Video: The BB&T Leadership Series - Isaac Lidsky

Kelly King chats with Isaac Lidsky, author of Eyes Wide Open, about the lessons he learned as he adapted to losing his sight from age 12 to 25 due to a rare degenerative retinal disease. The experience gave him unique insight into perspectives, mindset and leadership.

Eyes Wide Open

The New York Times best-selling author shares his experience about finding true vision while losing his sight.

INTERVIEWER: Isaac, welcome to The Leadership Series. I really appreciate you joining us. I know many in the audience already recognize Isaac because he was a child actor starring on the show Saved by the Bell, The New Class. Isaac is an incredible person. He was born with a degenerative eye disease and knew, at an early age, that by about age 12, he would begin to lose his sight and completely lost his sight. 

By about 20, he graduated from Harvard at 19, graduated from Harvard Law School, was an undefeated Department of Justice litigator, started a software company that eventually sold for $230 million, founded a not-for-profit called Hope for Vision which raises money and provides funds to provide cures for blindness diseases. His Ted Talk series had more than a million viewers in the first couple of weeks – and recently wrote a New York Times best seller Eyes Wide Open. So you're very successful. You're very busy. Thank you for joining us. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Thanks for having me. It's an honor to be here. It really is. 

INTERVIEWER: In the book, you talked about, I gained my vision by losing my sight. Talk about that. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: So we have this experience with sight where it's immediate, it's passive, you open your eyes, you see the world. And it seems that there is some objective reality out there, some definitive truth that is sight. We even say, seeing is believing. And that's how most of us experience our lives. That's certainly how I experienced sight growing up. 

And then, as I lost my sight, the way I lost my sight was sort of a particularly strange journey. It produced all these bizarre visual effects. Objects would appear, and morph, and disappear, and I couldn't make sense of what I was seeing. But then someone would describe it to me. And suddenly, I could see what I was looking at. 

And I realized I lived, first hand, the truth about this experience of sight. And it really is this intensely subjective, personal, virtual world that you create for yourself that has as much to do with your conceptual understanding of the world, knowledge, memories, opinions, emotions – has as much to do with all those things as it does with data from the eyes. And it doesn't feel that way. 

And so that realization for me, that insight, was really sort of the spark, the "Eyes Wide Open" vision that turned out to be one of the greatest things that ever happened to me in my life. Because that dynamic of sight, as this sort of virtual world that we experience as a direct representation of the universe around us or whatever, that's really true of much of human experience – I would argue all of human experience. We really create the realities that we experience, that we live. And once you realize that, with some effort, and some attention, and discipline, you can choose the life you want for yourself. 

INTERVIEWER: You know, a lot of us, as we go through life, we encounter obstacles, and oftentimes we resist solutions that can help us deal with obstacles. I recall in your book you resisted early on using a cane. And then, you met this spectacular lady who open your eyes to using techniques and solutions that could help you really enhance your life. And then, when you finally kind of accepted you needed some help, things got a lot better didn't they? 

ISAAC LIDSKY: No doubt about it. You put it very well, yeah. For me, when I was diagnosed, which was in advance of symptoms, which was an interesting experience – but blindness meant this awful doom and gloom, future fate, this sort of misery that was destined to consume my life. I was certain of it. And that's just kind of where my head was at. 

And meanwhile, I was doing nothing to actually take control, to learn about going blind and being blind, to equip myself with the tools and the skills that I needed emotionally, and physically, and mentally to deal with it. So you're right. That was a real turning point for me. When I went to meet with Chris, an occupational therapist who specialized in low vision rehabilitation. She worked with folks who were losing their sight. 

And I walked into the room thinking we were going to have this deep, intense conversation about the misery of blindness, and she wanted to ask me very practical things. Have you ever used a cane? Do you know about these tools? And at first, I couldn't understand the disconnect. And then, it finally hit me that, of course, these are the right questions. This is the right way to be looking at this. 

INTERVIEWER: Right, right. Along the way, you've found happiness. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Yes. 

INTERVIEWER: And you talk about it in your book, something that I talked with our associates about, which is, we choose to be happy or not. I describe to our folks oftentimes that most of us in life, we view ourselves as a victim of our circumstances. So bad things happen to me. I can't be happy because the world made me unhappy. Or you can, as you've described in your life, you've lived it, choose to be happy, and you coined the phrase I like – "masters of our own realities." Talk about that. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: In my experience, I've become convinced that quite literally, in every moment we are here, we get to choose who we want to be and how we want to live our lives. And it's easy to kind of roll your eyes and say, yeah, that's a lot of hocus pocus or whatever. But I mean it quite literally. And it's certainly been my experience. And it's an awesome, liberating power that we have. And far too often it goes totally unnoticed, unrecognized, unrealized. And so, yeah, I mean, I would love to be able to see. I would love to see my children, among other things – frankly, really not among much else. 

[LAUGHTER] 

But I am keenly aware of the fact that my journey, and blindness and what its meant in my life, and the insights it's given me, it's been also a deep blessing, and it's brought me great reward. So you do choose to be happy. It really is a choice. And there are far better examples than me of people who confront the most awful circumstances you can imagine – prisoners of war, Nazi concentration – you name it. And yet, these are individuals who decide to find meaning, and purpose, and honor, and even joy in these conditions. So it just cannot be the circumstances we confront that determines how we live. 

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I mean, I shared with you before we started, I did an interview with a nice young lady named Jen Bricker, who was born with no legs, and yet is an extremely successful, accomplished gymnast. So how in the world do you become a gymnast with no legs? But she chose to overcome obstacles. She chose to have a purpose in life. And many times, I think, it's about dealing with obstacles. You have a section in your book, which I like, about making lemons into lemonade. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Challenge, struggle, growth – I mean, those are all part of the same equation, and it's the human experience. Every human life has its challenges. So what? What are you going to make of it? 

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: That's up to you. 

INTERVIEWER: And very much related to this, I had not heard the term, you must have made it up, about "awfulizing." 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Yes. 

INTERVIEWER: And I've read a lot about optimism, and pessimism, and positive thinking. And awfulizing sounds to me a lot like pessimism, where pessimists – some bad thing happens and pessimists say, this bad thing's happened. It's going to ruin my whole life. It's going to last forever. And it's all my fault. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Absolutely. 

INTERVIEWER: But there's another way to look at it, right? 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Well, first of all who decides what's a good thing and what's a bad thing? And there's good and bad in everything, first of all. But on the awfulizing front in particular, I think fear really is often the animating force, I guess, that gets us in trouble with awfulizing. It's because we function by reasoning from past experience. It's what we do. We build this database of past experiences, and we reason from it. But when we confront the unknown in times of change, times of crisis, when we confront major challenges, almost by definition, we don't have experience to draw from. 

And that's OK. We are equipped. We are blessed with the tools to get through that. Unfortunately, though, fear sometimes blinds us, pardon the pun, to that power we have, to those capabilities we have. And instead of the unknown, fear abhors a vacuum. So instead of the unknown, it fills in the worst-case scenario, the most awful view you could possibly have of the situation you're confronting is, by definition, what your fear is. And the problem is, it can be very convincing, and we can start to believe it, and then we make it true because we believe it. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Right. We create our own – 

[INTERPOSING VOICES] 

ISAAC LIDSKY: I mean, I can tell you, Kelly, in all sincerity, I had an understanding of what my life was going to be like with blindness that was awful, truly awful – and false. I am certain, every cell in my body, I would have lived that. That would have been my life if I hadn't realized that it was my choice to live a different life. 

INTERVIEWER: You've talked a lot about positive psychology during your life, haven't you? 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Every one of us is a brilliant author, storyteller. It's in our DNA. And we tell ourselves stories all day long. And we believe the stories we tell ourselves. So there's something to be said for paying some attention to the stories you're telling yourself, because they're not some universal truth. There's nothing that says you can't revisit the stories you decide to tell yourself about yourself, and your life, and your relationships. 

INTERVIEWER: And telling those stories to yourself over and over and over, I've found, is important. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: No doubt. 

INTERVIEWER: Because the world's gonna give you the other side, right? They're going to give you all the negatives. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: We have our own internal enemies, our internal critic that can be pretty nasty, our fears and all that stuff. So we get stories from within, but you're absolutely right, too, that we're barraged with plenty of stories. And if you're not actively, zealously guarding your story about yourself, and your world view, and what you believe, it's going to get filled in by default. And there's a lot of ugliness out there. So write your own story. 

INTERVIEWER: And I've found, in my life, very much relating to that, is a concept you talk about in your book around being in the flow. I think you focused on that when you bought ODC, and it was a big turnaround. But a lot of people don't know what flow means. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Flow is about attention, energy, focus. To me, it sort of relates to the notion of this whole – the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. You can't. Measure without altering. The act itself of measuring speed or position of a particle or whatever changes those values. 

Similarly, like with flow, when you're judging yourself, when that critic's hyperactive, when you're distracted with what it looks like, what it should look like – you're not giving 100% to your current enterprise. And it's really hard to quiet all those voices in the head. And I don't purport to be an expert on how to do it, but I will say that it's worth the candle because, I mean, when you can, when you can just truly let go of all the junk and devote yourself entirely to a worthy pursuit, something you're doing for yourself, or your team, or your family, it's just an amazing thing. And that's really when we operate at our best. 

INTERVIEWER: Talking about being at your best, one thing about your life that I found interesting, very different from my life, I've been blessed. I've had a successful banking career, but I've been with the same company for 46 years. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Yes. 

INTERVIEWER: But you've had numerous really successful career experiences, from being a law clerk – you take on these new challenges. How do you have the courage to do that? 

ISAAC LIDSKY: It's definitely become an unbroken pattern that every three, four years, I try to reinvent myself professionally and take on a new challenge. And it's just kind of who I am and how I like to operate. I get – it's not so much bored, but I crave new challenges, new learning, building new things. And so I also, by the way, value immensely the effort of my team and of remarkable individuals that I get to work with. So I'll just give you one example. 

The last business, currently, I'm starting a block chain technology business in digital marketing. But the last business I started was the construction services company you mentioned. And as we turned that thing around, and developed a vision, and restored health to the business and thrived, a lot of people stepped up and did remarkable things for the business. And to my mind, they earned the right to run the business. And they earned the right for me to get out of the way. So I did. 

INTERVIEWER: One of your heroes is Theodore Roosevelt. And you talked about his famous speech about a man in the arena, which kind of deals with some of life's inner struggles, our own critics, a lot of people is not familiar with that. Can you help our audience understand that concept? 

ISAAC LIDSKY: The famous Roosevelt remarks, is, it's not the critic who counts, not those cold and timid souls who know not of victory, nor defeat – those who don't enter the arena, yadda yadda – and he juxtaposes the critic very brilliantly with a strongman, who craves the battle, craves the fight, and who succeeds in striving. And to me, it's brilliant. It's perfect as a speech. 

Roosevelt's critic, in my mind, I kind of think is really the embodiment of the human fear of failure. I think, really, that's – for me, in my life experience, that's really what animates that nasty critic we all carry in our minds. It's the fear of failure. And that critic can be so nasty, so debilitating that out of a fear of failing, we will elect not even to try. 

INTERVIEWER: You talk about this in your book, is how you get control of fearing or worrying about how others perceive you. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Yeah. 

INTERVIEWER: You told this one story about you were invited as a celebrity to throw out the first pitch at an important ball game. And you said, you want me to throw out the first pitch? I can't even see? 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Yeah. 

INTERVIEWER: And you had some fear around that, but you conquered it, didn't you? 

ISAAC LIDSKY: As I often say, this notion of this "Eyes Wide Open" philosophy and these sort of principles to which I aspire, I mean, it's aspirational, right? I'm a human being. I have my struggles like anyone. Some days I'm better at it; some days I'm worse at it. And case in point, the story you're telling, to me, what struck me was, I was already very, by all accounts, independent, successful – successful in a way that matters, right? Pursuing what I wanted to be doing, and living an independent life, and enjoying it. 

And yet, it kind of snuck up on me when I was asked to throw out that first pitch. There was just this immediate, I can't do that. I'm blind. And I was like, wait a minute. Did I just say that? I thought my whole thing was that's not true. And so then, I of course, had to prove that I could do it. But we're so quick to limit ourselves. 

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, we really are. And that goes back, I think, to all of those, in many case, childhood limitations that we carry with us, and we never really take them out as an adult and look at it and say, OK, I understand how I feel that way at three years old, but I'm not three years old. I'm an adult. I can look at this rationally. I can view it definitely. And I can decide how I want to feel. 

The next subject I want to talk a bit about – and I think this is a really powerful one – is about honesty. And you told a story about at ODC, your construction company, at some point, you were in a staff meeting, and somehow you perceived the staff of nodding, and you had a leadership discussion with them about honesty, and being straightforward, and telling the truth. How did you relate to what was going on? And how did they respond to it? 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Yeah, it's interesting. I think, in beautiful ways and in interesting ways, my blindness turned out to be a real asset for me and my leadership team. And we're such visual creatures. And the nod – I think it's a pernicious, the nod, but it's pervasive in our world, and we're just programmed to accept the nod and kind of move on. 

Well, early on in putting this leadership team together and trying to solidify our vision and all that, nods don't work for a blind guy. And I remember sitting there thinking, do I – is this a moment where I accommodate them and say, you know what, I can live with this? Or is this a moment where they accommodate me? And it just – it seemed that getting a verbal explicit yes from everybody in the room was probably unequivocally a good idea, blindness or otherwise. Like, why do we actually use our words, as we tell our children, and say yes? 

And then, of course, nobody said yes, unequivocally. It was, yeah – which is not yes. And then, sure enough, it hit me. Like, oh, of course, this has nothing to do with my blindness. This has to do with being vulnerable, being honest. Once you say what you think, you're accountable for your thoughts. But without vulnerability, and honesty, and authenticity, our leadership team is not going to do much. 

INTERVIEWER: Values are very, very important at our company. We have 10 core values, which we frame in terms of character, judgment, success, and happiness. But I tell our associates that character, and specifically honesty, is the bedrock value. And the reason is because, without honesty, there could be no trust. And without trust, there could be no real relationships. And really, in life, without real trusting relationships, how do you get anything done? And so I really agree with you about this basic foundational focus on honesty. And yet people struggle with being honest. It's amazing. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: We're living in a world and in a time in which honesty is struggling. It could use some strong allies, like you, to preach its benefits. I just can't imagine living a life without being open, and honest, and candid, and sincere. I think it's a sad life, if you're not those things. 

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, being honest, to me, is liberating. Because you don't have to ever worry about what you said or what you – just tell the truth. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Of course. And of course, ultimately, it really is about being honest with yourself – 

INTERVIEWER: Right, right. Yeah. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: – where it starts. Lying to yourself is a choice. I just don't think it's a very good one. 

INTERVIEWER: I want to talk a little bit about why. I'm sure you're familiar with Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Yeah. 

INTERVIEWER: And I love that book. For those that don't know, Victor Frankl survived the Holocaust, spent three years at Auschwitz. And when you read that book, it is just incredible how anybody could survive. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Well, he thrived. 

INTERVIEWER: He thrived. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Yeah, I mean, he found purpose for himself. And it's incredible. 

INTERVIEWER: He coined a phrase that I like a lot. He said, when you know your why, you can endure any how. And I sometimes paraphrase, if you're clear about your purpose in life, you can figure out how to deal with the obstacles. We spend a lot of time talking about why at BB&T. And at BB&T, our why is to make the world a better place to live. I tell our board members, and I tell our shareholders that, look, I don't get up in the morning excited about making loans, or getting deposits, or making money, or, I'm sorry, even getting the stock price up. I get excited about making the world a better place to live. 

And what I've found, organizationally, is when you can get your associates to have an agreed upon, consistent why that they're passionate about, then accomplishing what the organization is trying to accomplish becomes fairly easy, because we're not doing it because we get paid. We're not doing it because somebody told us. We're doing it because we want to do it. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: I could not agree with you more. And all the data suggests that that's what motivates people, and that's what people care about. And by the way, that's also what the human experience suggests. I mean, I would go further and say, almost, people have a right to come to work and feel as though they're doing something special, something larger than just earning a paycheck. 

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: So I couldn't agree more. And I'm very impressed and admire your obvious commitment to leadership principles in your organization. 

INTERVIEWER: Well, I appreciate that. And we try to do it outside the bank as well. We try to extend our culture outside, and that's why we're doing these videos, so other people can have a chance to see someone like you and learn from your experiences and, hopefully, become a better human being and make the world a better place to be. So this may be a hard one, you can dodge it if you like. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: Sure. 

INTERVIEWER: But through all your life experiences, what is your why? 

ISAAC LIDSKY: So I'll tell you, the why can change, I think, over time. My children. I mean, I just – I gotta tell you, I adore my children, and I worship them. Everything is for my children. 

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. Can't be any better than that. I happen to totally agree with you. I have two children and two grandchildren, and they are clearly my most important why. And I should correct myself. I tell people, I'm clear about my priorities in life. It's my faith, my family, and the bank, and really, clearly in that order. People say, well, you've worked there 46 years. You spent so much time working and all – I said, no, I get all that. But that's just what I do. But my priorities in life are what give me that guiding direction for how I stay centered, and focused, in flow, and try to have a happy life. 

ISAAC LIDSKY: I'm a firm believer – I think it's just logic – I think it's irrefutable that kids learn by from the example you show them, that you could tell them whatever you want to tell them a million times, and they're going to learn from your example. So what I had not anticipated, but again, it's a wonderful thing is, in my life, who I am, who I want to be, and how I want to live my life, the sort of the stakes raised to such a new level with the birth of my children to where it stays with me in every moment. I want to live the right example for my children. 

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