The Capital Distortion Field

Reality distortion field is a term most often associated with Steve Jobs. Jobs’ belief that the world would yield to his singular vision drove forward extraordinary innovations, and enabled noxious management practices. Any person who tries to ‘pull a Jobs’ and convince, or compel, others to pursue implausible goals emits their own version of a reality distortion field; with varying results. You might know someone — a coach, a manager, a colleague, a family member — with this tendency.

Just as reality distortion fields usually accompany unlikely projects, most social entrepreneurship work happens in a capital distortion field.

Similar to a reality distortion field, a capital distortion field describes an environment permeated by unreasonable expectations, specifically relating to money. Money is a touchy subject that means something different to everyone who discusses it, which makes it hard to know if monetary strangeness is due to systematic distortions, odd personal preferences, or anything and everything in between.

But, after eight years as a social-entrepreneur, I am quite certain that there is a capital distortion field that pervasively influences social entrepreneurship efforts.

By social entrepreneurship, I mean the pursuit of innovation in an attempt to significantly surpass the effectiveness of status quo solutions to societal problems. Many of the capital distortions that affect social-entrepreneurship are generated reflexively by comparing social entrepreneurship to non-social entrepreneurship (‘business’), or non-entrepreneurial social impact efforts (‘non-profits’). While I find it difficult to concisely describe the nature of these distortions, I will attempt to sketch a few:

One of the most central, but subtle, distortions of social entrepreneurship is the mirage that ‘making the world a better place’ should be a monetarily safe activity for both funders and founders. I know this desire intimately: I want to be financially secure so that I can give my all to my mission for a long time to come. I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of increasing children's access to music education, and sometimes I think that ‘I deserve it,’ with ‘it’ being success, credit, and money.

In fact, social entrepreneurship is extremely hard, and reputationally and financially risky. It is a true privilege to be able to take on this risk in an attempt to give back to the world. That funders and founders want to realize a ‘sure’ impact from their efforts is understandable, but this artless, and often egotistic, expectation can undermine societal experimentation and big dreams.

Daring social entrepreneurship is the opposite of safe. We need to reframe our goals: if you lose a few million while trying to help others, good for you! More likely, though you will need to risk a lot more than that.

For, despite my sincere efforts, I, and many other social entrepreneurs, have found that a million dollars or two just does not cut it to change the world. This suggests another common distortion of social entrepreneurship: the idea that extraordinary innovations can be developed without large, dedicated pools of capital in support. Effort and scrappiness are essential to success, but money is too. Hard societal challenges require significant financial investment and resilience to address, so founders and funders must be ready to make serious speculations to produce real change.

To me, it should be an act of pride to step forward and risk money and reputation on a tricky and potentially transformative initiative. But many people would reasonably object that the money (or time, or any other resource) might have been spent better; on non-entrepreneurial social impact efforts like charity, for instance. This concern becomes particularly compelling with large sums. No one wants to look like a fool by committing hard to an approach that doesn’t play out, especially if there are ‘sure’ alternatives.

Unfortunately, the consequence of this collective mindset is to encourage each individual to pass the risks of real innovation on to ‘someone else’. It is not entirely sensible for a stable, successful person to open themselves to the acute vulnerability and uncertainty that moonshots require. But, while local maximums are most pleasant for the people at the top, I would argue that the best way to honor one’s privilege is to forego ease and convenience in the tremulous, and probably controversial, pursuit of a ‘global maximum’, or, at least, fairer maximum, for all.

Suppose a social entrepreneur succeeds in their venture and produces a product that can benefit people worldwide! Yet another capital quandary immediately arises: the serpentine and separate questions of who has access to new innovations, and who can pay for them. Those with the least money often have the greatest need for help, but the history of invention shows that it typically takes time, and the development of a mature market, for innovations to diffuse and become widespread. The unique pressure on social entrepreneurship (especially when compared to ‘business’ entrepreneurship) to deliver solutions equitably and quickly to people in need can stress business models and organizational sustainability to the breaking point.

To keep this a blog, not a book, I conclude that social-entrepreneurs must often bear the simultaneous burdens of managing their own personal insecurities around money, raising ample capital for research and development, delivering lower prices and better value to all consumers, and still providing a strong return, however defined, to funders.

It is a lot to ask. I sometimes find that it almost requires a reality distortion field for me to look these capital distortions in the face without giving up.

And then, I remember that the true distortion field that I have the privilege to elude is our societal entanglement of ‘risk’ and ‘capital’. What could be less risky than doing the work that matters most, that I love doing, and allocating what resources I can to the fight for good? What truly happens if I ‘fail’?

Nothing. I find a job outside of the social-entrepreneurship capital distortion field, make some money, and marshal my resources to try again.

It sure would be nice to create new worlds through mental force alone, as alien beings do in ‘Star Trek,’ where the term reality distortion field was first used.

Until then, we might learn from Steve Jobs without emulating him; and muster all the charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement, and LOVE that we can to break through capital and risk distortion fields and make the world a better place.

Learning!