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.
Martirosyan: Was it during your process of writing the book that you came up with the concept
Martirosyan: The chapter that talks about Heart Wide Open, did you see that as being even more relevant with this election?
Lidsky: (laughs) I try to stay away from politics. But I did post a blog about electing a reality. In some respects that’s what’s going on here. There are two completely different representations of reality being peddled by the candidates. Some of it’s outright lies, there are facts you can point to and they’re either right or they’re wrong. Unfortunately there seems to be a lot of lying going on. Some of it is classic, you can find an economic expert to support pretty much any proposition you want to advance. Your experts say one thing, my experts say another. That’s interesting, too. But in the third bucket, to your point, a lot of it’s choice. It’s that simple. Two people face virtually identical or at least very similar circumstances in life and have very different outcomes, live very different lives as a result. What’s the difference? I think it’s choice.
Cooper: When you say “choice,” though, it’s coming from their intrinsic values.
Lidsky: [pause] Well, I guess in a sense I would say you choose your values.
Cooper: Nurture or nature?
Lidsky: I don’t think any of us get to blame nature for our values or what we believe.
Cooper: I would debate you on that one.
Cooper: I think there’s empirical evidence there different basic types of temperaments on the planet, and each look at things in a different way. The information comes in and is churned out differently. I think that’s why there are wars, debates that go on forever, because one side is saying, “I believe it this way,” and never coming close to understanding the other view. And beyond temperment… recently there was a picture of a dress that went virual. People looked at the dress and some said it was gold, others said it was blue. It’s what you were talking about, that realities are different through our sight… Puppies in the same litter will react to the same
enviroment differently from their siblings. They haven’t yet been trained or nurtured differently, they’re intrinsically moving toward their reality. Some are outgoing, some shy,…
Lidsky: Behaviors are one thing. But with respect to values or principles, I definitely would not—
Cooper: Maybe it’s a matter of semantics…
Lidsky: I think we’re saying probably the same thing in a weird way. I guess in a lot of ways that’s precisely the point of Eyes Wide Open. How your brain is wired because of your DNA, or how you were raised, or your experiences, or the culture you grew up in. By definition, we are going to selectively take in and process information in fundamentally different ways. We all do. To me the whole point is that, if we choose, we can be aware of this and hold ourselves accountable for the way in which we, as individuals, choose to put a gloss upon the world we share with all sorts of people who may have a very different take on the same experience.
Cooper: I think the $64,000 question is how do you get people who are on extreme ends of the spectrum to communicate without demonizing one another? How do you get them to sit at a table?
Lidsky: I don’t know, man, I wish I did. It’s something I hope—at least in some microscopic way—my book will contribute to. It’s definitely a theme in the book, the extent to which life is nuance. I think we live in quantum nuance. Any extremes almost by definition can’t be right in life. At the core of Eyes Wide Open is checking yourself, keeping aware of the filters that are literally physically wired into your brain.
Cooper: That’s part of what you were able to capture in the brevity of a TED Talk, even though what we’re doing right now is peeling back those layers and delving into each of those areas… I just want to say before I forget that you said something about the beauty of humor. I’ve never heard that before. That’s a nice way to put it.
Lidsky: Laughter is pure joy. I love to laugh. Honestly, I have yet to find too many things I enjoy more than making people laugh.
Cooper: One of Lia’s best friends is Kathy Buckley, the stand-up comedian. She’s deaf, and we did a story on her many years ago. She did a controversial thing within the deaf and hard-of-hearing community by getting a cochlear implant… And when she did stand-up for the first time and heard the laughter, she broke into tears.
Lidsky: Oh, yeah!
Cooper: When I watched your talk, you had a couple of good jokes in the beginning that made the audience laugh and get into the humor.
Lidsky: Yeah, I can’t be too serious for too long—almost to my detriment at times. I just think it’s impossible to take yourself or others too seriously in this world.
Cooper: You and us three.
Martirosyan: (laughs) Let’s back track to the Weasel years. Any fun memories from those days?
Lidsky: Oh, yeah! That was a blast. The first fishing trip in the book is about that. It’s called “Action, Lights, Camera.” It tells the story of how I was cast for the show, which was an uncommon experience. There was a show called Saved by the Bell. The original show was on for four or five years and was wildly popular. Most of that cast went on to do a show called Saved by the Bell: The College Years in prime time. And they created Saved by the Bell: The New Class for the Saturday morning time slot that was vacated. And there was a direct mapping of the six new characters to the six old characters, and a lot of the scripts were very similar.
The upshot for me was that there was a nationwide search to cast The New Class. It was covered by Entertainment Tonight and all the teenybopper magazines. I got cast, moved to Los Angeles and got thrust into a television show, which was popular before it was even created. We would do publicity tours, public appearances, charity events, photo shoots and all that stuff before we even taped one minute of the show.
Martirosyan: (laughs) Wow!
Lidsky: I got fan mail before we taped the first show.
Martirosyan: That’s why the chapter name was called “Action, Lights, Camera.”
Lidsky: Exactly! And it ties into the theme of the book in that it was a false reality. There was also the narrative that the cast members were bonding and close friends, and this off-screen friendship would manifest on-screen. But you can’t just throw six people together and inform them that they’ll be best of friends. It doesn’t work that way.
Martirosyan: (laughs) I was curious about when the switch happened, because it’s kind of rare for a kid to go from acting to college and becoming a lawyer.
Lidsky: I’ve been so blessed to have the opportunity to reinvent myself along the way. I grew up in Miami really enjoying school. My parents and my older sisters valued education. I always knew I wanted to go to college. The acting thing was the acting thing. It culminated in being out in LA. I was diagnosed around that time as well, so then I was an out-of-work, 14-year-old actor in Los Angeles, who’d gone blind.
I knew that LA and Hollywood weren’t for me, and I was going to go to college anyway. I had moved out to LA the summer before my sophomore year of high school, and I didn’t want to move back to Miami for a random senior year, so I applied to college early. I wrote to the colleges explaining my plans and what else I wanted.
Cooper: Oh, that’s how you got the year’s jump on everyone?
Lidsky: Yeah. I skipped seventh grade and 12th grade.
Cooper: Graduating from Harvard at 19, that’s pretty impressive on a CV.
Lidsky: Impressive or otherwise, it’s really not a common experience. Like anything in life, it has its pros and cons. I was just doin’ my thing.
Cooper: What’s the con?
Lidsky: (laughs) I grew up very quickly. I did a diaper commercial when I was six months old.
Cooper: And then everything hit the fan?
Lidsky: Exactly. (laughs) It’s only partly a joke. It was kind of all downhill from there. I did 100, 150 commercials growing up in Miami. I got big parts in small things, small parts in big things. Saved by the Bell was my lucky break, I guess. But it takes a toll on your social standing to always be the youngest, and then a year younger, and then two years younger than everybody else. Obviously there were a lot of benefits, too.
Cooper: Your first commercial at six months—you got that gig on your own?
Lidsky: (laughs) Yup. Crawled right into it.
Martirosyan: (laughs) How did your parents know to get you out there?
Lidsky: I have three older sisters. They had acted a bit in their youth. By the time I was born, my mom knew the game, knew the players, and she put me in it.
Martirosyan: What ethnicity is Lidsky?
Lidsky: The name is Polish, but both of my parents’ families moved around Eastern Europe and then wound up in Cuba to escape religious persecution. Both of my parents were born and raised in Cuba, and they left when Castro took over. So we’re referred to as “Jewbans,” because we’re Jewish. There were about 11,000 or so Jews from Europe in Cuba when Castro showed up.
Cooper: (laughs) I had not heard that one before! That’s pretty good.
Lidsky: Jewbans. It’s a thing. I prefer Cubish, but Picasso has a lock on that, unfortunately.
So we’re Jewbans.
Cooper: Have you been to Cuba?
Lidsky: I went in 2010 as a litigator. My boss was Tom Goldstein, a Supreme Court litigator. Long story short, we represented the Cuban Five, who were kind of like the Bad News Bears of international espionage. In the 90’s, the Cuban government shot down their Cessnas flying relief missions over Cuba and the US government threw the book at them. Accused them of quote-unquote “rolling up a spy network” in Florida.
So these guys got very long sentences, and one went to jail for murder, which was quite a stretch. Either way—whether you drink the Kool-Aid or not—they were our clients, and we were essentially retained by the Cuban government. So Tom and I went to Cuba to meet with representatives of the Cuban government in February 2010. It was an interesting experience. A footnote: The trade we did recently for the American contractor who was imprisoned in Cuba, the guys we sent over were the Cuban Five.
Cooper: So when it comes out, you can play yourself.
Lidsky: Yeah! (laughs) You never know what the future will hold.
Cooper: Have you thought about getting back to acting? I know you’re probably full-time with your business.
Lidsky: One of the things on my bucket list is stand-up, but I really don’t want to act again.
Cooper: I published National Lampoon for a while. I was around a lot of funny writers, and they would try stand-up here and there. It’s a different beast. I think you have to be a good actor to do good stand-up. You have to memorize your lines and know how to play to an audience, while making it look like you’re just talking to them. After seeing your TED Talk, I know you could pull that off.
Lidsky: Thanks. I’ve long wanted to try it. I will some day, no excuses.
Martirosyan: Let us know when you do.
Lidsky: I will.
Martirosyan: What kind of assistive technology do you use, whether for reading or your computer?
Lidsky: Voiceover on Apple products is great. I use JAWS on my PC. I use a product called the Victor Reader Stream made by a company called HumanWare, which is awesome. There’s a gizmo called the Colorino (Talking Color Identifier for the Blind). Some of these folks should talk to some branding consultants. Victor Reader Stream, that’s kind of a weird name. I don’t love Colorino either, but Colorino helps you figure out what color clothing you’ve picked out. It can also tell you where there’s a light source, so you turn off lights before you go to bed and that kind of stuff. It’s awesome, the tools that are out there. I tell my sighted friends that the dirty little secret is that being blind is not that bad.
Cooper: Have you heard of ReadSpeaker?
Cooper: It does a nice job. It’s not just for people who might be blind, or low vision but also for people learning a second language. It reads and highlights as it goes along. The whole sentence is highlighted, and the individual word is highlighted in another color, so now you’re learning the new language.
Lidsky: Oh, that’s cool!
Cooper: We also use AiSquared, which expands your website to an extreme size. The font is probably 500 percent larger. And in print, we’re the first magazine to use VOICEYE. We went to Korea and met with them. In a sense it’s like a QR code on steriods, this patented process has a lot of content in high-density dots. We put the code at the bottom of the editorial pages of the print magazine. With any smartphone you can download the free app and then hover over it until it recognizes the code, beeps, and then reads out the content on that page. You can hear the printed page.
Lidsky: That’s phenomenal! I hadn’t heard of that.
Cooper: The Korean government is using it. It’s great for people with dyslexia or low vision. We place it on the bottom center of each article because of graphis in the magazine, but for governments and other entities, the standard place to put it is in the top right corner of every page.
Lidsky: Then you know where to find it.
Lidsky: So someone hands you something printed and you put your iPhone over the dots on the top right corner.
Cooper: And that’s without the web. If you’re on the web, it reads out loud in 58 languages.
Lidsky: That’s so cool!
Martirosyan: We have a program called the ABILITY House, a universal designed home for families with disabilities, built by volunteers with disabilities. Do you do any corporate social responsibility projects?
Lidsky: That is awesome. Yes tons of stuff. ODC has done work for Habitat for Humanity, for the Wounded Warrior Project, and Home at Last, which is similar to that. We’ve built wheelchair ramps for folks. We did something for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I’m blessed to work with a team of people who want to help folks out and do good within communities. That’s a no-brainer.
Lidsky: We bought a company called Orlando Decorative Concrete. It was an awful name, but we had to stick with the brand to some extent, so we made it ODC.
ODC itself has a really cool story that I share in the book. It has succeeded beyond my wildest goals or dreams. I have a phenomenal team of people that I’ve worked with along the way. As we met and surpassed our company goals, I’ve transitioned into more of an owner/chairman kind of role than an employee in the business.
The current president of the company, Tony Hartsgrove, is a partner, a friend, and a guy I respect immensely. He’s running the business day to day, which has given me the time and space to write my book and do my speaking. For me, it was about creating a business and executing a vision. I think we did that quite nicely, and now that phase is behind us.
Cooper: Tell us about the nonprofit that you created.
Lidsky: I founded it in 2005. The idea was to bring together, coordinate, and support the grassroots efforts of communities around the country that were trying to raise awareness and research funding for retinal degenerative diseases. I’ve led that organization for about five years. It was really cool. We grew to about a dozen cities and raised awareness, along with a lot of money. In 2010, when my wife became pregnant, I was working in law and there was too much on my plate, so I stepped back from any involvement in the organization. My mom has run it since 2010.
Cooper: And she’s the one who fired you?
Lidsky: (laughs) I was fired from the sitcom, but this time I quit.
Cooper: I didn’t know you were fired from the sitcom.
Lidsky: My character, Weasel, was the nerdy guy, the Screech, I guess. That College Years show was canceled quickly. The real Screech, the original Screech, a guy named Dustin Diamond, was quite a draw for NBC. He had a following. They took him from the College Years and brought him back to the New Class as the assistant principal. In the immutable logic of Saturday morning television, there’s not room enough for two dorky guys. So he became the dorky guy and I was gone.
Cooper: And you put a contract out on him?
Lidsky: (laughs) No. I wished him well.
Cooper: Did you get to know him?
Lidsky: A little bit. Our cast did some work with the original cast early on, and through the publicity and joint marketing, we got to know them a little bit, but I wouldn’t say we were close. The one I got to know the best was Mario Lopez, who played a character named Slater. We lived in the same apartment complex in Burbank. He was and probably still is a very muscular and fit guy, and I was this 13-year-old scrawny kid. I would make my way to the gym and he would humor me; we would quote-unquote “work out” together. It was hilarious. He was a good guy. Unfortunately, I have not kept in touch with him, but he was the one I was closest to.
Cooper: We should invite you to speak on our panel at the United Nations. During the Convention for the Human Rights of People with Disabilities, we run a side panel. Last year, we focused on assistive technology. One was a small camera you put on a glass frame—
Lidsky: Is this OrCam?
Cooper: Right. We invited OrCam, as well as Canon, Hackaday and Sesame Enable. Do you know those guys?
Lidsky: I know about the OrCam folks. They are awesome.
Cooper: How do you envision yourself five years from now?
Lidsky: I have absolutely no idea what I’ll be doing, and I love it.