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. Paradoxically, losing his sight gave him the vision to take responsibility for his reality and thrive. Lidsky graduated from Harvard College at age nineteen, served as a Supreme Court law clerk, fathered four children, and turned a failing construction subcontractor into a highly profitable business.
Whether we’re blind or not, our vision is limited by our past experiences, biases, and emotions. Lidsky shows us how we can overcome paralyzing fears, avoid falling prey to our own assumptions and faulty leaps of logic, silence our inner critic, harness our strength, and live with open hearts and minds. In sharing his hard-won insights, Lidsky shows us how we too can confront life's trials with initiative, humor, and grace.
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About the Author
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Seeing and Believing
What you don’t know can’t hurt you, but what you think you know certainly can.
When my wife, Dorothy, was a little girl, she was fascinated by her pet goldfish. Her father explained that fish swim by quickly wagging their tails to propel themselves through water. Without hesitation or doubt, Dorothy responded by informing him that fish swim backward by wagging their heads! In her mind, in her world, it was a fact as true as any other. Fish swim backward by wagging their heads.
Our lives are full of fish swimming backward. We make faulty leaps of logic. We make myriad assumptions. We prejudge. We harbor biases. We assume. We experience our beliefs and opinions as incontrovertible truths. We know that we are right and others are wrong. Fish swim by in reverse, frantically wagging their heads, and we do not notice them.
We are hardwired to do this. It is in our nature. As babies, we develop an understanding of our environment through countless observations of cause and effect. A baby drops her spoon on the ground. She is chastised by her mother, who bends to pick it up, washes it off in the sink, and then returns it to the breakfast tray. This scene plays out repeatedly for months or years, much to the mother’s irritation. Along the way, the child learns about gravity, she begins to understand the concept that the floor is dirty, and she refines her understanding of how her actions can capture her mother’s attention and impact her mother’s emotions.
This is how we learn to survive, to interact with our world. We are creatures designed to find order in chaos, definition in ambiguity, certainty in a world of probabilities. We build up a vast database of experiences and design for ourselves rules and logic consistent with those experiences. We generalize, simplify, predict.
Our predisposition to reason from experience is a useful tendency, to put it mildly. It explains how our ancestors knew to run from a ferocious animal they had never before encountered, and how your child learns to say his first words. It also explains how a good salesman instinctually refines his pitch over time, learning to read responses and overcome common objections.
This tendency is also the source of great harm. How often do you miscommunicate with someone because you are making faulty assumptions about his motives or meaning? On what basis have you decided that your goals, hopes, or dreams are unattainable? Do you fear the worst, “borrowing trouble”? Do you strive for unattainable perfection and find disappointment in the inevitable result? How often do you stop to consider the profound difference between what you know and what you think you know?
Precocious little Dorothy’s fish are amusing and innocent. Those that swim through our adult lives rarely are. In our careers and personal lives, in our relationships, and in our hearts and souls, our backward-?swimming fish do us great harm. They exact a toll in missed opportunities and unrealized potential. They paralyze us with fear. They engender insecurity and distrust where we seek fulfillment and connection. They breed bias and prejudice.
In this book I will teach you to see the fish swimming backward through your life. I didn’t notice mine until I slowly lost my sight to a progressive eye disease. But as I went blind I began to see them clearly. The deterioration of my sight cast them into focus. As I learned to recognize them, I embraced my blindness and gained a life richer in understanding, connection, and success. I call it living eyes wide open.
At work and at home, living eyes wide open has brought me immeasurable joy, fulfillment, and success. It is the philosophy that led me to leave behind my childhood acting career to attend college after starring as “Weasel” on NBC’s sitcom Saved by the Bell: The New Class. I graduated from Harvard with an honors degree in mathematics and computer science at age nineteen, then founded an Internet advertising technology company. Living eyes wide open led me to leave that company when it was finally thriving, this time to attend Harvard Law School. After Harvard Law I spent three years litigating appeals in the federal courts as a U.S. Justice Department attorney before achieving my dream of serving as a U.S. Supreme Court Law Clerk, working for Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Then, in 2011 I saw eyes wide open the enormous potential in a struggling Orlando construction company. I put aside my legal career, figured out how to acquire the company, doubled down when the early days seemed to spell financial disaster, and turned it around, growing it tenfold in five years.
Living eyes wide open is also how I accepted my blinding disease, then embraced it. With eyes wide open I cherish my extraordinary wife, Dorothy, and our marriage. I celebrate our six-year-old triplets, our ninety-eight-day fight for their health, and their miraculous triumph against all odds. I celebrate their little sister, too. I see my life bursting with blessings, and I strive for the grace to honor these blessings.
People often ask how I have had so many diverse experiences at such a young age or accomplished so much so quickly. Invariably, they will then say something like: “And you did it all despite going blind. I can’t imagine.” Yet for me, going blind has not been a limitation on my life. In fact, it has helped me to achieve and to thrive. I’ve derived great lessons and blessings by going blind. I’ve gained vision by losing my sight.
Going blind is the blessing that showed me how to live my life eyes wide open. But anyone can choose to see what I see, even the sighted! That’s why I wrote this book. I wrote it to teach you how and to inspire you to do so. In the chapters that follow, I’ll share practical ways to open yourself to new learning, unexplored opportunities, and your true potential. I’ll help you to confront both your fears and your perceived limitations. I’ll show you how to embrace your work and your life, not resign to them. And I’ll challenge you to be a leader in your own life and in the lives of those around you.
But before you can live eyes wide open, you need to better understand what happens when you open your eyes. Paradoxically, when it comes to fish that swim backward, your sight obscures your vision. The way you experience sight makes it harder to spot these fish.
Living with your eyes open and living eyes wide open are two very different things. In the difference lies the space those fish need to swim by undetected. They are hiding in plain view—more precisely, they are hiding in your sight. Understanding how is the place to start.
Do you see with your eyes? I’ll bet you find this question strange and the answer obvious. You’re likely thinking, Of course I do. You’re wrong. Here’s another odd question: What happens when you open your eyes? When you open your eyes you see the world around you, right? There’s not much more to say about it, is there? Now you’re very wrong. (If you’re thinking, This blind guy is crazy and I should stop reading his book, stay with me for another few pages, please!)
As a kid growing up in Miami, I would have given the same wrong answers to these two questions. I can picture myself at the age of thirteen acting on the set of a television commercial at Filmworks, attending one of my dad’s many hearings in the Miami-Dade County Courthouse, or taking classes in the theater program at New World School of the Arts. I took my sight for granted, as most people do. It was not something I thought about. I saw just fine. I didn’t even need glasses like the youngest of my older sisters, Ronit (pronounced “row,” as you would a canoe, and “neat,” as in “interesting”).
That thirteen-year-old Isaac would answer our two questions impatiently and confidently, saying something like: “Yes, of course I see with my eyes. When I open my eyes I see what they are pointed at. I’m walking away now, sorry.” Young Isaac was invincible. He did not know he had a disease called retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, that would dramatically change his answers to these questions as he slowly went blind. But I did have RP, I did go blind, and my answers did change.
To understand how, imagine the “Magic TV,” the huge screen above center court at Orlando’s Amway Center, where the Orlando Magic play. It’s forty-two feet tall and forty-two feet wide, for a total area of 1,764 square feet. It has 9,470,400 pixels that collectively create the images you see, just like the pixels on your computer monitor.
The retina at the back of each of your eyes is like that Magic TV. It is a little smaller, approximately one thousand square millimeters, and it has a bit more pixels, approximately 125 million on each retina. (Put another way, the average human retina has 13.2 times more “pixels” than Amway’s screen, even though that giant screen is 163,881 times bigger.) In terms of resolution, the retina is 2,163,068 times more powerful.
Instead of LED bulbs, the “pixels” of the retina are special cells called photoreceptor cells. They come in two varieties, known as “rods” and “cones” for their respective shapes. Just as the bulbs on the Jumbotron screen individually turn on or off to create an image in aggregate, each photoreceptor cell captures information about its tiny piece of the world. Each rod or cone cell is tuned to particular wavelengths, or colors, of light. (The more numerous rods respond to light of any color, while the cones, which are concentrated toward the center of the eye, each respond only to a particular color.) When a photoreceptor cell is hit by light that it is tuned to receive, it “fires,” producing a bit of biological magic, a chemical reaction that generates a signal sent back to your brain. When you open your eyes, your 250 million photoreceptor cells fire feverishly to create your image of the world.
RP causes the photoreceptor cells to deteriorate, cease to function and ultimately die. Returning to the Magic TV, imagine that you are watching my life as a movie on that giant screen. Imagine further that the pixels on that screen slowly and randomly break. At first, you might not even notice, but as more and more pixels break you will start to spot holes in the image, dark regions on the screen. Over time those regions will grow in size and number. As still more pixels break, you will eventually struggle to decipher what you are watching. That struggle will grow more difficult and less successful as more pixels break. You will see less and less of my life as the movie plays on, until finally you’ll see nothing at all.
That is what my sight was like as RP progressively broke the photoreceptor cells of my retina. It is impossible to say exactly when the deterioration of my sight started, and it is impossible to pinpoint a precise moment in time when I became blind as a result. I know, however, that as a young child I grew up with seemingly normal sight, through my teens my sight was clearly failing, and by my early twenties my dwindling sight was of diminishing use to me. I lived as a blind man by my twenty-fifth birthday.
One pleasant Saturday in the spring of 1997, I was walking through Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on my way to buy a late lunch. I was seventeen years old, a sophomore studying mathematics and computer science at Harvard College. My late lunch was technically a very late breakfast, as I had managed to roust myself from my bed only an hour earlier. The plan for breakfast was a cheeseburger sub from Pinocchio’s Pizza & Subs on Winthrop Street—or “Nokes,” as we called it. The plan was making my mouth water with eager anticipation.
I turned a corner and a giant tree branch came flying at my head. Luckily, I reacted quickly, diving to the side, landing in some bushes. Major, perhaps life-threatening head trauma was narrowly avoided, and I sustained only a few minor scrapes and bruises. I stood up, brushed off dirt and leaves, and heartily congratulated myself for preventing major injury with my impressive catlike speed and reflexes.
Then I looked around and realized the self-congratulation was unwarranted. There was no flying branch. There was a giant tree branch suspended over the sidewalk, well above my head, but it was firmly affixed to a towering tree. Neither the tree nor its branch had budged recently.
My lack of real physical injury notwithstanding, I felt substantial injury of the emotional kind. I was intensely embarrassed. I was frustrated by my failing eyes. I was angry that I was stuck with them.
Worst of all, I was forced once again to contemplate the big questions, the ones that were never far from my mind in those days, the questions of my fears. How bad is this going to get? How quickly? What will my life become as I go blind? I didn’t feel hungry anymore. I felt scared, sad, and lonely. I walked back to my dorm room in Lowell House and crawled back into my bed.
In the months and years that followed, my retinas progressively deteriorated. My world blurred and morphed, the familiar and passive experience of sight becoming an arduous struggle to make sense of a bizarre carnival fun house hall of mirrors and illusions. This is when my answers to our two questions changed, how I learned: (1) You do not see with your eyes, you see with your brain. (2) The experience of sight is far more complex than perceiving what is around you. The flying tree branch I saw that day in Harvard Square came to symbolize these insights for me.
Your eyes capture a breathtaking amount of information, but that’s only where sight begins. A full third of your brain is devoted to processing that information. Known as the “visual cortex,” this third of your brain receives every second up to a billion signals from each of your retinas, two billion total. (The rest of your body can send your brain only an additional billion.) Your visual cortex creates from this torrent of two-dimensional data the three-dimensional experience we call sight, a truly miraculous feat. You see with your brain, not your eyes.
Consider an unremarkable scenario. You see your friend Carol across a crowded room at a cocktail party and walk over to her. You navigate myriad obstacles along the way without effort or thought. For example, you dodge a waiter’s tray of hors d’oeuvres while mounting two small steps and hardly notice.
Excerpted from "Eyes Wide Open"
Copyright © 2017 Isaac Lidsky.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Seeing and Believing 1
Fishing Trip 1 Action, Lights, Camera! 27
Chapter 2 Heroes and Villains 39
Fishing Trip 2 Man Plans, God Laughs 67
Chapter 3 The Critic and the Strong Man 75
Fishing Trip 3 98 Days, Part I 101
Chapter 4 Acceptance and Surrender 115
Fishing Trip 4 Supremely Protective 147
Chapter 5 Counting Your Luck 157
Fishing Trip 5 Lucky Break, Part II 185
Chapter 6 Measuring Your Success 193
Fishing Trip 6 Super Dad 227
Chapter 7 Ears Wide Open 243
Fishing Trip 7 98 Days, Part II 269
Chapter 8 Heart Wide Open 279