I got to know Isaac Lidsky because he and I both clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Our clerkships didn’t overlap, but clerking for a Justice is like coming from the same very small hometown — you feel an instant kinship.
Beyond that Supreme Court clerkship, Isaac has had a fascinating career. Among other things he played Weasel on NBC’s Saved by the Bell: The New Class and was a tech entrepreneur. He was also diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a retinal degenerative disease that caused him to lose his sight.
Isaac’s new book just hit the shelves: Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World that Can’t See Clearly, about how he managed to build a life of joy, professional success, and fulfillment while losing his sight.
Can you figure out the meaning of the design of his book jacket?
Millions of people have watched his TED Talk, “What Reality Are You Creating For Yourself?“
I asked him to talk about happiness and habits.
Gretchen: You slowly lost your sight from age 13 to age 25, but it didn’t slow you down–you nonetheless starred on a sitcom, went to Harvard and Harvard Law School, clerked for two U.S. Supreme Court Justices, started several successful businesses, married, and had four children. How did you change your habits to stay driven and pursue your goals as you went blind?
Isaac: When I was diagnosed with my blinding disease, I knew blindness would ruin my life. I was wrong. Going blind turned out to be one of the greatest blessings in my life. I lost my sight, but I gained an empowering vision that has helped me to thrive and brought me much fulfillment. With blindness, I learned to see what is important to me, at work and at home–to understand what I truly want to accomplish with my life. Moreover, I learned to hold myself accountable for the differences between the way I’d like to live my life and the way I actually live it.
What is the toughest harmful habit you’ve overcome?
We have a tendency to perceive others in our lives as our heroes or villains–to imagine that others control the way we experience our lives.
This is especially true when we’re afraid of the unknown, in times of great change or crisis. Without relevant experience to draw upon, fear beats a retreat, and we look to others we can blame or credit, others whose wrongs we can condemn, others we can turn to for rescue. Too often, the result is that we remain on the sidelines, stay out of the fight, fail to take control.
I used to see heroes and villains in my life, and I unwittingly outsourced to them my destiny.
How did you overcome this habit?
It takes ongoing effort and discipline–in a sense, it requires forming a new, healthy habit. Whenever I’m afraid I ask myself two questions: (1) What, precisely, is my problem? Right now, concrete, broken down into its smallest, most manageable pieces. (2) What, precisely, can I do about it? Emphasis on “I”; no heroes, no villains, just me. I focus on the elusive distinction between what I know and what I think I know, and I remind myself that I alone bear responsibility for how my circumstances are manifested in who I am or how I choose to live my life.
What is a healthy habit you would encourage others to adopt?
I think introspection is a neglected skill that is critical to living well. Clarity of vision demands that you are absolutely honest with yourself and accountable to yourself–for your thoughts, beliefs, opinions, actions. We do ourselves great harm when we lie to ourselves. It’s even worse, though, when we avoid facing ourselves altogether. In every moment, we choose who we want to be and how we want to live our lives–whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we do so with awareness and intention or by default. I think folks should make a habit of thinking critically about those choices.
You write that losing your sight gave you your empowering vision. How?
What we see feels like “truth”–something out there that is objective reality, that is factual, that is universal. But as my eyes progressively deteriorated, I literally saw firsthand that the experience of sight is altogether different. It is a unique, personal, virtual reality that is constructed in the brain, and it involves far more than our eyes. Our sight both shapes and is shaped by our conceptual understanding of the world, other knowledge, memories, opinions, emotions, mental attention, and many other things. I began to search for other ways in which I was misperceiving as objective “truth” the beliefs and assumptions that were in reality creations of my own making-creations I could change. This was the eyes-wide-open vision that enabled me to take control of my reality and my destiny.