This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistian's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Dave Cole is a customer champion at Wistia. This is his first Non Sequitur!
Physicists talk a lot about "fields" these days. You're probably familiar with some of the common ones, like magnetic fields or gravitational fields. Even the light bouncing into your eyes right now is a disturbance in the electromagnetic field. Neat!
If you're a fan of Science Friday with Ira Flatow or Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey with Neil deGrasse Tyson like I am, you may have heard of the Higgs field, which is responsible for giving objects mass, as well. Much to my chagrin, it's also what keeps us from traveling at the speed of light. That one is still beyond me. (Neil, you're going to take a deep dive on that soon… right?)
Fortunately, unless you're in the business of fighting gravity, you don't need to worry about most of those fields on a daily basis. (Phew!) But if you're a startup, or really any business that wants to attract and retain customers, there's one field that you should be thinking about every single day: the reality distortion field.
The term "reality distortion field" was coined by the writers of Star Trek, and popularized by a man named Bud Tribble who used it to describe Steve Jobs. When I first heard about Steve Jobs' fabled reality distortion field, I thought it meant that he simply had a knack for rallying people around ambitious goals and making the impossible seem possible. It's a unique gift to be able to motivate people, no doubt about that.
But I was totally wrong. It wasn't that Steve could simply talk a big game and inspire people. Instead, his reality distortion field meant that through sheer willpower, Steve Jobs could bend reality to conform to his newer, better version of it. No matter what state of affairs once existed, or what seemed to be impossible at a given point in time, Steve would make it so. Current reality be damned.
So what was it that gave Steve Jobs this mystical, cosmic power to mold the world into his vision? To understand the mechanism of Steve's reality distortion field in the business universe, let's take a closer look at its conceptual cousin in the physical universe: Gravity.
What… the heck... is gravity?
You're probably not asking yourself that right now. As you learned back in high school physics, gravity is the attractive force between massive objects (massive here meaning simply that an object has mass – not necessarily a ton of it). The force of gravity grows stronger as the mass of the objects involved increases, and the distance between them decreases. Fair enough.
Note: I should probably mention now that if you understand the physics of all this better than I do (which is pretty likely), please educate me and the other folks reading this post in the comments. Muchas gracias.
Now, what's super interesting about gravity (at least to me) is not what the force of gravity does, but how it does it. As Einstein theorized, gravity is the distortion of spacetime in the presence of massive objects. As time moves forward, massive objects pull on space itself, warping the very fabric of the universe.
Let's pause on that for a second, and recall just one more lesson from physics class: Newton's first law of motion. As Newton observed, an object moving in a straight line will continue to do so unless acted on by an external force.
So when an when an object in outer space, like a comet, passes by a more massive object, like the Sun, why does the comet seem to curve toward the Sun? The answer is that as the comet approaches the sun, it enters an area of spacetime that's warped by the Sun's gravitational field. That warping of spacetime is what we feel as the force of gravity.
An easy way to visualize this is to think of a bowling ball on a mattress. The bowling ball, being a massive object, will bend the surface of the mattress toward itself. If you were to roll another object like a baseball past the mattress in a straight line, it would curve towards the bowling ball. And just as gravity grows stronger as you get closer to a massive object, rolling the baseball in a line very close to the bowling ball will cause it to follow a sharper curve.
One neat outcome of gravity that you can see all around the universe—including the space around earth, our solar system, and even the whole Milky Way galaxy—is the happy state of equilibrium called orbit. Orbit is when one celestial body moves in an elliptical path around another, more massive body. But how does it work? If two objects are accelerating towards each other because of gravity, why does the smaller object seem to fly around the larger object, instead of smashing right into it?
The most important thing to understand about orbit is that it's not the same thing as flying. It's falling – with style.
The only difference between your iPhone dropping on the ground (eek!) and a satellite orbiting the earth is that the satellite is moving towards the horizon really fast. So fast, in fact, that the earth's surface curves away at the same rate as the satellite's descent. So while the satellite is in a constant state of freefall, it will never hit the ground.
Hold up. What does any of this have to do with Steve Jobs?
Right! So, Steve Jobs knew that people, much like objects moving through space, will continue along a straight path unless acted upon by an external force. As long as their current solution gets the job done well enough, they'll just keep on keepin' on.
Unfortunately, when you're trying to grow a business, you can't force people to buy your product. I've tried and failed more times than I'd like to remember. Try as you might, you can't change people – but you can change the world. That's where the reality distortion field comes in.
There was a time not too long ago when this was reality: There was a limit to the amount of music you could carry around in your pocket. Want to listen to that new Michael Jackson track? Well, you'd better switch out the cassette in your Walkman. Don't own the tape? Time to make a trip to Sam Goody! Then, in 2001, Steve Jobs and Apple made it possible to store thousands of songs on your iPod:
Now, it's commonly accepted that you can access virtually any song that's ever been recorded in just a few taps on your iPhone.
Make it easy.
In general, people will choose the easiest course of action from their existing set of options - the path of least resistance.
Steve Jobs was successful in business and made Apple the most valuable company on the planet by taking the impossible and making it possible. People already wanted to listen to their favorite music on demand, but it just wasn't feasible to carry around thousands of cassettes all the time. Steve saw that he could create better way to let people achieve their end goal of getting music to their ears. So he ran through walls to make the iPod (and then the iPhone) a reality.
Much like the Sun causes the planets in the solar system to orbit around it by bending spacetime, Steve made Apple and its products the easiest way for people to achieve their goals. By doing so, he brought a huge chunk of the world's population into Apple's orbit. Many of us are still (happily) stuck in it, and will be for quite some time.
You can see the very same pattern in many other wildly successful companies, like Google. This little cartoon gives a glimpse into the reality we all had to suffer through before Google came onto the scene:
Now, because of Google (and Wikipedia), you can learn about stuff like general relativity whenever you feel like it.
What is a reality distortion field made of?
Much like a gravitational field extending outward from an object's center of mass, your reality distortion field reaches out into the world from your company. It grows stronger as your product/market fit improves, and the distance between you and and the people who might use your product decreases.
Your product, like the surface of a planet, is where the force of the field is strongest. When you have the best product on the market and people are using it as part of their daily workflow, they'll be as tied to your company as we are to earth. And they'll be pretty happy about that! Earth isn't so bad, really.
But say there are people who aren't using your product yet. It's not enough for you to have the best product out there, or to be the first to market. If you do nothing more than build a great product, people will not come knocking on your door.
There may be a way more awesome earth-like planet somewhere in the universe, with rivers of Heady Topper and perfect skiing conditions year-round. But we're not about to get yanked off the surface of the earth anytime soon and sent to that new planet.
Even if your product is better than the competition's, your reality distortion field needs to be strong enough to pull people out of their existing orbit, or even rip them off the surface of another planet. Everything about switching to your product and your company must be the path of least resistance – a straight path through curved space.
People will enter the outskirts of your reality distortion field, where its pull is the weakest, when they first discover you. Perhaps they'll read an article about your business, see a person mention your product on Twitter, or hear about you from a friend. For that brief moment, you'll capture their attention for a short while and alter their path ever so slightly. They're reading that tweet instead of continuing through the straight path of their day, after all.
Most of the time, people will continue on in pretty much the same direction. But if you've warped reality in a way that makes it that much easier for a person to achieve their goal, the force of your reality distortion field will pull them right into your orbit.
There are a few wonderful side effects of bringing more people into your orbit, too – beyond just having more customers. When people are orbiting your company, you can improve your product based on their feedback and increase its attractive force. On top of that, every individual person comes with their own reality distortion field, which adds to the power of yours. As more people surround your company, they'll tell others about your fancy new reality, and extend the reach of your field into the universe.
When entrepreneurs say they're setting out to "change the world," it can often sound like hyperbole. But unless you've discovered a new force in spacetime that can change people, changing the reality they live in is exactly what you need to do.
So all cliches aside, how are you working to change the world? Let's hear about it in the comments!
If you're interested in some further reading on these topics, be sure to check out these handy links as well:
- The original story of Steve Jobs' reality distortion field
- Cosmos episodes online
- Science Friday
- Gravity simulator
- Sweet gravity simulation with the Wistia player. When paused, you can control the distortion of spacetime, and the action of gravity, by seeking back and forth with the arrow buttons on your keyboard. HTML5 only.