Steve Jobs and Joseph Smith: Masters at Reality Distortion

May 14, 2012

Joseph Smith and Steve Jobs are alike in two remarkable ways. So I have concluded as a result of reading biographies of these two men during the past few weeks.

Of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Fawn McKay Brodie writes: “The source of his power lay not in his doctrine but in his person, and the rare quality of his genius was due not to his reason but to his imagination. He was a mythmaker of prodigious talent” (p. ix).

Not only Brodie, with her skepticism, but more sympathetic biographers such as Jan Shipps and Richard L. Bushman describe Smith’s uncanny ability to captivate people and energize them to do things they could never have imagined doing. He was a prophet whose mesmerizing ability puts him in the ranks of only a few religious leaders who have transformed reality for all who came within his spell.

Describing Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computer Company, biographer Walter Isaacson uses the phrase “reality distortion field” to explain his ability to motivate people to accomplish design and engineering tasks they claimed were impossible. Issacson quotes Andy Hertzfeld’s description of Jobs’ power. “The reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand” (p. 118).

The impression I receive from Isaacson’s account is that this aspect of Jobs’ character was partly a studied and practiced form of dealing with people in order to bend them to his will. But there was another aspect, a vision, a sense of purpose that transcended ordinary activities, which drove him and everyone around him to make reality conform to their purposes.

Of course, Smith and Jobs lived in eras that differed widely and there was virtually nothing about their life stories that is common to both. It is hard even to think of Smith’s religion and Jobs’ business world at the same time. One was a prophet to adopt the word that Brodie and Shipps use to describe Smith, and the other, to use the word that Isaacson settles upon in his chapter on Jobs’ legacy, was a genius.

Jobs and Smith are alike in a second way: each one created an institution that embodies the spirit and major characteristics of its founder and moves these qualities forward in time. “The continuation of the incarnation” is a phrase sometimes used in theological literature to describe the Church that emerged during the latter part of the first century.

Jesus was gone. The people of the way, who were first called Christians at Antioch, maintained a vivid embodiment of what he had said and done.

Joseph Smith was martyred long before his Mormon experiment had been finished, but the church, the religious movement, that he had sired and inspired, continued on and continues to offer his vision and system to the world.

And Jobs? Although he was driven by powerful design principles to create remarkable products, a closely parallel passion was to create a great company. Some of his heroes were business leaders who had done just that, and he ardently desired that his company would sustain the electronic revolution that he had willed into being.

We know, of course, that Smith’s church, designed and perpetuated by Brigham Young, continues as a worldwide movement. Whether Jobs’ company will continue remains to be seen.

Reading the biography of Steve Jobs is helping me understand the achievement of Joseph Smith, while reading biographies of Smith assists me in my efforts to understand the computer genius of Cupertino.

Again Isaacson quotes Hertzfield who gives this assessment of Steve Jobs: “He thinks there are a few people who are special—people like Einstein and Gandhi and the gurus he met in India—and he’s one of them.” Isaacson continues by saying that although Jobs had never studied Nietzsche, “the philosopher’s concept of the will to power and the special nature of the Überman came naturally to him: ‘The spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers the world’” (119). Much the same, it seems to me, can be said of the prophet from Nauvoo.

I readily acknowledge that there were serious flaws in the character and life that each of these men lived. Many aspects of Mormon historiography, theology, and ecclesial ethics are troublesome to me and I continue to live outside of the LDS orbit. Although I do use Mac computers and appreciate their skilled blending of art and technology, I find Jobs, as Isaacson describes him, to be a deeply flawed human being. There are aspects of Apple’s passion to control that frustrate me greatly.

Even so the prophet and the genius stand side by side as dramatic exemplars of muses with unusual power. With these muses, they have changed the world.