Up until the age of sixteen, I wore bifocals. Let that sink in a minute. Sixteen with bifocals. Oh yeah, and they were black, horn-rimmed. I am not making this up. How I have any self-esteem today is a testament to my sense of humor. I actually thought people were laughing with me.
Back in the day, I don’t remember being bullied about my bifocals. Perhaps it was because we had thicker skin or maybe it was because I took a creative approach to my eyewear. For instance, I let my friends borrow my glasses to burn fire ants. Or a real crowd favorite was passing them around during class. If you held the bifocals just right, with the line between the lenses dividing the teacher in half, her top half was tall and skinny and her bottom half was short and fat, making her look like a talking pear. Math was never so fun!
By adolescence, though, I had had enough. If one more cheek-pinching adult told me I looked like Ernie on My Three Sons, I was gonna punch 'em.
And going out to restaurants was embarrassing. My parents asked for my glasses so they could read the menu! It made my parents look cheap and, well, to be honest, pathetic. By this point, I decided. My driver’s license picture was not going to look like Roy Orbison.
My plan was to get contacts for my sixteenth birthday, so I pestered my mom relentlessly in the months leading up to the big day. She resisted until I played hardball on the menu reading. She set up the appointment with my ophthalmologist the next day.
The day of the appointment I was anxious.
The nurse took me back and dilated my eyes. I practiced my speech over and over looking at myself in the mirror through those oversized, flimsy sunglasses. Finally, the doctor entered the exam room. Showtime. I slowly lowered my sunglasses as maturely as I could. It was time to discuss--man to man--a simple business transaction.
To convey my conviction on the matter, I attempted to look at him straight in the eyes. But the gleaming examination light behind him seared my dilated retinas. I teared up and looked away as I stammered through my speech. The doctor was touched by my "emotional" plea.
He agreed to my demands! I could wear contacts!
I was so happy I didn't hear conditions...
In order to get contacts, I had to wean myself off bifocals first. I had to train my eyes from looking through two lenses down to one. My doctor said I needed to do this for 12 weeks. No big deal I thought - 12 weeks to freedom!
To accomplish the weaning process, he presented two options.
Option #1 was costly.
My parents would have to fork over $250 for a new pair of glasses that I would only wear for 12 weeks. I knew this would never work. My dad was an accountant. Other accountants called him thrifty behind his back. He routinely required us kids to look for pennies every time we went through the food court at the mall. Because of my bifocals, loose change was magnified on the ground. Compared to my siblings, my productivity was through the roof. There was no way he was going to lose me as a revenue stream. Option #1 was off the table before we left the office.
Option #2 was costly, also, but not in a monetary sense.
Realizing my dad's desire for the cheap route, my doctor quickly whipped out a roll of scotch tape and an Exact-o-knife. He covered the bottom half of my glasses with the scotch tape and with his skilled surgical hands, he trimmed the edges. In sixty seconds he occluded the bottom lens and VOILA! I had my single lens glasses.
He stood back and grinned. My father grinned. My siblings laughed. My mother looked away. One roll of $1.29 scotch tape would last the necessary 12 weeks. Shoot, I could find $1.29 with one pass in the food court on the way home. Sold!
An hour before when I walked into the doctor's office, thanks to years of wearing bifocals, my self-dignity and pride hung on by a thread. When I walked out, I had neither. Option #2 took care of that. I would be forced to wear the taped up glasses at school for 12 weeks. Please don't forget that I was 16. It really wasn't when I was going to get beat up, it was how often.
I prepared for the worst. I drew up a will. I left my eyes to science so that somehow, some way, some smart researcher wearing bifocals could prevent this from happening to another kid.
Over the weekend I perfected my tape application. I actually thought they looked pretty good.
I wore my modified bifocals to church Sunday so I could do a test run in a friendly environment. The cheek-pinchers whispered. The deacons crossed to the other side of the aisle as I walked by. I was shunned like I was wearing a scarlet "A."
Based on my church experience, I went on the offensive the next day at school. I asked everyone what they thought of my new “smoky-lens” glasses. I bragged that it was in vogue in larger, more cosmopolitan cities. I noted that Robin Leach sported a pair himself on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And you know what . . . they bought it.
Twelve weeks later, I went to school in contacts.
The moral of this tale for leaders?
(1) Commit to your vision (pun intended). You and your people MUST know what the end game is. Without it, your organization is a rudderless ship resulting in reactive, haphazard work rather than proactive, focused effort.
(2) Never waver. Make your vision your TRUTH and pursue it with passion.
(3) Have the GRIT to persist. Everything worth accomplishing requires sacrifice.
Now, go lead.