Lack of Sight Leads to Clear Vision

by Diane Berenbaum

All too often, when faced with setbacks or tribulations, we focus on what we lack to justify the outcomes. We often let this mindset permeate how we think and act. I'm sure you've heard the telltale signs. They often appear in the form of excuses or gripes: "I can't help it that I'm…," "It's not fair that…," "I'm just not good at…."

This focus on what we lack does not serve us in the least, yet unconsciously we use it as our security blanket; something to make us feel better about who we are and what we've done (or haven't done).

I must admit that I occasionally fall into the "lack trap," but a recent conversation with a former classmate opened my eyes. My friend, John Erickson, is one of the most friendly, upbeat, accomplished people I know. And, he also happens to be blind.  In sharing his story, I hope to shed light on what one can accomplish with a different kind of focus.

Decline and Discovery in the Early Years

When John was 12, he started getting headaches and experiencing mobility problems. At first, his doctor attributed these issues to adolescence. But several months later, John started having trouble seeing the blackboard in class. That's when he learned that he had lost 25% of his vision in one eye and 40% in the other due to pressure on the brain that was damaging his optic nerves.

For the next four years, John was in and out of the hospital about a dozen times—and each time he lost more sight. At 16, he was totally blind in one eye and legally blind in the other.

John was always optimistic that his sight would return, but it never did. It only deteriorated as he got older. 

Seeing the Blessings in Life—Without the Benefit of Sight

John realized early in life that it made no sense to complain or wonder "why me?" or "if only." In fact, as he looks back, he realizes, "Losing my sight allowed me to see the tons of blessings already in my life." 

John was blessed with a compassionate twin brother, dedicated parents and, fortunately, cooperative teachers along the way. But a particularly defining moment came when he went to another school to learn Braille. There he met John and Caroline. When he told me about this brother/sister pair, John said, "They were just as nice, just as smart, and just as fun as me; except for one thing…they had both been born without eyes." John knew right then that it was pretty silly for him to whine about his blurry eyesight.

"Everything I had to know in life I learned before high school," declared John. And from that point on, John set out to live life to the fullest and approach it with the attitude that anything is possible:  "My eyesight stinks—so what? You can sit around all day and dwell on it, or you can get on with life and enjoy it."

Can-Do Attitude Opens New Doors

John certainly got on with his life—when a teacher told him that a new group was teaching blind people how to ski, he jumped at the chance. "But, how can a blind person ski?!" I asked in disbelief. He explained, rather matter-of-factly, "You ski one-on-one with a guide, who picks your way down the slope.  You just follow." After one try, John said, "I can do this!" And he continued to progress, so much so that he went on to win medals in the NASTAR (National Standard Racing) race program and was recently invited to the National Championships—two years in a row. This is particularly impressive to me since I never got past the bunny slope. 

Then he figured, "If I can ski, I can probably do a lot of other things too that most people don't think blind people can do." So this "can-do attitude" helped him get into Notre Dame. It wasn't always easy.  One college professor callously told him to find another way to take notes because his Braille writer was "distracting students." (A Braille writer is the Braille equivalent of a typewriter and it makes a lot of noise)  Taking it upon himself to design a process that worked, John posted signs in the girls' dorms to pay for readers to help him with his classes (apparently girls were much more reliable than guys!).

A Fateful Choice

John heard that that blind people could be teachers or lawyers, so he figured he would focus on Arts and Letters. "Are you nuts?" his friend exclaimed. "Business is where the jobs and money are!" With an open mind and the belief that anything was possible, he made the decision to major in business.

It is because of that friend and that decision that I came to know John. We met at Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate School of Management, where I vividly remember hearing his Braille machine in class and wondering, "How does he do it?"  This was a tough program for the entire class, and all of us, except for John, could read the books and the writing on blackboards (it was in the late 1970s!). I now know that his attitude and spirit helped him handle those classes and a whole lot more.

After getting his masters from Kellogg, John looked for a job with little success. One particular rejection was a blessing in disguise—after the prospective employer said there was no way John could get at job at his municipal bond firm, he told John of a "blind guy" who had his own company. This contact turned out to be a God's send, who not only gave John his first job, but also helped him see: 1) there are many options for the blind and, 2) there is never a need to discount yourself. 

What's Next?  Hustling up the Hancock on February 28th

John never did let others' comments affect his beliefs or his perception of himself. That's why he is always raising his personal bar and attempting things even some sighted people might not dare to do. This week, he will join thousands of people as he hustles up the John Hancock Center in Chicago, the fourth tallest building in the US, to raise funds for lung disease research. That's right; he is going to scale all 94 floors. I'm not surprised—after all, this event is about stretching limits, helping others in need of a cure, and showing others what is possible. And I'm supporting him, every step of the way.      


It's Time to Adjust our Vision

Even though John is blind, he has always been clearly focused on what he can do instead of what he can't see. Yet, how many of us fail to see the blessings around us and within us, even with the benefit of full sight?

"It seems silly to me when I hear people talk about not enjoying their job or not being fulfilled by it," John shared with me. "I am extremely grateful for every job I've had." There is a lot to be thankful for, but many of us, even those with 20-20 vision, don't always see that.

Whether you are blind, physically impaired or just see yourself as lacking in some way, my hope is that John's journey has inspired you to shift your mindset. Don't let others' perceptions of you limit your aspirations.

And, perhaps even more importantly, don't let your own perception of yourself limit your potential.  Quite often, the person most responsible for eroding your self-image is you. We are often our own worst enemy, as negative self-talk pervades our thoughts. 

It's time to adjust our vision. Focus on what you can do; not what you can't do. You may not choose to hustle up the 94 stories of the John Hancock building, but the possibilities are endless.
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
Before and After
Before and After
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