Sight. It’s something we all take for granted…until it stops working the way it’s supposed to. While most of us will only have to deal with the annoyances of less than 20/20 vision, my guest today went from fully sighted to completely blind when he was a teenager. While terrifying and debilitating at first, he learned that losing his ability to see the physical world actually allowed him to see reality from a sharper perspective.
His name is Isaac Lidsky and his new book is Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can’t See Clearly. Today on the show, Isaac and I discuss how he went blind and his initial reaction to losing his sight. We then dig into insights he gained about resilience, humility, and Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech that allowed him to move forward in life.
Among his accomplishments since going blind are graduating from Harvard Law School, clerking at the U.S. Supreme Court, working at a high-powered corporate law firm in NYC, and turning around a struggling construction business that now earns over $70 million in yearly revenue. Oh, and while he was doing all that, he was also busy being the dad of triplets.
If you feel like your ability to move forward in life is hamstrung by limitations, or you struggle with being resilient to setbacks both big and small, Isaac is going to show you that it’s all in your mind, as well as what you can do to see things as they really are.
- Isaac Lidsky’s stint as a child actor
- The lessons that Lidsky took from playing Weasel in Saved by the Bell: The New Class
- The degenerative disease that caused Lidsky to go blind
- Isaac’s reaction, as a 13-year-old boy, to learning he would slowly go blind
- The dangers of “awfulizing”
- The fears that Isaac had about being blind
- Why his rooting for a cure actually played into those fears
- Isaac’s “aha” moment in embracing his blindness
- Lidsky’s experience starting an internet company in the late 90s
- How Isaac landed a dream job, and hated it
- The pivot Isaac took after he quit his law career
- How ideals can actually turn against you
- The role of luck vs. skill in our lives
- What poker can teach us about life, decision making, and success
- Why Lidsky says going blind was “one of the best things that ever happened to me”
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Saved by the Bell: The New Class
- Retinitis pigmentosa
- Quit Catastrophizing
- Lessons in Manliness from Viktor Frankl
- Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech
- Meditations on the Wisdom of Action
- How to Hack Your Flow
- My podcast with Michael Mauboussin about luck
Connect With Isaac Lidsky
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Sight, something we all take for granted until it stops working the way it’s supposed to. While most of us will only have to deal with the annoyances of less than 20/20 vision, my guest today went from fully sighted to completely blind when he was a teenager. While terrifying and debilitating at first, he learned that losing his ability to see the physical world actually allowed him to see reality from a sharper perspective.
His name is Isaac Lidsky and his new book is, “Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can’t See Clearly.” Today on the show Isaac and I discuss how he went blind and his initial reaction to losing his sight. We then dig into the insights he gained about resilience, humility, and Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in The Arena allowed him to move forward in life.
Among his accomplishments since going blind are graduating from Harvard Law, clerking at the US Supreme Court, working at a high powered law firm in New York City, and turning around a struggling construction business that now earns over 70 million dollars a year revenue. Oh, and while he was doing all that he was also busy being the dad of triplets.
Do you feel like your ability to move forward in life is hamstringed by limitations or you struggle with being resilient to setbacks both big and small? Isaac is going to show you that it’s all in your mind and what you can do to see things as they really are.
After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/lidsky.
Isaac Lidsky, welcome to the show.
Isaac Lidsky: Thanks so much for having me.
Brett McKay: You just published a book called, “Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can’t See Clearly.” I gotta say, it’s one of the most inspiring yet grounded books I’ve read in a long time. It’s all about your experience of starting going blind as a teenager and learning how to thrive, I wouldn’t say in spite of, but also because of your blindness taking that into account, we talk about that here in a bit. You’ve also had a really interesting career spanning entrepreneurship and a legal career, but before we get to your adult career and before we get to you going blind, we gotta talk about for nostalgia’s sake your stint as a child actor, because I’m sure a lot of people who are listening to the show seen you on this short lived show that happened in the ’90s. Can you talk a little bit about your stint as a child actor?
Isaac Lidsky: Sure, so I grew up acting. I did a diaper commercial when I was about six months old and it was pretty much all downhill from there. I did maybe 100 to 150 commercials growing up. Some big parts in some very small things and small parts in some big things, and then my lucky break so to speak was when I was cast as the role of Weasel Wyzell on NBC’s sitcom, “Saved By the Bell: The New Class.” I moved out to Los Angeles at the age of 13 to star on that sitcom, and it was quite an experience.
Brett McKay: It only lasted a season right, or two seasons?
Isaac Lidsky: The show I only lasted a season on the show, I think the show went on three or four seasons, I’m not entirely certain.
Brett McKay: Got you, well and looking back on that experience as an adult are there any takeaways, like did you see something that was sort of like, did you learn any life lessons from that or about this whole idea about seeing things clearly that you write about in your book, were there any takeaways you took from that experience being Weasel on, “Saved By the Bell: The New Class.”
Isaac Lidsky: Sure, so you know I was diagnosed with my blinding disease also when I was 13, so right around the time that I moved out to LA to do the show, so I had kind of a lot going on in my world and in my mind frankly in those times. I think that the sort of a juxtaposition of those two things going on really sort of highlighted for me, emphasized for me, this sort of odd character of you know celebrity or qualified celebrity and the tendency in that industry out there to focus on appearances and what others think about you and what success should look like and all that, and it seemed to me as almost a cautionary tale. It seemed to me a reminder that I should live my life really more focused on what was important to me and what had value for me.
Brett McKay: Right, you talk about in that experience I remember what stuck out to me was that you were like instantly famous from the get-go, because like they announced the show, the cast live or they did something special for it, and you were on these teen beet magazines all over the place and you instantly gained this following without even doing the show yet. People knew who you were and you had a fan base.
Isaac Lidsky: That’s exactly right, so the original show Saved By the Bell was wildly popular, you know those actors’ kind of grew up and went off to doing a show called, “Saved by The Bell: The College Years.” Or, left the show or whatever and so they sort of basically did a redo of the show with the new class, which I was on. And yeah, because of the popularity of the original show they did this nationwide search and it was all publicized and we did weeks of publicity photos and public appearances and fan mail and all sorts of stuff before we had taped a minute of the show, it was very strange.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it is very strange, we can get to the whole idea about appearances over reality here in a bit, so you mentioned at 13 you found out you had this degenerative disease that would cause you to go blind, so what exactly caused you to go blind and how did it progress to the point you are now where you’re blind.
Isaac Lidsky: Sure, so I have a disease called retinitis pigmentosa, or RP. What RP does is it causes a sort of slow deterioration of your photo-receptor cell, so if you picture like a jumbo-tron screen in an arena and imagine like sort of all the millions of bulbs that make up the image on that screen its kind of like the back of your eye, the retina has these photo-receptor cells that respond to light and produce this little biological magic.
Imagine you’re watching my life kind of as a movie on that screen and the bulbs start to randomly break over time, that’s what it was like for me. At first you might not even notice, then it can be a little bit annoying, parts of the screen get worse than others and depending on what you’re looking at and where it falls on the screen the image might make sense to you or not make sense, so sight sort of gradually went from, you know, the illusion of sight as a sort of objective reality, this sort of universal truth that’s out there that’s sort of passive and you know we even say, “Seeing is believing.” Right? That’s kind of how we experience sight.
That illusion really was sort of shattered for me in a remarkable way and I literally saw firsthand that sight is this creation of the mind that is personal, that is virtual, that involves far more than just information from the eyes, and that in an interesting way the disease was almost kind of part of the cure. I mean, I literally saw, you know the power we have to create a reality that we then experience, live, feel, as truth, as something beyond our control, and that insight is really what ultimately brought me tremendous joy and fulfillment and success in my life, and it’s why I think that going blind was really one of the best things that ever happened to me at the end of the day.
Brett McKay: That’s amazing. Now, before you got to that insight what was your initial reaction when you learned as a 13 year-old boy that you were going blind?
Isaac Lidsky: You know at first I was terrified, and I knew that blindness was going to ruin my life. I didn’t think it, I knew it. I knew that I was not going to be independent, that I would cease to achieve and I would, you know, I was certain I was going to live an unremarkable life, kind of small and sad and probably alone, I didn’t think any woman would love or respect me because I wasn’t going to love or respect myself and sort of on and on and on and on. And, you know, these were lies, I mean these were fictions born of my fear, but I believed them. They were my reality until I learned to see through them, and you know all of us confront fears and all of us are awfulize, it’s a term psychologists use I love it, I think it’s a perfect term.
The really pernicious thing about fear is you know like I was saying we can experience our fears as truth and then they often become self-fulfilling, they perpetuate themselves precisely because we believe them.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve experienced that awfulizing first hand. Like you I went to law school and I remember after exams I would awfulize. I would get done and I would do the post-mortem in my head and think, “Oh my gosh, I missed that issue in the essay, and because I missed that issue I’m going to make a D, and because I made a D I’m not going to get into law review, and because I don’t get into law review I’m not going to like get a law firm job, and my life will be ruined.” It felt real but it’s not real.
Isaac Lidsky: It’s not real, but it feels so real, and you know the sort of remarkable moment in my life and the development of kind of this vision that I was blessed with really when I was able to make the connection between the way we experience the sort of fundamental contradiction between sight being sort of a creation of our own making and yet we feel it as a sort of truth, right. We create our own reality and believe it, and I was able to kind of make the connection between that and the way I was experiencing my fears and that was really an ah-hah moment and led me to think, “Well, wait a minute, what are all the other ways in my life and our lives that we all are, you know, really shaping our lives without necessarily knowing it.”
The truth of the matter is we’re doing it every moment, I mean literally all day long, every moment, whether we understand it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, we are choosing who we want to be and how we want to live our lives in every single moment. That was such an empowering and liberating realizing for me that again it’s turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Brett McKay: There is this point you made in your section about these fears, this awfulizing, I thought it was counterintuitive but it just made a lot of sense to me is when you and your family first learned that you, and I guess your siblings also had this disease as well or some of them?
Isaac Lidsky: Yes, two of my three older sisters have the disease.
Brett McKay: Right, well you all threw yourselves into finding a cure, like you and your mom started a foundation to raise money for research to find a cure for this and you did fundraisers and things like that, but you write in the book that this quest to find a cure you were just playing into the hands of your fear of blindness, which seems counterintuitive because you’re thinking okay you’re actually taking action, like you’re facing your fear by trying to take it head on by trying to find a cure and raise money for it. But, how would you say that that quest was playing into the hands of your fear?
Isaac Lidsky: Yeah, you know, our fears can perpetuate themselves by kind of keeping us on the sideline, right, the way fears spell remains unbroken is by kind of tricking us into playing our own part, and often you know that happens with sort of we manifest for ourselves sort of perceived heroes and villains and people or forces or circumstances that we believe have control over our fate and we kind of outsource our destiny.
My heroes were these research scientists, my villain was blindness, and you know I thought as you said I thought I was sort of proactively sort of charging forward and doing something productive about my disease in the fight to cure it, and in reality I was really playing into this narrative of fear, of my fears, that blindness was this awful fate, this death sentence, right. Like, these scientists just had to save me, I had to find this Hollywood ending you know where I would get the cure just in the nick of time so to speak.
I don’t regret for a second by the way my efforts on behalf of the research community, and I would very much love for them to be successful in curing the disease, however I really was playing right into the hands of my fears by committing myself to cheer on these heroes of mine and fight against the villain and meanwhile where did that leave me day in and day out, you know it left me not doing a darn thing to learn about going blind or being blind or to take control of my life.
Brett McKay: You talk about you had this ah-hah moment, what as that moment, like was there a specific moment you can remember where you stopped running away from your fear of blindness, you stopped seeing it as the villain and sort of just let it go and try to embrace it?
Isaac Lidsky: Absolutely, so in my late teens early twenties I went to visit with an occupational therapist, a low-vision rehabilitation specialist, someone who works with folks who are losing their sight or have lost their sight. I at this time was very much living this sort of race against time and blindness is a villain and science is my heroes and I showed up kind of assuming that we were going to be sort of talking about that narrative, right, blindness is this awful fate and doom and gloom.
Chris, her name was Chris, she wanted to talk about specific concrete actual solutions for my everyday life, so you know I walked in the door she wants to talk about do I use a cane, and I’m thinking, “No, I don’t use a cane, I mean I see too well to use a cane.” And, she says, “Well, do you bump into things?” And, I’m getting frustrated because I want her to understand how little I care about bumping into things, right, I’m thinking bumping into things is not my problem, right, the cane was like an arbitrary detail here right. Like, I can handle now, I can handle today, the problem is I’m losing my sight and there’s nothing I can do about it.
One thing led to another but there was this moment when she said to me, “You know Isaac, if you use the cane you would bump into things less and you would hurt yourself less.” It sounds like such an obvious point, it is an obvious point, but for me that was really the sort of epiphany moment where I just, it just hit me, that everything I thought I knew about going blind or being blind was the lies of my fears, and worse I hadn’t done anything to learn about going blind or being blind, and so in essence I was choosing to believe and choosing to live this awful doom and gloom terrifying life. That hit me hard to realize that it was a choice I was making. I wasn’t aware of it, but it was a choice that I was making and it really hit me hard in her office that day that I’m going to make some better choices for myself and I’m going to take control of my life.
Brett McKay: And so, besides the cane she introduced things like I guess text-readings, I guess at that point you were like had to make your screen really big on your computer to read text but now they had software to help read things to you, right?
Isaac Lidsky: Yeah, I mean it was awesome. When we can stop focusing on the doom and gloom scenarios and when we can take discrete, specific challenges and look for solutions there’s just no end to what we can accomplish and how we can make our lives better. So yeah, I mean you’re absolutely right, the cane was one thing you know she taught me about screen reading software, which is software that I use now to interact with my computer, you know like voiceover on Apple products is something people might be familiar with or whatever. It’s amazing, I can do anything with my computer or iPhone I-gadget that a sighted person wants to do.
She taught me about that, she taught me about a technique called sighted-guide where you can use to walk with a sighted person naturally and safely, right, where they can kind of get really great information from them about kind of what’s going on. She taught me about ways to organize my shoes and my clothing so I could pick out what I wanted to wear and on and on and on.
Like I said I mean it’s not easy, it takes a lot of effort, it takes discipline, it takes commitment, but the choice is ours to confront the real true discrete problems or challenges that we face as opposed to sort of staying off on the sideline in this sort of fantasy of our fear.
Brett McKay: That whole insight was really powerful to me because I think all of us, I mean I might not be going blind but we other things that we see as a constraint, and we think our lives would be better if we can just get rid of that constraint. And maybe yeah, it would be easier but instead of spending all that energy trying to tear down this constraint that might be impossible to get rid of, it’s better just to embrace it and try to work within those constraints that you have.
Isaac Lidsky: There’s no doubt I mean every single person has challenges, has fears, has struggles in their lives. Loss of a job, loss of a, you know, ending of a relationship, loss of a, whatever it is, and we all confront this stuff, and then beyond sort of a fear or crisis you know we all make self-limiting assumptions about ourselves, right. We tell ourselves what’s wrong with us, we tell ourselves what other people think about us and we really have no idea. We think we have the, you know, we don’t necessarily embrace and appreciate our strengths but we certainly perceive weaknesses in ourselves and we think we understand the role of luck in our lives and on and on and on, and all these things as you say are really within our control.
You know, to really look at, to explore with awareness and accountability and you know shape the lives we want. I mean, think of the circumstances that people have confronted, I like to say that always you’ll find people who have done far more with far less and been far happier doing it, right. I mean you hear stories of concentration camp survivors and POW’s who spend years in the most unimaginable conditions, and yet there’s always examples of people who thrive and transcend and even find joy and meaning in circumstances in which, you know, you’d think those things could not possibly exist.
So I mean if that’s true, and it is true, it can’t be the circumstances we confront that dictates the quality of the life we live. It just can’t be. How those circumstances manifest themselves in our reality and our lives is within our control.
Brett McKay: This is very existential, I’m liking this a lot.
Isaac Lidsky: You’re kind, I’m passionate about it, I mean we have this awesome power, we really do, to shape the lives we live and it’s also our responsibility. I wrote the book because I really want other people to see what I see, it’s brought me a great life. I want my kids to read the book when they get a little older too.
Brett McKay: All right, so let’s talk about the great life you’ve had after you had that ah-hah moment. Let’s talk about your first tech startup, you started right out of college because I think there’s some interesting insights from that as well. You started a tech company right out of college right, how did that go and what lessons did you learn from that experience?
Isaac Lidsky: Yeah, so I started an internet advertising technology business with my brother-in-law in June of 1999, I was 19 years-old and I had graduated from Harvard with a degree in math and computer science, and you know was right at the height of the internet craze and we thought it’s our turn, giddy-up.
We started this business and very quickly found a fancy loft space in Silicon Alley in Manhattan and attracted some venture capital and started hiring like crazy and then the bubble burst so to speak, violently, and the term sheet, I say we secured capital we didn’t secure capital we had a term sheet, we had a signed letter of intent. Well, that was pulled because the world fell apart and suddenly we were broke and not paying ourselves and had to figure out a way to actually make money, right.
It wasn’t about eyeballs and volume and an ad impression, you know, it’s like we needed actual dollars. Ultimately I think that’s the reason the company survived because instead of making the same mistakes that a lot of folks made in the industry of continuing to raise exorbitant amounts of money and spend it on marketing and craziness and not really actually focus on a business model, we had to roll-up our sleeves and focus on making some money. It was a real rough couple years but ultimately we turned it around and we did raise some venture financing.
We hired our own bosses at that point and it became kind of like a real job, which I was never looking for, so I split after a couple years to go back to Harvard for law school.
Brett McKay: Didn’t it end up selling and like you didn’t make any money on that deal right, like people thought like you made millions of dollars right?
Isaac Lidsky: That’s exactly right. Years later, years later, the business sold for 230 million dollars. A lot of folks in my life assumed that I was very rich when in fact at that point I no longer had any equity interest in the business, it’s a long and complicated story, but basically I didn’t make a penny off of it.
Brett McKay: Was that tough, like thinking like, “Oh, I missed out on that.” Like that, do you feel that loss aversion or were you just like, “Ah, whatever.”
Isaac Lidsky: No, I mean, it wasn’t mine to lose. I made all the decisions that I made along the way and I was really pleased that the company found some success and I was pleased for the folks who were still there. You can’t really lose something you never had and frankly by that point I was doing my own thing, you know, I think I was living in DC either clerking at the supreme court or practicing law for the justice department and you know, doing my thing.
Brett McKay: You went on to Harvard Law, graduated, you clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor, correct?
Isaac Lidsky: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Which is fantastic, phenomenal, a lot of law students aspire to that. What happened after your clerkship at the supreme court?
Isaac Lidsky: I was blessed to even, even before I got to court I had this awesome job I worked for the justice department and I litigated appeals on behalf of the US in the federal appellate courts. So, you know, I’m a year out of law school and I get to brief and argue my own appeals and then kind of, I wouldn’t say life long dream but certainly a very long standing dream of mine was to clerk at the court, I’m fascinated by the supreme court, and anyway really wanted to do it. I realized that dream, and then I kind of do the sort of obvious thing I guess or you know the easiest thing frankly and took a big huge signing bonus from a big international law firm and got the fancy job and an office and all that, and I was miserable.
Now, I want to be crystal clear, there are plenty of folks who can and do find value in practicing law and find success in it or meaning or you know enjoy it, and they’re built to do it and that’s great, I have no problem with that, the problem is I’m not one of those people. It just it wasn’t for me. I made a, I guess an unconventional move and basically abandoned my legal career to buy a small residential construction company in Orlando, Florida. My wife and I moved with our then infant triplets, they were maybe, what were they, like six months old. We moved from an apartment in Manhattan to a home in Orlando, Florida.
Brett McKay: I think that’s an important point to make the idea, going along with this idea of being able to see clearly, right, I think a lot of people in your situation they would have done the exact same thing. If they just got done with supreme court of course that’s what you would do is you would go to a big firm.
Isaac Lidsky: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brett McKay: Because, you think that’s like, that’s, that’s-
Isaac Lidsky: Right.
Brett McKay: Right.
Isaac Lidsky: And the money’s great.
Brett McKay: Right, it’s prestige, it’s money, it provides a comfortable living, but yeah you’re right some people are made for it but there’s a lot of people who aren’t made for that sort of life and realizing that and having the courage to shift course, I mean that takes a lot of chutzpah to do that. You have to see clearly.
Isaac Lidsky: Yeah, I mean-
Brett McKay: Or am I wrong, did it not take a lot of chutzpah, like you just like you knew what you had to do and you did it?
Isaac Lidsky: No, no, it certainly did. It was not an easy decision to make, but at the core of living and leading eyes wide open is an uncompromising almost a brutal honesty with yourself, and introspection, and certainty about what has meaning to you what has value to you what your definition of success is. I mean, folks so often labor to meet someone else’s definition of success or without any sort of goal or definition of success in mind to begin with, and that’s just such a shame. You know I really sort of try to put my money where my mouth is and I have this vision, I have these ideas about how I want to live my life and you know sitting there at my desk in the skyscraper right off Bryant part in Manhattan I, you know, there was no escaping the fact that I was unhappy and I didn’t like what I was doing and I couldn’t come up with a good reason to keep doing it.
Brett McKay: Well and so, going on this theme of facing constraints and instead of running away from them and embracing them, you bought this construction company in Orlando but come to find out it was sort of a lemon of a business, it had a lot of work you had to do in order to make it profitable. I mean, we can talk and just sort of summarize the trials you and your partner went through to turn this business around?
Isaac Lidsky: Sure, so my college roommate and closest friend Zach and I decided to partner up on this deal. He would keep his fancy day job in the world of finance but he’d help me look for the business and pay for it, and I’d leave behind my fancy day job and run it, you know, so we spent five months looking at businesses all over. It was my sort of primary focus, he was certainly very involved too, but you know we found this business and meticulously analyzed the financial data and we thought, “Look, this company’s not breaking any records by way of success but it’s getting along, it’s kind of humming a long, it’s a lifestyle business.” We got very excited about our vision for what we could turn this company into and kind of change the value proposition and all that kind of stuff.
What could go wrong right, two Harvard guys are going to buy a construction company in Orlando. Well, about three months in you know we realized that all that data we had modeled was really just nonsense, it was sort of garbage in, garbage out, and in actuality nobody really had any idea what was going on with the business. Frankly, it didn’t even necessarily what was going on, on a job by job basis, you know whether you’re making or losing money on a project. That turns out to not be a very good way to run your business, so we found out pretty early on that we were in dire straits and the company was basically hemorrhaging money and it looked like we were going to lose everything.
My wife and I talked about I’d probably have to go through bankruptcy, and we worried whether a law firm would be willing to hire me after a bankruptcy. It’s a tricky thing to have a law firm hire a bankrupt lawyer, whatever, but we even talked with her father and her mom about moving in with them if it came to it with our now year-old triplets.
So those were some really dark times, and very challenging, and in the midst of all this my mom kind of reveals that she’s been squirreling away cash over 40 years. I do, I literally mean physical cash. She herself is a Cuban immigrant and her father had to start over from scratch several times in life so he taught her to save for that rainy day and for him, you know, banks come and go, governments come and go, you save cash. So anyway, in the middle of all this my mom kind of reveals she’s got 350 grand in cash, you know, she’s just absolutely convinced that I should take it and use it to save my dying business.
That led to a few days of real soul searching and analyzing the situation and deciding whether I could possibly take this money, but I eventually I did so and with her sort of very, very, very urgently needed infusion of capital we were able to turn the business around and it took years, and it took a phenomenal team of very dedicated people, but today the business has grown to more than 10 times the size it was when we bought it and it’s profitable and it’s just an excellent company I’m extremely proud of.
Brett McKay: That’s fantastic. Again, it’s that whole idea you talk about earlier about vision being virtual, right, you saw these numbers from this business you thought they were good, you had this image in your head like, “Oh yeah, this is a slam dunk.” But, that wasn’t the reality.
Isaac Lidsky: No, and I had I mean that’s a very insightful point and you know looking back I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no idea. But, you know, I was sure eager to learn and I did and that’s life right, life is constant growth, its constant improvement its constant momentum, that’s really the joining.
Brett McKay: I think this is a nice segue, you had this chapter in the book you devote to one of my favorite speeches, Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in The Arena speech.
Isaac Lidsky: Yes.
Brett McKay: You make some- yeah, we’re big fans of TR over here at the Art of Manliness for obvious reasons.
Isaac Lidsky: Okay, me too, I love the guy.
Brett McKay: Fantastic, but you kind of go through his speech and draw some insights about it from your own experience and I thought it was interesting that you talk about how ideals can be the tools of that metaphorical critic. How so? Because that’s again, that’s counterintuitive, you think ideals are great but the critic can actually turn those against you.
Isaac Lidsky: Yeah, so the critic in our mind is a nasty voice man and it’s quick to pass judgements, tell us what we can’t do, tell us what other people are thinking about us. Yeah, like you said, so the critic idealizes, the critic sort of presents this lofty view of the world or of our endeavors kind of soaring high above it all, you know, where paths of progress down below are too small to see, the rate of progress appears to be glacially slow. You know, just sort of the towering magnitude of our aspirations is just overwhelming and the critic often will keep us off the stage, will keep us from even trying by virtue of this sort of pernicious perspective.
For the critic perfection is the only standard, as we all know perfection is impossible, so the critic in our mind conveniently guarantees our failure. Foreordains our failure.
Oh, we talked earlier about definitions of success well I mean one of the things critics does is it’s almost like a sleight of hand wizard, right, like you know that three card monte game where that critic in our head will swap out someone else’s definition of success for our own and we won’t even notice it. And yeah, it’s a pernicious thing.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I love how you talk about to in the book that quote-un-quote tough love is another tool of the critic just telling you, “Oh, you know, look here’s the, here’s the, here’s the scoop, here I’m going to lay it to you straight, you should just give up, you know this is not going to happen for you.”
Isaac Lidsky: Yeah, do the sensible thing, do the practical thing, do the responsible thing, just kind of surrender gracefully.
Brett McKay: Right, and that could have happened all throughout your life with the blindness or with the business, could have just been, “You know what, just give up, you know move on to something else.”
Isaac Lidsky: No doubt. We all confront those moments all the time in our lives, big and small too you know sometimes those small things don’t turn out to be that small.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and so instead of ideals what should the strong man, what should the strong man in that speech embrace? Is it just day-to-day action?
Isaac Lidsky: Yeah, the strong mans focus in the moment, is now. The strong mans focus is the next step, right. He’ll glance up at the peak of the mountain from time to time casually right, but his focus in the next grip, right, the next pole. The strong man has absolutely no use for perfection, right, the strong man values effort and growth, so for the strong man success comes in actually striving towards a worthy pursuit.
The remarkable thing is that we are all born strong men, that’s in our nature it’s in our DNA it’s at our core, you know for me that’s the profound truth in Nietzsche’s line right, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It’s true, you know every single moment of our lives can yield insight, knowledge, and wisdom. It’s a beautiful thing when you can keep your focus in the moment and then harness your strength within and quiet that internal critic, and ignore the sort of circus of noise that that critic choreographs. That’s where we kind of get into that, you know some psychologists call it flow I guess, that sort of heightened state of really being in the moment and that’s just pure oxygen, I love it.
Brett McKay: Another thing throughout your book is trying to figure out, one of the challenges of life is trying to suss out what is determined by luck and what is determined by skill. I think often times we think our skill, or the breaks we’ve gotten have been attributed to our skill but it’s actually luck or sometimes we think they’re attributed to luck but it’s actually skill, right. But, you devote this whole chapter talking about poker, you’re a poker player, what can poker teach us about trying to figure out what the difference between skill and luck is and why is that important?
Isaac Lidsky: Oh, that’s a great question. You know, poker can teach us everything about luck in life I think. I mean poker, so I love no-limits hold ’em, it’s a game I like to play it’s a very pure form of poker and if you look at that game and you look at a single hand you said, “Is this a game of luck or a game of skill?” If your perspective is a single hand it’s pretty easy to conclude it’s a game of luck. If, however, you looked at folks who play poker professionally or folks who are passionate about it and play it a lot and play 10s of thousands of hands over years of their lives, there’s just no question that poker is a game of skill, it absolutely is a game of skill and you can be better at it, you can be worse at it, the same the people who are great at it tend to over time achieve better results and yada, yada.
Again, it’s about that perspective of how you look at the game and I think the same is true in life, you know Thomas Jefferson the same as for, well the quotes attributed to him who knows if he actually said it, but something to the effect of, “I’m a big fan of luck and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” And, it’s just so true. Life is about the strategy, the play of game, the sort of the tactics that will sort of optimize your performance over time and it’s not about any one hand, and it’s very hard to see that when you have for example a bad beet, right?
In poker a bad beet is well, you know, you’re the 10 to 1 favorite to win the hand well, 1 out of 10 times you’re going to lose. That card that’s not supposed to get flipped over at the end it’s going to be that card and you’re going to lose. Does it mean you played the hand wrong? No, you played it perfectly, it’s just the 1 in 10 shot that you lost. That can be very hard to see, we beat ourselves up all the time over decisions that we made that were great decisions for us in the moment at the time we made them, but they didn’t pan out and that’s just life.
Similarly, it can be just as dangerous to get hot, to get on a role right playing hold ’em, you win a couple big hands maybe you loosen up your play and you pick up a pot when you shouldn’t have and you kind of feel like lucks on your side, quote-un-quote. You know, a big pile of chips can get you into a big pile of trouble.
For me, I love poker as a sort of metaphor for life and how we tend to over simplify this distinction between good luck and bad luck and frankly even think that that distinction has meaning, it’s kind of a meaningless thing to me. Then also, really grossly tend to underestimate the extent to which we do control events or circumstances in our lives. Again, we think there’s a sort of a bright line, things within our control things that aren’t in our control, and it’s really it’s a gray line, it’s nebulous, there’s a lot of subtlety there and for the most part a lot more is in our control than we realize.
Brett McKay: Fantastic, well Isaac this has been a great conversation, there’s a lot more we could probably get into. We’ll let folks go get the book to get those insights. Where can people learn more about your work?
Isaac Lidsky: Sure, thanks a lot, so the easiest place to go is probably just my website, which is my last name Lidsky. L as in Larry, I, D as in David, S as in Sam, K-Y dot com. If you go there, there’s information on the book, I have to the blog, there’s a link to my TED Talk, and all sorts of stuff. Now, the one thing I’m going to ask though is if you are interested and this does make a connection and you read about the stuff, please let me know what you think. You can do it on my website and I am, this is a passion project for me and I genuinely read every submission I get and I think about and I want to know what you think, so please do let me know.
Brett McKay: Isaac Lidsky, thank you so much for your time it’s been a pleasure.
Isaac Lidsky: Me too, thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Isaac Lidsky he’s the author of the book, “Eyes Wide Open.” It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about his work at lidsky.com, and be sure to check out his TED Talk, it’s called, “What Reality Are You Creating For Yourself.” It’s really good. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/lidsky where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed this show, have gotten something out of it, I’d really appreciate if you’d take a minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. As always thank you for your continued support and until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.