Seeing without sight - Isaac Lidsky
I started reading Isaac Lidsky's book mid-flight. And it was so bloody good that I stayed at the airport for 4 more hours after disembarking to finish reading it at one go.
The real value of this book was how Lidksy is able to articulate his thoughts and feelings at the low points of life, with almost a step-by-step detailing of how he grappled with own fears and doubt and the way he was able to drive himself to press on with what he wanted to do in life.
I've summarised the important parts of his book below. The summary is long (and a real pain to write, fyi). But each part is a little gem and combined, provides us with a bigger gem of how to deal with the challenge of fear.
Fire Hydrants, a walking cane, Blindness with a capital B
Lidsky's life started off on a high. He was an infant star of over 100 commercials and continued to receive Hollywood contracts as a teenage actor up till when he was 13.
At age 13, his life changed for him. He was diagnosed with a retinal degenerative disease that would lead to progressive loss of sight and eventual blindness. He had not suffered any symptoms so the news was very sudden and difficult to take.
For the next few years, he started to break apart, filled with the sort of gloomy despair many of us have experienced at one point or another. With blindness inevitable, he resigned to the fact that his life ahead would be inconvenient, small, and sad. He thought that he would never have a family, because a blind person would be a burden. And he was certain these terrible thoughts would come true.
He also tried to run away from his problems. For as long as he could, he tried to just live a normal life even as his eyesight was deteriorating. He refused to use a cane. At an appointment with his occupational therapist, the therapist asked, somewhat rhetorically, if starting to go blind had caused him to hurt himself. Lidsky explained that he had ended up trying to wash his hands in the urinal. And he had hurt himself walking into a fire hydrant which he did not see.
This therapist rebuked: "If you had used a cane, you wouldn't have walked into a fire hydrant. Why aren't you using one?"
It was this question that triggered a change in Lidsky's life.
He realised that he was fearful because he saw Blindness with a capital B as this large, amorphous monster, this awful fate which would take-over and ruin his life.
However, the occupational therapist's question made him realise that this huge concept of Blindness can really be broken down into many smaller details - like using a cane to avoid walking into things. And as he thought about it, he realised these details weren't so bad. It was all tangible areas that he could make progress in. It was possible to learn how to read even without sight and to keep getting better at it. It was possible to familiarise himself with a special keyboard. It was possible for him to get better at moving around with a cane.
It is natural for anyone to find the massive, foreboding, fearsome force of Blindness(capital B) scary and destructive. But it is far less intimidating if we break down the major challenges we face, where blindness (small b) is simply a constellation of smaller, discrete practical challenges each of which is eminently solvable.
Once the idea of the cane vs Blindness capital B kicked in, his mindset shifted towards finding out more practical solutions to aid his life.
How much do you actually see? What about the person you mistook for a friend?
The exchange with the occupational therapist also made him more interested in understanding sight itself. In essence, when we see something, what actually happens is the light from that object is reflected into our eyes. The photoreceptors in our retinas respond to this light and sends a signal to our brain. The brain then constructs reality from this signal, but also its expectations of what you should be seeing. In other words, it is your brain (which is locked in your skull and has never seen anything) that determines what you actually think you see. Additionally, how the brain shapes this reality does not just come from our senses, but it's own expectations. According to Lidsky, the data from our sight really only makes up 10% of the reality we know*. Reality is a virtual representation created by your brain.
Finally, light is a wave, and it falls under the electromagnetic spectrum. The light we are able to see is what physicists call visible light; this visible light is one ten-trillionth of the total electromagnetic spectrum. Or in English - there many waves just like visible light that are around us, we just can't see it.
You can read more about at our pages on:
- What actually happens when you see something?
- Why your dog can't watch TV
- Is your reality shaped by external stimuli or internal expectations?
*I am quoting this 10% from Lidsky.
Lidsky gives an example we are all familiar with. Have you had the experience of seeing your friend at a party, and walking over to greet him. But when you tapped him on the shoulder you realised, you were mistaken! It was someone who looked like your friend, but wasn't. You apologise, saying you had seen wrongly.
But that's not completely true. At the point of seeing, you were absolutely convinced you had seen your friend. So what we see isn't always what is.
And this brings us to fear.
It's not an aha moment but a constant struggle - the Critic and the Strongman
Fear is useful in many ways, from an evolutionary perspective, but it could also be a destructive force. When things are uncertain, we fill in our own possible scenarios, usually very negative ones - what psychologists call awfulising. Obviously nothing has happened yet, so these awful scenarios are merely our mind's creation. However, much like the mistaken friend at the party, we don't think we have imagined these scenarios, we actually feel and experience it (I'm not saying this as a figure of speech. When you put someone in a brain scanner giving him bad news and asking him to imagine bad news triggers very similar brain reactions).
Lidsky emphasises that overcome fear is not an aha moment - when a switch is flipped and fear is magically conquered. He elaborates that in every person, there lives in a critic and a strongman.
The critic is the voice in your head that tells you, you can't do it, you don't have to do it, you shouldn't it. It "awfulises" - and formulates the worst scenarios that can happen. It worries about what others are saying and will say about us. And the critic is powerful and persuasive because its job is to keep your life as safe and risk-free as possible, and part of us craves safety and security. As the Tim Ferris quote goes, "Most of us will choose unhappiness over uncertainty".
The critic insists that you need to be perfect before you try anything new or different, because perfection means you will not fail, and the critic is scared of failing because it is painful. But since perfection is not possible, attempting to be perfect ironically guarantees our failures
The critic compares you to others, especially if you compare unfavourably. It whispers to you, "You're not that good, why are you doing this?"
The critic keeps swapping out the definition of success, to make it safer and safer for you. And you might not even notice this. Or as Lidsky puts it, the critic is the one that convinces you not to take the stage for fear of bad reviews; along the way, you start to forget the reason why you wanted to go on stage, and the joy it brought you. Your inner critic successfully convinces you that no taking the stage is the better decision.
Lidsky stresses that the fight the inner critic is something we have to struggle with every day. And even the mentally strong or the very best at what they do struggle, and some days they don't struggle so well. Lidsky admits that even for him, this might even mean projecting his own insecurities and vanities onto others.
So how can we fight our fears? How can we respond to our inner critic?
Lidsky recommends 2 steps:
Step 1 is being conscious that you are scared and fearful. He stresses the importance of introspection - we are often reading into the behaviour of others and judging them, but what about ourselves? Are we even truly aware of what we are feeling and thinking?
Step 2 is a daily struggle of holding ourselves accountable that our realities are our own creation, and we always have a choice on what sort of reality we want to create. Lidsky often ends up talking to himself, “I know you are feeling lousy and fearful, and it's ok, it’s only human. But let’s pull it apart and go through some strategies to overcome it.”
And the do so, Lidsky evokes the second voice that we carry in our heads - the strongman. The strongman is the part of us that craves progress and not perfection. The strongman savours taking the first step and is impatient for it. The strongman values effort and valiant striving. The strongman isn't frightened by the large goal or the big challenge ahead, he is not frightened by Blindness (capital B); the strongman is not frightened because he is only focussed on the next step that needs to be taken.
Giving up all he had... and realising it was a bad idea
By his mid-thirties, Lidsky's commitment to quell his inner critic and to hold himself accountable for shaping his own reality brought him much success in life.
He graduated from Harvard University in 1999 with an honours degree in mathematics and computer science and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 2004. He went on to work for the U.S. Justice Department, where he never lost a case. Remember, Lidsky was almost or completely blind when he achieved all these.
In 2008, Lidsky served as a Law clerk for U.S Supreme Court Justices, the first blind person to do so. He also got married - his worst fear of being alone and unloved because of his blindness didn't come true.
By 2011 he was with a large international law firm on a huge salary. A glittering career in law was ahead of him. And at that point, he decided law was not for him. Despite massive success, he wanted a change.
Together with an old schoolmate, Lidsky bought over Orlando Decorative Concrete(ODC). He thought he had bought a small humble cement company in need of a jolt in leadership. But now with hindsight, he realised he made the wrong decision.
ODC was a sinking ship and was bleeding money. It was a complete misjudgement. He told his wife they have to be prepared for bankruptcy. His family had to move back in with his parents. The business was not turning around. And it was only given a lifeline because his mom offered her life savings.
What would you do if you were Lidksy then? Imagine working so hard and then throwing away all he had, and being on the brink of spectacular failure, which impacted not just himself but his whole family. What would you do?
Naturally, the dialogue between the critic and strongman raged in his head. And quite amazingly, against all odds, the strongman emerged victorious.
Lidsky went back to his 2 step process. He had heavy bouts of introspection. He wanted to give up many times and he felt increasingly guilty that he was pulling everyone down with him. But then he went back to what he was trying to accomplish, why he wanted to do so and why he thought he could do it. He had seen that the cement industry was an unsophisticated one, lacking in the use of technology. He felt he could introduce new technology to really spur efficiency. He also realised he had a good team around him. He trusted them. Rationally speaking, he had the vision and the team to turn things around.
He turned to the strongman and kept asking himself, what is my next best step? What can I do now at this very moment to bring me closer to my goal? Through the strongman, he saw that this is all there ever is: everything is constantly changing, including ourselves. There will always be things beyond our control. Instead of worrying about how to get from A to Z, where Z seems so far away with so many things out of our control, just work on how to get from A to B.
Over the next 5 years, ODC would increase its revenue 14-old to become a profitable company.
At this point, you might conclude that this Lidsky fella has been able to find success because he's just a smart dude. But that's not the case.
Lidsky had put together a map of the qualities of other entrepreneurs and he saw he just wasn’t that good. He felt that he honestly didn't have the abilities and experience that others had.
This is an important point, because perhaps as we see Lidsky as being this successful person in life, he felt the same exact as we do, when he saw other entrepreneurs. And as he reiterates over and over again, it was not brilliance that led him to some successful outcomes: it was simply basic execution, premised on overcoming his inner critic every day, struggling daily to hold himself accountable, and executing his next step.
The unlikely way which blindness proved beneficial
Think about Lidsky as the blind CEO. How can he conduct meetings effectively? He cannot see body language, he cannot see if people are nodding or shaking their heads, he cannot see the little micro-expressions that people have, he can't see the powerpoint presentations.
For some time Lidksy was stressed that his blindness was a burden on his team and his company. There would also be meetings where there would be silence after someone had said something - Lidsky had no idea what that silence meant. Consequently, he also felt that he could not make decisions effectively, he was lacking complete information.
Once again, he broke down blindness capital B into actionable parts. He immediately concluded that communicating effectively was vital and negotiable, so any additional costs that this created were necessary. Hence at meetings, he goes around the table for important matters, where everyone has to articulate what he/she was thinking.
This might sound painstaking, but it was actually a key success factor. At a normal meeting, even if everyone agreed with an idea, team members might agree but for different reasons, or they might agree but have different reservations. And as Lidsky went around the table, he was able to draw out these nuances, and also underlying thoughts which members might originally not have wanted to share. While meetings became longer, they also became much more meaningful and critical for the development of ideas and his team.
All this value which he had gotten from asking everyone to elaborate on their thoughts would have been lost if he wasn't blind, and meetings were conducted in the normal fashion. This provided him with another life lesson. He learnt that while his blindness caused him anxiety and insecurity, often times his blindness was not the cause of problems; it merely serves to point out where exisitng problems lie. The tension, awkwardness, and poor communications during meetings was not because he was blind, but a by-product of the modern workplace, where everyone wants to be valued but is worried about what others think of them, and where employees increasingly have difficulty articulating what they actually thought completely.
True and meaningful communication is not the default, and it doesn't come easy; it was actually his blindness that truly surfaced this problem allowed him to find a solution.
Eyes Wide Open
I highly recommend reading his book - Eyes Wide Open.
It was a major and permanent setback that drove Lidsky to learn how the human mind works, to peek behind the curtain at how reality is shaped. Ironically, losing his sight allowed to see how he shold live life, better.
The concepts he introduced are not mindblowing:
- every major problem, every Blindness capital B can be broken down into discrete actionable areas
- to recognise the critic and the strongman that lives in every one of us
- to introspect constantly, and to acknowledge where we have been fearful and perhaps have lied to ourselves, and to realise this is really just being human, we are always going to feel fear
- to recognise that we have the ability to shape the reality we want and to be accountable to ourselves to keep doing so, because even the best of us will have to struggle against our inner critic every day.
- ask yourself what is your next best step.
But even though the concepts are not spectacular, they are precise and not dramatised, like many of the woo-woo motivational sources out there. They are practical and have been applied, and not hypothesised. And there is no post-rationalisation, he shares his struggles at each step, and openly points out where success had been due to other factors like luck instead of his own decision making.
I leave you with a final quote from Lidsky:
"Strength unexercised will atrophy; inaction makes us weaker"