This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.
Panio: You’ve got a very eclectic background. You were a child actor, graduated from Harvard at 19 with degrees in computer science and mathematics, clerked for Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had a couple very successful entrepreneurial endeavors, and were also a lawyer. In the midst of all this, at 13, you were diagnosed with a degenerative disease of the retina, and progressively lost your vision. In your book you refer to your blindness as a source of strength for all these achievements. Can you talk about that?
Isaac: Sure! So… not initially, right? When I was diagnosed, I was terrified. I was certain that blindness would ruin my life and would put an end to accomplishment and independence and all these things.
Interestingly, the way I lost my sight progressively over the years was a peek behind the curtain into the way our minds work. We experience sight as something that’s objective truth, that’s real, and as I Iost my sight… if you picture a Jumbotron at an arena, and imagine the bulbs breaking randomly over time, that’s what my experience was. At first you don’t even notice a couple bulbs here and there. Then it starts to become a little bit annoying. Then it starts to interfere with your ability to make out the images depicted. Yet my brain kept plugging away, creating an immersive experience for me that turned out to become pretty unreliable. It would morph, and change, and objects would come into existence.
It was bizarre, but it gave me a look at the power of the mind, and it destroyed the illusion of sight as something objective. That insight, that process, ultimately it was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me because I literally saw our role in shaping our own realities. And I started to look for that same effect elsewhere in my life.
Panio: What were some of the things you noted? Were they biases? What were they exactly?
“Fear creates for us an immersive reality much like sight. If we’re not careful, if we’re not aware, we believe it and then it’s self-perpetuating.”
Isaac: Fear is a big one. As I said, I knew that blindness would ruin my life. I mean that precisely. I didn’t think it, I knew it. I knew I would never meet and fall in love with a woman, because I didn’t think I would love or respect myself—and certainly wasn’t going to ask someone else to do it. I thought I would be dependent on my parents, I thought all sorts of things. And it was knowledge. Fear creates for us an immersive reality much like sight. If we’re not careful, if we’re not aware, we believe it and then it’s self-perpetuating, which is a horrible thing. So fear’s a big one.
[Similarly,] how we misperceive our own strengths and weaknesses. We surrender to self-limiting assumptions about ourselves. The way we perceive luck in our lives. The way we seem to be challenged in terms of listening to each other, and to our own hearts. Through all of these aspects of life, I was blessed to realize that we are the masters of our own reality. In literally every moment, we get to choose how we want to live and who we want to be. And that was liberating for me.
Panio: The idea of limitations jumped out at me. My father-in-law is blind, and when I first met him he was installing a shelf. I had just assumed, “Well, if you’re blind, you can’t put up a shelf,” but he was doing it perfectly. He does pretty much everything except for drive. And that was an immediate insight for me, because it’s very easy to think, “Oh, I can’t do that.” For whatever reason, we’re quick to discount things. What happened for you to switch to the thought, “Oh, I can do stuff”?
Isaac: Yeah, it’s in our DNA—it’s literally in the wiring of our brains—we are built to make predictions, to make inferences, to make assumptions based on past experiences. So when we confront things that are unfamiliar to us, the unknown, times of crisis, if we’re not careful we just keep right on making predictions and assumptions and inferences. Blindness is a big one.
I was guilty of it myself before I went blind. I would have told you that there were all sorts of things I couldn’t do. But the turning point for me came when I went to meet with an occupational therapist who specialized in partially-sighted and blind folks.
I went in there in the mindset of, “We’re going to be talking about this horrendous fate, this death sentence of mine, blindness.” And she wanted to talk about practical, discrete solutions for specific problems. Use a cane, use screen-reading software to interact with your computer. It hit me in that moment that everything I thought I knew about blindness was a total fiction. And worse, I hadn’t done anything to learn about blindness. So I made a decision that day, “You know what, this is on me.”
There’s a guy named Erik Weihenmayer. He’s been blind since he was a very little kid. He’s climbed the highest seven summits on every continent including, of course, Mt. Everest. So I always chuckle when people are like, “You can send an email on your own?” And I’m like, “This guy’s climbed Everest!”
Panio: You had a thriving legal career that you pretty much chucked to buy a business with a classmate and turn it around. And then that became a total—not a catastrophe, it worked out, but it got pretty hairy for a while.
Isaac: Oh, yeah. I loved my legal work in the public sector. Before clerking for Supreme Court Justices O’Connor and Ginsberg, I worked for the justice department litigating appeals, which was probably the best job I’ll ever have. After that, I went to work for a big international law firm and I was really dissatisfied. A big part of my Eyes Wide Open philosophy is holding yourself accountable for what value looks like to you, what success looks like to you, and what’s important. It can be hard to do, but it’s worth doing.
So holding myself accountable was important for me, and how I was spending my time. I decided, “I don’t want to be a lawyer anymore.” My parents were pretty surprised. My wife, Dorothy, was pretty surprised. It seemed like an interesting opportunity to maybe buy a small business, a struggling company, and seeing if we couldn’t turn it into an excellent company of our own.
“We tend to judge the quality of our decisions after the fact, which is totally backwards.”
My college roommate, Zack, kept his fancy day job in finance but he gave me some time and treasure to help me find the business and buy it. And then, I told my wife—we were living in a two bedroom apartment in Manhattan with newborn triplets, a dog, and a cat, so it was a little intense, our lives—I said, “You know what, I don’t want to be a lawyer anymore. I think I’m going to buy this residential construction subcontract in Orlando.” And she is something else. She said, “Sure, let’s do it.” So we did.
Isaac: [laughs] Well, it seemed a good idea at the time. In retrospect, we had no idea what we were doing. But that’s how you learn in life. That’s where the joy of life is, for me, diving into new experiences and you figure it out.
We thought we were buying a going concern that was treading water. The company was actually hemorrhaging money and in a tailspin. What a surprise! We had to take some dramatic quick measures. But we were learning the process, we were blessed with a great team, phenomenal, talented folks who rose to the challenge, and we turned the company around.
Panio: If it hadn’t turned around, how do you think you would have responded? In your book, you talk about how it’s very easy for things to shatter your sense of identity. When you’re winning, it’s easy to keep thinking, “I’m awesome at whatever I’m doing.” But it’s when things go wrong that you get challenged to maintain some sort of integrity.
Isaac: Absolutely. I like to think that if it hadn’t worked out, I would have asked myself, “What next? What’s the plan? I’ve got to figure out some way to earn a living and regroup.” This was a pretty extreme event but all of us have setbacks in our career—lose a job, have an issue with a boss—and what we do in those situations really is our call.
It’s interesting, you mentioned the impact on identity. One of the things we tend to do, which I think is problematic, is judge the quality of our decisions after the fact. Which is totally backwards. For example, ODC Construction, the business that I’m CEO of, turned out to be a huge success. By any measure it’s managed to exceed my wildest dreams for the company. I’m not going to go back and tell myself I made a great decision buying it, right? It was a pretty lousy decision.
More pernicious, I think, we often make great decisions where we’re being true to ourselves, holding ourselves accountable—and it doesn’t work out. It happens all the time. What’s terrible is to then go back and say, “I’ve made an awful decision.” That’s not true. The decision has to be judged in the moment it was made.
“If the aim is to truly connect and understand each other, don’t hide what you’re really trying to say. Don’t deflect. Don’t be passive aggressive.”
Panio: One thing you bring up, which I think is very counter-intuitive, is this idea to “Speak like a five year old, listen like a lawyer.” But everybody wants to be articulate and intelligent, right?
Isaac: [It comes back to] this notion that we create our own reality. We perceive as fact things that really aren’t fact—even when communicating with other people. People say things to us, and we think we know exactly what they mean. We think we know exactly what they’re coming from. But each of us is his or her own chaotic world, so it takes some work to actually communicate ideas and thoughts, and it takes active listening, too.
So if the aim is to truly connect and understand each other, don’t hide what you’re really trying to say. Don’t deflect. Don’t be passive aggressive. [Don’t do] all that stuff that we learn later in life. Speak like a 5-year-old. Tell me what you’re really thinking and saying. And then on the listening side, listen. Listen like a lawyer who’s conducting a deposition, and trying to make sense of every word. In my experience running my business, and in life, that’s the most effective way to communicate.
Panio: I have young children and one of the things that I love about them is that, until a certain age, they’re not sarcastic. They literally mean what they say. Which shouldn’t be such a foreign experience, but if you actually tracked how much of what you say during the day is a joke, or not serious, or sarcastic, it’s a pretty high percentage.
Isaac: Yeah, it’s amazing. And children—children are just the greatest thing across the board. But you’re right, they’re not sarcastic. There’s a child psychologist whose work I like, and one of the things she writes about for parents is, “Presume positive intention.” Obviously you have to teach them, and correct them, but whatever your kids are saying and doing, presume that their intentions are positive.
That’s such a mind changing way to look at kids. It’s a struggle, it takes effort, it’s not always easy. But if you can just listen to what they’re saying and presume their intentions are positive, it’s eye-opening.