Strengths and Disabilities: Randy shares the story of losing his vision at 22
Meet Randy Pierce, President and Founder, 2020 Vision Quest
Randy Pierce is an impactful keynote speaker and accomplished athlete, who founded and manages a successful nonprofit organization. He runs marathons, has hiked all the 4000+ feet peaks in the New Hampshire White Mountains and has been known to participate in extreme sporting events like Tough Mudder. And he is completely blind.
Randy, thank you for sharing your strengths with us today! To get us started, tell us about your work and your top strengths.
I am the president of 2020 Vision Quest. Our goal is to inspire people to reach beyond adversity and discover all they CAN do. I lead by example and share my experiences to motivate and inspire others. I speak regularly at schools, corporations, and everything in between – from large industry conferences to small scout troops. The money raised supports two non-profit organizations: Future in Sight and the internationally renowned Guide Dogs for the Blind. In the eight years since inception we have given over a quarter of a million to charities. So far this year we have raised over $90,000.
What was your first reaction to your strengths report?
I felt like my top-five really fit and I relate to all of them. I was entirely unsurprised by the order and by what was included. The Strengths Insight Report absolutely surprised me for its uncanny accuracy. This played an important role for me, because the tool really earned my confidence. As a result, I was motivated to think deeply about my results and give good consideration to the impact of my strengths.
Which of your strengths do you relate to most strongly?
Responsibility and Includer are the themes that stand out most strongly to me. Woo is also a big part of me, and I am comfortable with it, but it did sound a bit like a snake oil salesman at first. Restorative defines how I adapt to challenges and Connectedness fits because I am very aware of how one person’s actions can have great impact on another’s experience.
During my life I have been fortunate enough to benefit from a process that allowed me to have significant regrowth, and I feel such appreciation. My Responsibility motivates me to propagate that experience and help others. I felt powerless and helpless when I went blind. I was able to shift that with guidance and direction from others. I know how hard that can be and I am compelled to help others.
The very first 4,000+ feet climb I did with my guide dog was Mt. Hale. This mountain was named after The Reverend Edward Hale who famously said,
“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
This has been great inspiration to me. I cannot do everything, but I am going to do my part. What CAN I do? What tools do I have to help me? My Responsibility drives me to do that which I can do.
I know firsthand that one of the best ways to feel better is to help others (Includer, Connectedness). I still have days when I feel bad, but helping others is part of how I manage my own life and feelings. It is altruism? Is it self-servicing? It is both. You can choose what you do and how you do it.
I had a powerful life moment that ultimately helped me lean into my Responsibility more.
That sounds interesting, are you willing to share it with us?
Absolutely. In May 1989 I was nearly 22 and I started to lose my eyesight. It was unexpected, and it happened quickly. When I was admitted to the hospital, I had a can-do kind of attitude. Just tell me what we need to do to deal with this and I will do it (Restorative). I easily made friends with the nursing staff (Includer, Connectedness, Woo). It soon became clear that there were no easy answers and that there was no path to restoring my vision. In my mind, success was not possible, and I just quit trying.
One of my nurses got a day pass and took me on her sailboat. She had an honest talk with me. She said I arrived at the hospital fun loving, gregarious and upbeat, and that it was easy for the nurses to work with me and do everything they could to help. She said that I had disconnected and closed them all out, but they were still going to help me. She wondered aloud if other people in my life were going to feel the same way if they met this new version of myself. She feared that others might step away from me, not go towards me, and she asked if I could make my way back to the person I was.
I’m sad to say I was annoyed with her at first, but I thought a lot about it. I wanted to change my behavior, but it was hard. We can logically know something, but our emotions are still there, right? In the hospital I got better with the nurses, but I stayed distant with friends, getting off the phone quickly when they called. I couldn’t do anything fun, so why would anyone want to be around me? My family was too far away to visit. My girlfriend was overwhelmed and didn’t take my calls. I was isolated, bitter and angry. I knew I had to go through the stages of loss, but what could help me get headed in the right direction? How could I get out of this?
Things slowly got better when I got home. I started reaching out and sharing my truth, opening up and making connections. And by doing this, I started to help other people. My Responsibility grew from that. I am not even sure Responsibility would have been in my top five prior to this experience. But now whenever people lean on me, it grows. It combines with my Includer and Connectedness, and okay, Woo, to drive me to do more for others.
Woo stands for Winning Others Over and you said you didn’t love it at first because it sounded a bit like a snake oil salesman to you. How do you use your Woo?
I don’t intentionally try to influence people or win them over. That is not my objective, but I am aware that I do influence people. I want to relate to people and share my stories and experiences. I want them to take what matters to them and works for them or is helpful. I don’t approach my public speaking with, “here are the answers, here you go.” The reality is that my influence does exist, and I can tell from experience that it comes through to others in how I address a crowd, how I tackle challenges and how I live my life. I want it to be present and visible for others to choose to be influenced by – or not. That is how I put it out there.
Do you think your blindness has caused you to rely on some strengths more than others?
Complete blindness takes away all sight, and with that goes 80% of the way a typical person interacts with the world. All my skills of people interaction had to go up. One of the best things that blindness did for me is that it gave me a really good dose of humility. I was fresh out of school, had a great job as a hardware design engineer and had lots of things going my way. I hope I wasn’t arrogant, but I was closer to overconfident than humble. Losing my sight gave me perspective on the ease in which our world can change and our challenges can become different than we think. From this point forward, I had greater compassion for what others might be experiencing. I began to look through other people’s eyes, literally and figuratively, after that moment.
How has blindness changed or impacted your strengths – as you perceive them? Do you ever wonder if your themes were the same before and after losing your sight?
Yes, I do wonder. There is no way for me to go back and take the assessment, but I suspect it would change because being blind has changed my brain. Parts that did sight processing now do language processing. I visualize everything internally with no external mnemonics. In my mind, people are feelings and attributes more than anything physical. Helen Keller, who was incredible, says the most beautiful things in the world we see with our hearts, not our eyes. I try to look at things this way too, though I still enjoy having someone describe a sunset to me.
I don’t get to look at facial expressions, but my strengths give me candor! I will ask you anything, and I will do so with respect. If there is something I need to know, I will just ask. With my Connectedness and Woo, I can’t imagine not asking.
How have your strengths helped you in your role as the President and Founder of 2020 Vision Quest?
I have a great team of people who work with me, and I do a lot of the work myself too. My wife, Tracy, manages the finances, and I have staff and a board. With my Responsibility, I don’t let things slide. Connectedness and Includer keep me reaching out and building relationships. Woo is so important for all the public speaking and it helps me be comfortable sharing about myself and my accomplishments. Restorative comes into play when there are challenges. I am ready to solve problems and keep things moving forward.
How do your strengths help you in your role as a keynote speaker?
When I step in front of a group to speak, in most situations I am the first blind person many people will encounter. I just assume people are going to be uncomfortable with me. In order to establish an effective learning environment, I need to put others at ease and in a very real way, win them over (Woo). I can’t see faces and body language, so I rely on sound to collect information about the audience. I listen to get a sense of the baseline of room from a distraction sense. When people are not attentive they shuffle, so I listen for that. I tell a few jokes and pay attention to what their laughs sound like. Different types of laughs can tell you things about the comfort level in a room. Most importantly I note the change in these laughs as we progress, so I can measure the impact I’m having on their comfort and engagement.
I use my Restorative in these moments too. I need to know where the audience is, or I might rotate a little and no longer be facing them. I develop ways of orienting myself. I am not always at a podium, which can set you apart from the audience. If there is a stage behind me, I might orient by tapping my heel
When I am at schools I make things as interactive as possible (Includer, Connectedness). I ask questions like, “What do you think a person who is blind might not be able to do?” This gets the students thinking and talking, which helps me achieve the all-important engagement of the students.
Your specific physical affliction could cause more difficulty for you at any time. How do you stay in the moment? Do you ever worry about your health?
Yes, I have an ongoing rare neurological disorder called chronic demyelinating polyneuropathy, which causes nerve damage. It can attack any part of the nervous system. There is no telling if or when the disease will progress nor what part of the body it might impact. There is no comfort in not knowing. My mindset is that I don’t like it, but I can’t immediately affect it. I have to avoid hypochondriac feelings. The disorder could affect any part of your system, so you don’t know what to look for. It could be intensely frustrating.
Do any of your top five strengths themes help you stay in the moment?
There is a higher chance of a car accident than my neurological condition being my end, but I am not irresponsible about either of these things (Responsibility). There are plenty of good times and good experiences ahead, but I have already won. I choose to not live with the shadow of affliction darkening out present and future possibilities. This mindset has already let me have wonderful experiences and much success. To me this is demonstrable proof that I am taking the right approach. When I have a set-back, I am frustrated in the moment, but I find the new baseline and build from there (Restorative). And I have had incredible rewards from doing this. I am living life to the fullest.
People always say when you are faced with adversity, you choose how you react. I like to take it a step further. WHAT we choose to do, the specific choice we make, will have a bigger impact on our life than our adversity. My choice of following all my dreams, hiking, founding a company, giving presentations, these are what impact my life – not my blindness, not my neurological disfunction. The specific choices I make impact my life and this is how I view it.
I am 6’4’’ tall, have gray hair, and am blind, but the strengths at the top of my list have a phenomenally larger impact on my life than my height or sight. My choices, which involve continuing to use my strengths, are what defines my life and leads me to my success.
For more information on 2020 Vision Quest and Randy Pierce, visit 2020visionquest.org. Stay tuned for Randy’s upcoming book, which will be published later this year.