’ve calculated them and boldly embraced the risk.