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Fear has a tendency to give us tunnel vision—we fill the unknown with our worst imaginings and cling to what’s familiar. But when confronted with new challenges, we need to think more broadly and adapt. When Isaac Lidsky learned that he was beginning to go blind at age thirteen, eventually losing his sight entirely by the time he was twenty-five, he initially thought that blindness would mean an end to his early success and his hopes for the future. After such a major setback, he didn’t let being blind keep him down. He took responsibility over his reality and thrived. Pedram Shojai talks with him about the challenges he faced, what life was like before, during, and after he went blind, and how he is now able to run a business and raise children which in and of itself is difficult enough!
– Hey, welcome to The Urban Monk. Dr. Pedram Shojai hanging out in studio in sunny southern California enjoying some time home for a little bit. There are so many things going on in all of your lives. Reminds me of the Henry Ford quote, ‘obstacles are the scary things you see when you take your eyes off your goal’. My guest today was waving to mannequins and his eyes stopped working. And by the age of 25, he could not see. So imagine having this thing called life that you’ve planned and you’re living, and the trajectory is flowing, and then all the sudden, you get a diagnosis that takes away your vision. He is the author of a new book called Eyes Wide Open. Isaac Lidsky has turned it around from believing it was a death sentence into being a powerful tool in his life and is now teaching how to take some of the principles of said lesson to apply it into our lives. So hi, welcome to The Urban Monk.
– Thanks, thanks for having me.
– Yeah, thanks for doing this work. We live in a culture where it’s really easy to roll over and die, to go woe is me, feel sorry for ourselves, all those narratives that start to boot up. And you didn’t. You fought and you found a way. So what was that like man? How long did it take to really start turning that corner and being like look, I can’t go down like this?
– At first when I was diagnosed, I was terrified and I did think, as you said that blindness would ruin my life. It was a death sentence for my independence and achievement. But the way that I lost my sight, sort of progressively over time, which produced all these bizarre effects. I literally saw first hand that sight, sight itself is this masterful illusion. You think that you open your eyes and there’s the world, seeing is believing, sight is truth, but the reality is that our minds are hard at work creating this virtual reality for ourselves that involves a lot more than just information from the eyes. It’s frankly only about 10 percent information from the eyes and 90 percent information from elsewhere. And yet, it feels so real. The big sort of ah-ha moment for me, the big insight for me, was to realize that that’s true of so much of our lives. So much of our lives that we experience as immutable truth, kinda beyond our control, is really in our minds. And it’s up to us literally in every moment to choose who we wanna be and how we wanna live our lives. Once I saw that, I made some better choices for myself.
– That’s interesting. So you have this lights-out type of event that’s happening and so there’s so much data. We live in a very visually dominant reality where what you see is what you get and all this kind of stuff. With that of the five senses, getting peeled away, and then you’re left in the dark with your thoughts, what you’re hearing, what you’re feeling and all that. Do you have to reallocate processor, bandwidth to other areas? Does it start to increase your intuition? Does it get you to become more introspective? What’s that shift in your orientation when that starts to happen?
– So yeah, we are inherently visual creatures as you say. About a third of our brain by volume is devoted to experience and sight. In any second, the visual cortex can claim up to two-thirds of your brains processing resources. So as that goes away, when that goes away, you have a lot of free cycles, as you put it. And I started paying a lot more attention to my ears, to touch. Memory became more like a sense in a very interesting way. It’s amazing! The human organism is infinitely adaptable and it’s amazing what our senses can do for us. We don’t really ask them to do all that much. Other than in sight, because again, we’re so visual. But really, the lessons that I learned, the insights that I gained along the way really aren’t about blindness, or even disability per-say. It’s really about the opportunity we all have to live with awareness and accountability and intention. Your purpose in life.
-Amen. Amen. To me, you’re like the ultimate alchemist right, turning lead to gold and transmuting that. I mean, you got a heck of a resume. Before all this you were Weasel by Saved by the Bell and then graduated Harvard College at age 19, degree is Mathematics, Computer Science, Harvard Law School, Law Clerk to Supreme Court Justice’s Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And then you transformed a struggling 15 million dollar concrete business into a 150 million dollar business. You started the Hope For Vision Foundation and it goes on and on and on. So, not only did you not roll over and die, you got a long list of accomplishments. So how did you pivot that? ‘Cause that to me is really powerful. That’s an amazing thing that someone can choose to do versus rolling over and giving up, and feeling sorry for themselves.
– Going blind turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. It really did. Because those insights that I gained, into our power and our responsibility to shape the daily experience we want for ourselves. There was no escaping that. I put it to work throughout my life. The self-limiting assumptions we make about ourselves, the kind of lies we tell ourselves about what our reported strengths and weaknesses look like, the way we sometimes get confused about what success really is, what value really is in our own lives, our misconceptions about luck. All of these things, the way in which I went blind, I learned to really refocus and hold myself accountable, to be aware of the choices I was making in every moment, for how I was living my life. And the up shot was, as you say, I’ve been blessed to do a lot of really neat things in my life as a result. I’ve been able to see beyond my fears and really pursue the goals, the objectives, the things that are important to me in my life. It’s brought me immeasurable joy, fulfillment and success. Like I said, really going blind turned out to be a real blessing.
– It’s interesting, it took you going blind to realize that you never were seeing clearly in the first place.
-That’s exactly right.
– That’s powerful and that speaks a lot to the human condition. I mean, the Buddhist’s say that most of us are walking around like hungry ghosts, just absolutely unaware of what we’re doing and where we think we’re going. So what are some signs? We got people out there listening to this, watching this and going okay, where am I in this? Where am I not seeing clearly?
– One of the real, sort of pernicious forces in our lives is fear. And fear can really distort and warp our realities. It’s natural for us to feel fear. It’s useful in many ways, certainly evolutionarily. It’s very important. But fear can be pretty devastating, so I think a good place to start for folks is really to be on the lookout for things that they’re afraid of. Another thing is first and foremost I think too often we can go through our lives without asking ourselves the questions that are maybe daunting in their magnitude but they’re pretty important. What is important to me? How do I want to be spending my time? Professionally and personally. What kind of a spouse do I wanna be? What kind of an employer do I wanna be? What kind of parent do I wanna be? These are questions that we are answering every day of our lives. Whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not. So to me, better to do it purposefully right? Better to do it with awareness and some deliberation than sort of by happen-stance.
– Yeah, like anything, either you’re intending to do it and you’re focused on it, and you’re clear on it, or you’re stumbling through life. Which is I think what most people consider life. And so everyone’s got these New Years Resolutions and all these things that they try to recalibrate once a year and then they go back into their stumble.
– Choosing not to choose who you wanna be and how you wanna live your life is itself a choice.
– A pretty dark one at that, right? Because then the advertisers, the politicians, someone’s gonna choose for you.
– Oh no shorts of people willing to choose for you.
– Yeah, that’s it, they’re entire industry is built around that. So how do we take this perspective and call it a lens or a filter if you will, this Eyes Wide Open lens and use it in our lives? In our personal life and our business life, our family life, how can we use this perspective building tool?
– For me it’s a learned discipline you know? It takes effort, even for me, it’s a daily aspiration. It’s something that frankly, some days I’m not so good at, other days I’m better at. But I really try to break it down thematically into different challenges or different threats to our ultimate control over the reality we’ve created for ourselves. We can talk about ways to try to see through fear, we can talk about ways to confront the things we tell ourselves about ourselves, and what others might be thinking or feeling about us, the way we feel about luck, the way we face ongoing struggles. I wish there were a one size fits all answer but it kinda depends on context.
– Yeah sure. I remember growing up, my sister and I took piano lessons from a couple brothers who had I don’t know what the diagnosis was as a kid, but they were diagnosed with something that was going to take away their eyesight and their parents doubled downed very quickly and got them into piano. They both became very, very good, accomplished pianists who then became piano instructors. So I grew up with somebody teaching me piano for a few years who could not see and it was amazing understanding the perspective building energy that comes to someone who had something and had it taken away. Most people are walking around with something that they take for granted. So they choose not to see, right? They choose not to actually see into what’s happening in their lives. And it’s big. Whether it’s something that’s happening at work, whether it’s something that’s unsaid in your marriage. Most people have all kinds of crazy, interpersonal stuff that’s happening and things they should probably be apologizing for yesterday, that they’re not willing to look at until it’s too late. And then, when it’s too late, it’s too late isn’t it?
– Yeah, you said a lot there. There’s a lot of moving pieces in there. Certainly the default seems that it’s easier to count our burdens than our blessings. Which can get us into trouble as you say, ’cause we manifest what we measure in life. In many ways, we can often be our own worst enemies. When I was first diagnosed with my blinding disease I was living a race against time. I was certain that if and when I finally went blind, or when my sight wasn’t so useful, that would be the end for me, so I had all these awful thoughts about this boogeyman, Blindness that was gonna ruin my life and I was cheering for these research scientists, just desperate for them to cure my disease. This was an awful world built of my fears, but I believed it and it left me on the sideline. I was not in control of my own fate. I was rooting against blindness and cheering on these scientists and hoping for the Hollywood ending. Looking back, it’s amazing to me much like the experience of sight itself. We can experience our fears as so real. We awfulize, we agonize, and yet it can feel so real, and if we’re not careful, if we’re not aware, it becomes real. It’s sort self-realizing or self-perpetuating just by virtue of us believing in it. So we just have such an awesome power, the human mind that if we’re careful to understand, appreciate, and harness the power of our own minds, it’s just amazing, it’s a gift.
– Okay so here you are paralyzed by fear and you are in a bad way. You are betting for some sort of Hollywood ending and the fear is starting to choke you up. How’d you transform it? There’s so many people in, whether it’s healthcare or just life, that are stuck right on that fear spot. Some turn to faith in God, or whatever that narrative is, what was your transition out of that?
– There’s a longer version of the story but in essence I wound up in the office of a low-vision rehabilitation specialist, a woman who was an occupational therapist who specialized in folks who were partially sighted and blind. And I showed up just assuming, really not having even given it any thought, I just assumed we were gonna be talking about blindness, this awful thing, this hopefully distant, this future that I had to prepare myself for. Tomorrow, the future. Right off the bat, she wanted to talk about the practical questions about what I was doing day in and day out to take control. Was I bumping into things? Did I use a cane? And I remember being so confused and thinking I need to explain to her how little I care about bumping into things. Today is not my problem, now is not my problem. My problem is the future and all this awful stuff and my problem is I’m losing my sight and there’s nothing I can do about it. And she made a comment to me, you know if you use the cane, you’d bump into things less and you’d hurt yourself less. And it sounds silly, I’m only a little embarrassed to admit it, but I had an epiphany. I realized right there in her office that everything I thought I knew about going blind or being blind was a complete lie born of my fears. And worse, I had done nothing to learn about going blind or being blind. In a sense, I had to confront the fact that I was choosing to live in that world. Cause there really only is now, this moment. That’s all there ever is. So in that moment I decided, you know, whenever I felt afraid, I would ask myself what precisely is my problem right now? Discreet, manageable, today, that I face, that I can do about it. And two, what’s the best thing that I can do about it? Just me, no heroes, no villains, no one to pray to for rescue or blame, just me. What can I do about it? When I made the decision there in her office that day to confront my fears in that way, my life really turned around. It was the beginning of a long process to be sure. But it was a turning point.
– But you remember, did you feel that day was the turning point or looking back you realized?
-Oh, no doubt.
– Okay, so it hit you like a gong.
– Oh it hit me, it hit me. Yeah it really was this realization ’cause I was so trapped in fear’s myoptic kinda tunnel of awfulness. I was so confused, I literally had not left room for today, right now, this moment. Like, what can I do to make my life a little easier or a little better? And the realization that those are probably some pretty good questions for me to be thinking about. It really hit me hard.
– What an angel. I mean, she helped rewire you from the sky is falling to just being good at being here.
– Obviously, you then took that as a template and started applying it in life. So at 25, how much of your education was post blindness? Or did you already get all that in first?
– By the time I was a junior or senior in college, 18 or 19 years old, my sight was kinda moving from nuisance to disability. It was a real challenge to read printed text. It was something frankly, I tried to avoid at all costs ’cause it was awkward and frustrating. And then it sort of got worse going into law school and all that, so that really in my early to mid-twenties, my sight ceased to be all that useful to me. By the time I was 25, I was essentially without any sight.
– Okay and at that point then you’re doing corporate work, you’re going into this concrete company, like how do you then apply things?
– So I had what I call an eight year joyride, seven or eight year joyride in law. I started at Harvard Law School which was just an incredible experience and then I went to, I had a clerkship with a federal judge, and I worked for the US Justice Department, I got to litigate appeals all over the country, I was a year out of law school arguing my own appeals, it was crazy.
-What age was this?
– This was like 24, 25, 26? Anyway, life long dream, got to clerk for two US Supreme Court Justices, O’Connor and Ginsburg, which is amazing. Long story shorter, when I made the obvious, quote, unquote choice at the end of all this to go work for a big, international law firm. Took a huge signing bonus, great salary and fancy office and great business cards and all that. I pretty quickly found myself very dissatisfied with my career. Now that’s not to say that law is not a you know, plenty of people enjoy practicing law, find meaning in it, find their success in it, and that’s great. The problem is, I’m not one of those people. So putting my money where my mouth is so to speak on my Eyes Wide Open philosophy or vision. When I was sitting there in my fancy Manhattan skyscraper office, realizing that this was not important to me and this wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, I abandoned my legal career. I stepped away from the practice of law and partnered up with my college roommate. He kept his fancy day job in the world of finance, but I quit mine and he helped me buy a small, struggling business in Orlando, Florida, in residential construction, an industry I knew nothing about, and if you think I’m crazy, my wife Dorothy is even crazier. She supported me in all this. And we moved down from Manhattan to Orlando for me to serve as the Chief Executive Officer of our new business.
-Of a struggling business.
– Yeah, we did that in June of 2011.
– What the hell prompted you to do that?
– You know, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I did a lot of soul searching on what was important to me, what I wanted in my life and in my career. First and foremost, I wanted a better quality of life for my family, I wanted to get out of the ninety hour a week rat race, stress and tension and all that. I wanted to live in a home that had a yard, I wanted to get home from work early enough to play with my kids in that yard and maybe have dinner with my wife. Career wise, it may sound silly, but I wanted a job I could explain to my children. My wife Dorothy gave birth to our triplets in September of 2010.
– Yeah, so I’m a new dad now three times over and I’m wanting a job I can explain to my kids, I’m wanting a better quality of life and I’m wanting the opportunity to work with a team of folks, build a culture of excellence, and thrive with people, have some fun and do something meaningful for them and for our customers. It seemed to me, running a business was the way to go. Nobody was all that interested in hiring me to run their business, being a mid-level associate in a law firm. So my roommate and dear friend who has a lot of faith in me said okay, well no one’s gonna hire you to run a business, we can buy a business that you can run. As my niece later put it, we bought me a job.
– Yeah and at what point did that stop being a job and start being something that became abundant? Like how long did it take you to turn around this company?
– So three months in, we realized how far from treading water, this company was sinking like a stone. All the financial data we had meticulously analyzed were nonsense, right? Garbage in, garbage out. Really nobody had any idea what was going on, but this company was hemorrhaging. Two Harvard guys buy a construction company in Orlando. What could possibly go wrong right? So that was one of the worse times in my life. It was a real challenge to silence my internal critic and harness my strength. I got immense support from friends and family. Like I said, that was about three months in. It then took us about a year or so to get to the point where we were fully above water and I could earn a salary again, and it wasn’t crisis mode all the time. And then from there, I’m blessed to work with an amazing team of very talented folks, very loyal folks. We grew a great corporate culture and the thing has just succeeded beyond my wildest imagination. The company is more than 10 times bigger than it was and it’s profitable, and it’s all over the state now. We’re just having a blast.
– Good for you. Is there anything you wish you’d known as a younger entrepreneur, as a lesson learned, that you now have with the miles you’ve run later in your career?
– I kinda think that’s a question that kinda defies the physics of life. Right? We learn by doing right? I mean strength tested begets strength. You can only build muscles by tearing them. To me it’s not necessarily a super helpful construct to go back and say what would it have looked like had I known X, Y and Z because the journey of it, the joy in it, the progress of it really is for me, in the actual striving itself. That having been said, I had no idea what I was doing. My intentions were good, I had a rough sense of a plan, I tested my thinking with my wife and my family, my friends, but I had no idea what I was doing. And that’s the value of the experience.
– So how does one apply Eyes Wide Open philosophy to the way you went in and navigated that experience?
– Yeah that sorta crisis mode?
– So I mentioned working hard to try to silence that internal critic. For me that’s like fear. Like fear, we all have this sort of critic in our minds that’s this nasty voice. It’s quick to pass judgment on us, tell us what we can’t do. Tell us what others are thinking about us. And the critic presents this idealized world, soaring high above it all, this view of perfection which is of course impossible. Man that critic can be so overwhelming that we never even bother ’cause we’re so convinced that we’re beat before we even get started. Teddy Roosevelt has these famous remarks right, where you contrast the critic and the strong man, it’s not the critic who counts? Cold and timid souls and all that stuff. Anyway, for me Roosevelt’s critic is really our fear of failure. Again, juxtaposing with the strong man, trying to find our inner strength. I would encourage folks when they’re facing that nasty voice, to really hone in on right now, this moment. What is it that I really wanna accomplish? ‘Cause that critic will swap someone else’s definition of success for your own and you won’t even notice it. And if you’re laboring for someone else’s definition of success, you cannot succeed by definition. So step one is always come back to grounding yourself and like, what it is that you’re actually trying to accomplish? And then the question is, what the best next step? You’re not gonna get from A to Z if you don’t get from A to B. I guarantee that.
– Don’t focus on perfection and results on the outcome, focus on progress, on growth, on the moment.
– I love the metaphor of just learn to stop bumping into things, right? It goes back to that.
– Yeah, so that business experience that I had really was, and other experiences in my life, really were for me about this kind of the tug of war for the perspective with which we view our lives, between our critic and our inner strong man.
– Hmm. That’s a big one though right? Because most people, if you’re watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians or some other bullshit, you have someone else’s vision of what success is, what beauty is, what fashion is, all that stuff kinda juxtaposing your psyche, your consciousness. And so how does one pull back from that popular media nonsense to really start thinking about these bigger questions because you have to know what that evenis to you before you can have that bar to then be able to achieve on your own.
– Yeah so, I think that when we’re really honest with ourselves, when we want to be honest with ourselves and we want to be introspective, answering the questions, what’s important to me and what matters to me and what does value look like for me, what does success look like for me? I don’t think answering those questions is the hard part. I think the hard part really is ignoring that circus you’re talking about right? Ignoring that chaos, that mirage of nonsense that’s out there. That’s ultimately it, it’s a choice. It’s turning down the volume. It’s taking a moment, five minutes to sit alone in quiet and think to yourself, what do I wanna be doing? How do I wanna be spending my time? How does my life compare to how I would describe life well lived for me? And am I willing to confront the fact that to the extent there are any differences, I bare responsibility for those differences. It’s a big leap to take, but it’s certainly worth it. It has been in my life.
– Yeah no kidding. You know it’s interesting, I took vows pretty early in my life and became a monk and spent a lot of times with my eyes voluntarily closed to meditate and spend a lot of time thinking about these bigger things and kinda shutting out. It’s like you don’t have that mirage coming in through your eyes right? Which is nice. I don’t have it coming through, I don’t listen to public radio, I don’t watch normal TV anymore. And so a lot of it is also just having a better management program around the inputs of some of that circus to a certain extent because it is overwhelming right? You can’t watch TV and not get something embedded. But then that’s when you have the time to actually think about things. My perspective on this, and I’d love to hear where you find this. Because now suddenly, you had a very profound shift, is when people stop the circus there’s this kind of intermediary phase where they start to feel kinda restless and bored and not knowing what to do with themselves because that input is something that they’re so used to. So it’s just this lonely place before you can actually get into that kind of deeper, contemplative thought and in that space where you’re actually thinking about the stuff that you’re eluding to.
– Yeah I mean, for me that’s about trust. Trusting yourself. Being comfortable with yourself and trusting that, I don’t know, there’s a poem, Desiderata by a man named Max Ehrmann and it’s phenomenal, absolutely loved it. One of the lines I always think about is, “There’s no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” We take so much nonsense, we take so many birds onto our shoulders not to stop and think again, no doubt, the universe is unfolding as it should and my obligation is to myself, to create the reality that I want to experience. It’s hard to do, but there’s a peace in it. It’s liberating, empowering. For me, learning to live Eyes Wide Open, the insights I gained as I went blind, man, they were just liberating.
– Well, you’ve had a couple of these now. I mean, having triplets? That’s kind of a kick in the teeth man! That’s a lot at once. So what did that do? Like how did that change your perspective and your operating system, your outlook really in life?
– Yeah, the triplet pregnancy is a complex pregnancy throughout with risks. My wife Dorothy had an arduous go of it and we pretty early on, confronted some agonizing information. Some of the medical folks urged us to reduce or eliminate one of the three in particular. There were some concerns about his viability. There was the suggestion that we were maybe being negligent with respect to the other two by not eliminating one. It was just all sorts of stuff, there you go, no doubt, the universe is unfolding as it should and trust and peace, but it was hard. We kinda fought through it and then our kids were born. Combined, they weighed less than seven and a half pounds. The little guy, the one that we were concerned about along the way, weighed less than a pound and a half. They wound up spending 70 days in the neonatal intensive care unit. As a mathematical proposition, miracle upon miracle upon miracle. We escaped every complication, minor or major, everything in between. The just astounding magnitude of that blessing in our lives, to have these three healthy, thriving children is something that is never far from my mind. It is always a ready source of perspective for me that I am the beneficiary of many cosmic windfalls out there. And there are struggles for life and death going on all around us every day and so it’s hard to take things too seriously.
– Yeah, no kidding. I gotta ask. What does it feel like to hold a one pound baby, I don’t wanna say arm, it’s probably hand.
– We couldn’t hold him.
– You just couldn’t touch him for basically 70 days.
– For weeks if not a month, yeah. I mean, his head was the size of a lemon. One of his nurses would take her wedding ring off and slide it up his arms, over his shoulder. He was intubated and I mean, talk about the miracles of technology in science and healthcare. A modern NICU, neonatal intensive care unit, it is conducting a constant symphony of daily miracles. It is amazing what goes on in there. But for that symphony, Dorothy and I would have, wouldn’t have any of these children, let alone three, thriving, healthy ones. And it turned out so great, that Dorothy and I decided to have another. So we have a fourth that’s well now, we have a 15 month old. Little baby Clementine. So the triplets are six and a half, the baby’s 15 months and we’re overjoyed.
– Good for you, good for you. Well, I’m really glad you got your head out of the sky is falling, fearful future and just started figuring out how to not bump into things. ‘Cause it created a really cool perspective in how you could then metabolize life one thing at a time, what’s in front of you is what you’re dealing with kinda thing. What a cool story. Isaac Lidsky, the book is called Eyes Wide Open. I am very happy that you pulled through and found this perspective ’cause now you’re a philosopher and a business man and a father, and all these things are really powerful contributions to society because they’re anchored in reality. It makes you the man that you are and we need more of that. We need more thinkers and people who can think for themselves. So I recommend getting the book, checking out his work. Isaac Lidsky, and let me know what you think. It’s Dr. Pedram Shojai, The Urban Monk. I will see you next time.