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Fastcoworks Created for and commissioned by Principal Financial
Fastcoworks Created for and commissioned by Principal Financial

How a Former Child Star Finally Found Perspective as a CEO

Isaac Lidsky risked it all only to discover an unexpected payoff.

How a Former Child Star Finally Found Perspective as a CEO

Calling Isaac Lidsky's career path circuitous is like calling Moby-Dick a book about fishing. A child star ("Weasel" on Saved by the Bell: The New Class); a Harvard grad at 19; a cofounder of an Internet ad business in the 1990s; an attorney for the Justice Department; a clerk for Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—by 30, Lidsky had succeeded at a breathtaking range of endeavors.

On top of that, he had been diagnosed as a child with a degenerative eye disease—retinitis pigmentosa—that, by the time he left law school, rendered him "a moderately functioning blind guy."

And yet it's another turning point, taking a huge entrepreneurial and financial risk—buying a business—that Lidsky says dramatically tested his resilience. Today, the 36-year-old father of four is the CEO of a fast-growing Florida construction company with a well-earned perspective on the unknown: "When you're at a turning point, conduct the analysis, accept the uncertainty, and if you still feel good about the decision, do what you've got to do to get over the fear."

Acting. Startups. The law. The construction business. Did you always envision trying out different professions, or was your varied résumé unplanned?

Unplanned, absolutely. But let me stress that while I've been blessed with some very special professional experiences, I do think that every next step I took made sense to me at the time. While there was no grand plan to work in these disparate fields, the steps taken to get into each field were—or seemed—quite logical when I took them. For instance, my father was an attorney in Miami. Both of my parents are Cuban immigrants, and I grew up watching my dad work. He was always the guy who everyone in the family came to with their troubles, and I understood that he had a very powerful way of thinking, a powerfully analytical approach to problems that I wanted to emulate.

So I always wanted to go to law school. I wasn't sure I wanted to practice law, but I figured I'd sort that out when the time came.

Your role now, as CEO of a construction company, seems far removed from the path you were on as a lawyer. How did that happen?

After realizing my long-standing dream of clerking for the Supreme Court, I sort of had to go out and get a real job. I went to work for a big international law firm, but I did not love that at all and was looking for a way to reinvent myself professionally and move my family out of Manhattan.

I went to talk to a career coach in Manhattan, and after administering these psychological tests she told me that the results were unequivocal: I should be a CEO.

At the time I thought that was exceptionally unhelpful, because nobody was beating down my door to hire me as a CEO. But this was the end of 2010, beginning of 2011, and the economy was miserable. You had industries where the barriers to entry seemed incredibly low.

My college roommate and best friend, Zac Merriman, asked me if I'd run a business with him if he paid for most of it. That was an offer I could not refuse.

Have there been times when, despite how smart or logical it might have looked, a new path felt like a terrible decision?

Oh, of course! About three or four months into buying this construction company with my buddy, who put most of his life savings into it. And I put every penny that my wife and I had into it, moved my family to Orlando, the whole deal. Zac and I basically realized that the financial data we had meticulously analyzed was essentially garbage in, garbage out. Instead of treading water, we were sinking like a stone.

My wife, Dorothy, and I talked about moving in with her parents if things got any worse.

At that point we looked really, really hard once again at whether the opportunity was as attractive as we initially thought it was. And we decided that it was. We saw that the vehicle we acquired was in bad shape and was going to need a lot of money, but it could be fixed.

And that's when my mother basically offered up her life savings. That was a tough decision, but I decided to take the cash, and my mom's life savings saved our business. We went from hemorrhaging money at a $15-million-a-year burn rate to where now we're seeing revenue of $120, $130 million a year.

You could have thrown in the towel and admitted defeat. But you regrouped. How?

For most of us, reality is what we can see. Seeing is believing, right? But what I experienced through a gradual deterioration of my sight is that the common idea about what is "real" could not be further from the truth.

Sight is a unique, personal virtual reality that is masterfully constructed in your brain and is impacted by your emotions, your opinions, your judgments. You create your own reality through what you see, and then you believe that your reality is the only reality, the only truth.

I was blessed to have my eyes opened up, in a way, through the loss of my sight. I got a peek behind the curtain. At the end of the day, we're blessed to be in full control over the reality we choose for ourselves and the way we want to live it. It's all about accountability—if you're prepared to accept that responsibility.

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