13 November 2012

Belief and the reality distortion field

Preachers and charlatans talk about the power of belief all the time. So much so that I became a classic doubting Thomas, a skeptic and kept the bullshit detector turned on high.

But Mitt Romney and Steve Jobs -- and a few other people -- have me reconsidering that.

I just finished the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. Famously, he was so persuasive and so seductive that people believed whatever Jobs was saying, even if it contradicted reality as we know it. Normally hard-headed engineers and finance guys would fall under this spell. Two top engineers at Pixar made a deal with each other -- as soon as one of them felt himself being sucked in to the reality distortion field, he'd signal the other one so they could avoid the danger. Kind of like Odysseus making sure his sailors plugged their ears and tied him to the mast so they wouldn't be ruined by the Siren's call.

Jobs believed in what he was saying.

I mean, look at that guy.

Jobs is the acceptable face of this quality. People of my ilk love Apple. I'm in the demo. This is a brand of hucksterism we can get behind and admire, even if we pretend not to.

I'm not in the demo for someone like Mitt Romney. Rich men don't fascinate me. In fact, I realized the bio of Steve Jobs is the only one I've read about a business guy, and for all its strengths, it was dead boring in long stretches. Too much like a day in the office.

But Romney killed the first debate. He had it going on. Belief. Romney is able to believe profoundly in whatever he says as he's saying it. This is the salesman's greatest strength. Lots of Mormons are terrific salesmen, partly because they have that evangelical year where they get doors slammed in their faces, mostly, but they do win converts. Even in the strangest of places, they'll still be able to persuade Russians, say, that Jesus appeared in the New World and that they'll get a planet of their own to rule over when they die.

Now, if you can sell a religion based on an angel named Moroni, real estate should be no big deal.

I've derided this kind of power. I also thought it was primarily a technical skill. Plus, I don't generally like salesmen. I'm kind of on the Baudelaire/Napoleon side of things. Warriors over shopkeepers, poets and priests over merchants. This is probably a fatally stupid position for someone like me who is not a general, but we're talking biases here.

Then I saw this guy speak at a sales convention for a major tech company. The Guy had been brought in from his early retirement at his Austin mansion --at God knows what amount of money -- to bring his special brand of voodoo to the sales force. The sales force needed it. The Guy was a big affable blond dude whom I'd liked right away. He was gracious and charming, even to a lowly A/V drone.

But that morning --and it was early, 8:00 AM, and he'd had to brave traffic to get there -- he was kind of pissed. The organizers brought him in at the last moment, hoping his aura would set the room on fire, and he wasn't up for it. Still, he spoke for a while, rambling on with a few personal stories.

Then he got blunt. Not in a blustery mean way, more like a dad who's setting his kid straight at 2:00 am after the kid messed up the family Honda. Just telling it like it is. This is a summary, but what he said went like this: Everyone in the industry has stuff that's more or less the same. Some of it's better at some things, some of it's not so good, but overall, it's going to work and get the job done. So it's not about product.

It's about your belief that it's the best. He mentioned some phenomenal sales team he was on, and he said the  only difference was: they believed in their own product more than anyone else did. Was it better? He didn't know. No one except for a few engineers would. But what they did have was utter conviction. That's what works.

I paid attention. Not only because the Guy was, in his realm, a Napoleon himself. But also because, as a freelancer -- hell, as someone who has to get by in this shitty post-manufacturing weirdo service economy, I have to sell, too. We're all salespeople, unless you can count on a trust fund or go off the grid. So I listened and learned.

It works. That confidence move, that faking it until you make it. You can't blow off your homework, you have to prepare. But when you play the role, people often buy it. I've been surprised, knowing the holes in my story and presenations, that it went over. Because, you know, I'm still the skeptic in the corner. That didn't help

But then, Romney really thought he was going to win. Jobs was sure NeXT would carry the day. The danger is that you believe your own pitch to the point that it's not a pitch. It's you.

I lost my faith when I was fourteen and haven't found it since, so excess of belief isn't a big problem for me. I'll probably not, at this point in my life, ever be the big, bluff easy man The Guy was. But if I were a Mitt or a Steve, or if I do somehow transform into That Guy, I'll take a cue from the Romans. As their victorious generals enjoyed their triumphs, a slave in the chariot with the general would whisper 'sic transit gloria' -- all glory is fleeting.

In other words, don't believe your own bullshit.


  1. an old samourai used to say the best way to hold a sword was the same as if it was a little bird
    not too strongly, dont wanna harm it
    and not to softly, wont let it fly away
    these old japanese sages and warriors had a way with words
    I enjoyed that paper of yours, Wicked Man

  2. Thanks!
    And I'll give that samourai saying some thought.