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Reality Distortion and Entrepreneurship

I was looking through presentation slides the other day, and saw this:

“As children develop, they make greater and greater efforts to adapt to reality, rather than distorting reality, as in make-believe play.”

The implication, contextually, was that ultimately as a child becomes an adult, their reality becomes fully adapted, and no longer distorted. That might not be the intended implication, but it’s interesting: I’ve been fighting against this since, well, since forever, really. And spending your life constantly distorting reality it seems to me is neither a bad thing nor a limiting thing.

Because it trains you to be good at two things: seeing how you might change reality, and believing that you CAN change it.

At one end of the spectrum, distorted realities make it much easier for you to visualize what is “possible” instead of what is merely “probable”, and that’s the essence of spotting opportunities.

Entrepreneurship and Seeing Change

(good) Entrepreneurs are constantly seeing new ways to “change the world” in ways both small and large. Often the change is small, but the effects are large, or vice versa. It’s often said that “you cannot teach Entrepreneurship”, and while I beg to differ, I have experience of actually trying it, and huge experience of arguing the concept with people. Mostly, the argument against the teachability of entrepreneurship is rooted in the inability to “make” people “become able to” see Opportunities.

I think one of the primary differentiators for having/not having that ability (irrespective of whether it can be taught) is the extent to which you see:

The world as it is

as opposed to

The world as it could be

and even

The world as I would like it

Looking at the Entrepreneurs themselves:

  • Good entrepreneurs, in my personal experience, see the world always as It Could Be.
  • Bad ones usually see it as They Would Like It To Be.
  • Great ones ALSO see it as They Would Like It To Be
  • Non-entrepreneurs see it As It Is

…with the difference between Great Entrepeneurs and Bad Entrepreneurs being mainly that the former *also* see the world As It Is, and hold the two visions in their head at all times, simultaneously.

Because the Great Entrepeneurs, while constantly (many times a week) spotting things that They Would Like It To Be, also – constantly – imagine how they might transform the world As It Is, usually by a series of steps, into that target. The Bad ones simply employ the tried-and-tested Hope plan:

  1. Have Idea
  2. ?
  3. Profit

…which – let’s be honest here – occasionally works (usually if you simply get massively lucky with timing / outside events).

Entrepreneurship and Effecting Change

Why are some people better able to see how to make their desired changes come true?

I believe it’s largely driven by two skills. Firstly, the obvious one highlighted above – that the more practice you have of thinking about how you might change reality to fit what you want it to be, the better you will be at that process.

“Better” here means that you will

  • have more ideas for each transform in the chain
  • be better at recognising “good” and “bad” transforms
  • process suggested transforms – and transform-chains – more rapidly (quick accept/reject)

The second skill is believing in yourself and your ability to change the world. Often, the successful changes that Entrepeneurs effect are surprising to most people – they question how that could even be possible – while *in practice* not being so difficult to achieve. Usually, this is because normal people see only the beginning and end of a sequence of changes.

To take a simple example that illustrates the kind of “impossible” being “possible” given some clever changes that I’m talking about, look at Freeserve. (NB: this is based on my memory of events more than 10 years ago, much of which I found out 2nd or 3rd hand, when trying to understand how Freeserve had achieved something that had eluded all the other ISPs – so take this as an example in theory, it may not be accurate in practice! Incidentally, there seems to be VERY little public history on Freeserve, how it started, and how massively it changed ISP / internet access in the UK – I’d be interested if any readers have seen any articles / interviews about the details of its inception?)

Freeserve … the first “free” ISP in the UK

When Freeserve was created in the UK providing “free internet access” in the 1990’s, it seemed impossible. They even provided a cheap local phone number that could be used anywhere in the country – so it was cheaper on your phone bills than calls to your subscription ISP!

Ahem. Except, it wasn’t the cheapEST kind of local phone call, it was partway between an “ultra-local” call (very cheap) and a “national” call (expensive).

And, in an unprecedented move, Freeserve had managed to get the telephone company to give them a share of the revenue from that particular phone number. For reference, at the time, if you wanted to get revenue from the telco for running a phone number, you had to get a number on the “very expensive” plan, where the telco would charge the consumer as much as 10 times the cost of an already expensive national-call.

Of course, given the huge volume of calls that then went through to that number, the telco made a huge profit out of the scheme – so it worked out in their best interests, and everyone profited. (although I have no idea how this was negotiated, or whose idea it was – and “persuading a telco to change their revenue model” is itself a problem I’d usually classify as “impossible”, so I’m guessing there was another, similar, chain of small changes that lead to this being acheived).

About two years before this all happened, I was working on a project to create a new ISP, and I’d got as far in breaking down the steps as to see that you HAD, somehow, to find a way to remove the “dual-billing” model from consumers (pay once for internet access, pay twice for the per-minute, uncapped (!) phone call too). I didn’t have the confidence to believe it was possible, and after running through some fairly crazy ideas (including looking into internet access via broadcast radio for downstream, and home modem for upstream), I gave up and moved on. With hindsight, at the time, I realised that I’d have hit upon the change-the-telco idea within another couple of months, and that I’d have had a clear year to find a way to ACTUALLY get a telco to change, and still be able to launch before Freeserve.

(for the record, that event finally kicked me into realising that the world-changing ideas I had all the time, and thought through as often as multiple times a day, were actually all realisable (potentially). Many people I know, potentially good entrepreneurs both older and younger than me, still don’t believe the world can be changed to their tune, they can only see the world As It Is)

How to … Influence People

This is a big topic; whole books have been written on it! (OMG!!1!!!!0).

But just to select ONE of the most powerful weapons: imposing a personal view of reality onto the reality you find, and living and acting as though your view of reality is the real one, and keeping at it until everyone else gives in. The real beauty of this being that if the only differences between your reality and the real reality are the beliefs of people, then it becomes a self-fulfilling dream.

This is basic sales-technique: it’s usually more effective to sell people on a shared belief than it is to sell them merely on a bunch of facts and leave them to guess for themselves whether those facts are real or not. But it takes a particular kind of personality to be good at imposing their desired reality (if that’s all you do, it tends to come across as mere bullying), and also at making it stick.

IMHO, people who spend more of their time adapting reality are much better at the “making it stick” part.


So, ultimately, one of the things that makes a great Entrepreneur is huge practice with very much NOT adapting to reality, but instead adapting reality to their own ends. And it helps in ways beyond the obvious (spotting new opportunities).

If you want to be a great entrepreneur, I’d recommend you start dreaming more, and make your dreams more vivid and concrete, and try to change the world to fit them, rather than the other way around.

PS: from reading this post, all of which has been written between going from that slide of the presentation to the next, you may come to think that it can take me a long time to read a presentation. You’d be right. This is partly why I’ve taken to transcripting in real time every conference talk I attend (and usually publishing them on this blog) – the smallest comment can spark off so many thoughts that I miss the rest of the talk, and it’s a way of giving me a chance to hear the whole talk.

2 replies on “Reality Distortion and Entrepreneurship”


i am not advertising or anything i am just a regular reader of your blog and now that your talking about entrepreneurs, you should read gary hamel’s “The Future of Management” he talks about corporations and how to change the reality of them. it is a new point of view for all of us who really don’t know anything about management but want to take our ideas to the practice.

This topic has been on my mind a lot lately. Along these lines, I want to do something I haven’t seen. (which only means I have effectively explored .00001% of the internet) Is it possible to allow “modd-ing” in an MMOG? I am not a programmer, so there may be an obvious reason as to why this couldn’t be done – however if there is some law of physics type reason why this couldn’t be done, I’d like to “change that reality” and offer something truley revolutionary. If anyone has any thoughts and wouldn’t mind dropping me a note, I would apprciate it.

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