Back in the day, entrepreneur and speaker, Isaac Lidsky played Weasel on NBC’s Saved By The Bell: The New Class. He finished Harvard at only 19, doubling back to attend law school there and became the only person who’s blind to serve as a law clerk for the US Supreme Court. (His bosses were Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.) The current CEO of ODC Construction in Florida sat down with ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan to talk about his powerful Ted Talk and his forthcoming book, Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can’t See Clearly.
Lia Martirosyan: I just watched your TED Talk, which was really wonderful. Had you done anything like
Isaac Lidsky: Thank you! No! I started doing some speaking on what I call my Eyes Wide Open vision maybe a year and a half ago. One thing led to another, and they asked me to do the TED Talk; I’ve long been a big fan of TED.
Chet Cooper: Ted’s a nice guy. (laughter)
Lidsky: Yeah, exactly! (laughs)[Editor’s note: The “TED” in TED Talks stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design]
Martirosyan: What difference do you see between acting and speaking in front of a live audience?
Lidsky: This is something I do because I’m passionate about it. It’s a labor of love. In my day job I run a construction-services company that I founded with some partners two years ago, I felt almost a calling to share with others some of the ideas I formed along the way as I lost my sight and thereafter.
We are the sum of our experiences, and of course as an actor and litigator, to some extent, I had to perform on my feet and be persuasive. I hesitate to say those experiences were directly relevant because this is really from the heart, so I hesitate to view it as performance. But obviously, I am who I am. I find myself doing more speaking now as I wait for my book to come out. It took me about a year to write it, and it was an amazing experience.
Cooper: Before I watched it, I felt like I was swimming backwards wagging my head…
Lidsky: Yeah. I like that metaphor.
Cooper: I liked that analogy from your talk. I give a talk sometimes about the same subject that you dealt with, but I use a different method. I engage the audience to basically say the wrong thing, and then I explain to them afterwards how the mind can be told one thing, when the reality is something absolutely different.
The way that you approached the subject of your TED Talk was great. It really resonated. Your intelligence, your education, your finishing Harvard at 19… the audience really absorbed it. You got a standing ovation.
Lidsky: Yeah, that was awesome. It’s funny, I do an hour-long keynote, and I’m definitely very neurotic, and spend a ton of time thinking about this stuff, so I kind of joke with folks—although I guess it’s not really much of a joke—that “My talk’s not going to be all light and fun and games.” I do sometimes get a little heavy with folks; I share what I think is important to share.
Cooper: It’s really good material you’ve put out there. I didn’t know you were a litigator. I knew you went to law school and did some really interesting things with your clerking career. Can you explain more about it?
Lidsky: Sure. For about a little more than three years, I served as a member of the Appellate Staff of the Civil Division of the Justice Department, which is a long and boring-sounding name, but it’s a really cool office within the Justice Department that represents the US and its agencies in the intermediate federal appellate courts… I won the lottery with that gig through the honors program at the Justice Department. A year out of law school I was briefing and arguing my own appeals, flying around the country, representing the government. It was just awesome. I loved it.
Martirosyan: That’s amazing.
Lidsky: Yeah, but it ruined me for the practice of law. Later I found myself in private tax practice… but I did not enjoy that at all.
Cooper: You felt you were going backwards rather than going forward?
Lidsky: Yeah. As is often the case with public service, it’s a trade-off of money and prestige and whatnot for responsibility and experience. In the government, I was briefing and arguing my own cases. In private practice, I was low man on a team of design lawyers, and by the way the cases and the work were a lot more interesting working for the government.
Cooper: In law school you did well in constitutional law?
Lidsky: I did! I took it from Charles Fried at Harvard, which was one of my favorite classes.
Cooper: A lot of people struggle with that in law school.
Lidsky: I loved law school! I was the proverbial kid in the candy store because between college and law school I spent two years working at an Internet advertising technology business I founded with my brother-in-law. Those were some tough years. If we were awake we were working.
We were constantly trying to scrape together the money to make payroll and yadayada. When we raised venture capital funding and it became a real job, I went off to law school, where my only responsibility was to go to class and think. It was like a three-year vacation.
Cooper: And the name of the tech company you started was Yadayada?
Lidsky: The company most recently was called [x+1]. It was acquired a few years ago.
Cooper: Did you still have ownership when it was sold?
Lidsky: Alas, we did not. In the intervening years I sold my ownership.
Martirosyan: When did you begin losing your sight?
Lidsky: I was diagnosed when I was 13. At the time, I would have said I didn’t see any worse than any of my peers. In retrospect, it’s clear I was probably already starting to lose some vision—or some sight, excuse me. That’s an important distinction. I started to lose sight. In my late teens and throughout college and thereafter, it went relatively quickly, so that by the time I was 25, I had no useful vision to speak of.
Cooper: At what point did you have to stop driving?
Lidsky: Oh, that I remember well. I loved driving. I was the classic teenager, couldn’t wait to get my license the second I turned 16. And then I didn’t have occasion to drive much when I was in college, and certainly not while living in Manhattan and working for the start-up. But my now-wife Dorothy and I moved in together my second year of law school. We got a car because we needed it to make our life work in Boston, and I drove it off the lot and it was like, “We’re just going to drive home.” It was a sunny day, not too much traffic, and we thought it would be fine. We hadn’t gotten very far before I pulled over and said, “I can’t drive anymore.” That was a tough day.
Cooper: Right off the lot?
Lidsky: Yes. That was the last time I drove.
Cooper: Did you know Mark Riccobono drove on the Daytona International Speedway and Dan Parker rode a motorcycle on the Bonneville Salt Flats, and both of them are blind?
Lidsky: I truly believe we’re capable of accomplishing anything we set our minds to, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all good ideas.
Martirosyan: (laughs) I like that caveat. Speaking of driving, you’re fairly young; you’ll probably be around when they get the driverless cars up and running.
Lidsky: I can’t wait! I have a buddy who works for Google, and I tell him “I’ve gotta be first on the list, man!” I want one of those bad.
Martirosyan: May I be second, please?
Lidsky: (laughs) I’ll put in a good word for you! You know, going blind is profoundly more difficult than being blind.
Lidsky: It went from a nuisance to a disability. It was like, “If it would just stay the way it is now, that would be fine. I’ve got it figured out, but what’ll it be like tomorrow?” All these dark imaginings. I feel for you, Lia. The nature of a progressive condition is a real challenge.
Martirosyan: Yes it is. There are so many similarities between us in that way. But let’s get to your book.
Lidsky: The first chapter, the conceptual framework, is about the experience of losing my sight over a dozen years; it offers a peek behind the curtains into how the mind works and how we create our own reality. I got a backstage tour of this amazing, miraculous experience that our brain creates and an understanding that sight fools us into thinking that there are objective truths and objective realities. It made me wonder whether that might apply to other aspects of life and perception.
The second chapter is the Eyes Wide Open view of fear. I talk a lot about fear in that chapter: Fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear in times of crisis. The third chapter is about marshalling strength for the ongoing struggle of day-to-day challenges and the practicalities of that on an ongoing basis.
Cooper: Gearing up for battle…
Lidsky: And then chapter four is about strength and acceptance. There I set out the Eyes Wide Open view of strength and weakness and disability and acceptance and surrender. I put my two cents in there. The fifth chapter is the Eyes Wide Open view of luck and chance and how we perceive luck in our lives. Obviously, I’ll leave it to the reader to judge, but I think the parallels to the experience of sight are pretty strong. We do think we have an understanding of probability and chance and whether we’re lucky or unlucky. I don’t think we look at that in the most productive way.
Then chapter six is the Eyes Wide Open view of success and what it truly means to succeed and to define your success and optimize your business plan, so to speak. In that chapter I borrow concepts from business, where we have financial statements, balance sheets, profit and loss, the statement of cash flow—all these concepts interact in interesting ways. I thought, “Why can’t we apply these concepts to our lives and the decisions we make based on what we’re trying to achieve for ourselves.”
Martirosyan: And chapter seven?
Lidsky: That one is called Ears Wide Open. I suggest in that chapter that we tend to do a pretty lousy job of listening to one another, if we listen at all. (laughs) And I give my two cents on how we might more actively and more effectively communicate with one another. Again, I give some examples from the business world, from my experience growing and running my company. Then the final chapter is called Heart Wide Open, where I ask: If you gave yourself permission to commit to counting your blessings and not your burdens, what might that look like in your life? That’s more of an aspirational chapter.
In between the chapters I offer seven “fishing trips,” following on the idea of the backwards-swimming fish. Also recognizing that some of the material in these chapters is a little heavy and conceptual, although there are plenty of stories and humor, too, but it can be heavy reading, so I figured I’d sprinkle in anecdotes from my life that are loosely illustrative of some of the ideas from the previous chapter and the book, in general, so you’re kind of trolling my life to see these backwards-swimming fish. I tried to weave in stories with a twist of perspective. Those were a lot of fun to write.