Don’t dread death or pain; dread the fear of death or pain.
We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.
– Epictetus: The Art of Living
Initially, when my posts started getting popular on Reddit and Hacker News, I saw a few comments that surprised me.
A lot of people were telling me, through both the comments and the contact form, about their fear of going blind. Some feared not being able to program anymore. Some feared losing their dignity. Some feared it simply because of the fact that it’s unknown. It’s like this black hole that you may fall into, and everyone is afraid they will never get back out.
It’s a well-founded fear, a fear we developers are very familiar with. It’s the same kind of fear that makes us pad our estimates when we have a task that is not completely clear to us.
You have probably experienced this: when you are in the flow, your estimates are pretty near the reality, and you are confident, energetic and productive. But then the next day, you pick that task everyone dreads: the one in which you have to read an obscure documentation, or slog through a piece of code no one remembers writing. Suddenly, your estimates go wide. You work for a few minutes, but then can’t focus and have to get up. Something that took a few minutes will now take you an hour to complete.
Why is that?
It’s because of how we regard that task. We think it is hard. We think it is boring. We think it’s not clear. We are afraid of going wrong, afraid of being reprimanded for making an estimate that was too low. It’s all because of not having clarity. In fact, everyone knows that one of the ingredients of flow, which is the state we all aspire to, is mental clarity.
Today, I’m hoping to improve your mental clarity about blindness by telling you the advantages of being blind. This is all written by a programmer, which means there is a near 100% focus on practicality. I’m not going to deal with concepts. I’m going to deal with things that we blind people experience every day.
sometimes I forget how fortunate I am to be blind. This is as much to remind myself as to explain to those who cannot imagine a single advantage of being blind.
The Element of Surprise
No one can deny this. When I walk into the room, everyone turns to stare at me once they realize I’m blind. When I’m speaking at a conference, everyone is listening with rapt attention to my words. When I go for a job interview, secretaries stutter, team members gasp, and managers pause. Awed whispers follow me. To most people, on first contact, I’m a living, breathing embodiment of humanity’s willpower.
This means that unlike many of my peers, to get someone’s undivided attention, all I need to say is one single sentence:
“I’m a back-end programmer.”
Of course, this does have its downsides. You wouldn’t want to hear people muttering under their breath about how unfortunate you are. It doesn’t really feel nice when people pray for you to get your sight back. It makes you wonder: how can they be so blind? How can they not see what a gift it is to be blind?
The Chance to Innovate
When you are blind, you innovate at a rapid pace, simply because everyone around you is used to learning and teaching through sight.
When you want to learn to cook, you cannot ask your mom. You have to taste your food, to burn it, to overcook it, and to slowly find out the changes in auditory cues, texture, and smell.
When you want to learn to program, you have to read book after book after book, to dig down to the lowest roots of a problem to understand it, simply because a lot of concepts are shown visually to—ironically—make it easier to learn them.
When you want to use a piece of software that is not accessible and doesn’t work with your screen reader, you have to contact the developer, program an alternative, or do things another way. For example, I remember back in 2011 when Youtube was inaccessible, someone wrote an accessible frontend to Youtube. When Twitter used to be inaccessible, blind people wrote desktop, command-line and web-based clients for it. I myself am writing an accessible frontend to Google Analytics, simply because I want to track the data of my own blog. The fact that we have to use software in our daily lives makes us have to find a way to use them.
This requires such a level of mastery that even as a beginner, you know more about the “why”s than people that might be learning along with you.
The other upside to having to do this is that you can carve out your own path. Since you don’t do things the same way as everyone else, you can learn to look outside the box earlier in life. Not being confined in spoken or unspoken “best practices” leave you with a better skill at assessing whether the best practice fits your current case or not.
Of course, the downside to this is that it takes longer for you to learn a concept. This is not always tolerated in technical fields.
The Naturally Regenerative Self-motivation
This is the most important advantage of being blind, and I kept it as the last item because it deserves a whole lot of attention.
As someone who is different from many other people, you have to make a lot of choices every day, which leads to you being naturally drawn to things you can affect. Choices increase your sense of being in control, which increases your motivation.
To explain the statement above, allow me to lead you into your own brain so that we can first define motivation.
Whoever said that the road from decision to action is a long one was right. Neurologically, decisions happen in the prefrontal cortex. These decisions are then converted to commands that are sent through the striatum, which is like a router, dispatching commands from some areas of the brain to others. In this case, the striatum relays that command to the basal ganglia, which is the part of the brain which is in charge of movement. It is only at this stage that our decisions manifest themselves in the real world.
So, a lot of research has focused on the striatum, because, apparently, this is where motivation lives, and the results are quite clear. In fact, Charles Duhigg talks about the details of this in his book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. It is a great read and I highly recommend it.
When we believe we are in control, we put in much more effort, for a longer period of time. This is demonstrated in a research published in the PsycARTICLES journal which compares the results of three teaching conditions on ninety-one fifth graders: directed controlling, directed noncontrolling, and not directed at all. The results of that study show that although students that were directed (first and second conditions) learned better than those that weren’t, both the noncontrolling and non-directed conditions which allowed more freedom of choice had generated much more interest than the directed controlling method.
Being blind, issues that may be very small to sighted people become very severe. The society looks at you as someone who is disabled, someone who is behind the norm. The pressure will be so high that it will force you to make choices every day. Ironically, you will not have the choice to make a choice; you have to make it right there, right then.
You have to choose whether you want to get a job or sit around at home. You have to decide whether you want to get some education or make your own set of rules. You have to decide whether you are going to marry or live alone the rest of your life. These numorous decisions make you gravitate toward things you can change, and this leads to the feeling of control, which leads to greator engagement, confidence, and action.
No matter what you choose, and even if you choose to do nothing, the drive will be present in everything you do. This is why you sometimes see blind people doing seeming extraordinary things, like Ben Underwood (the boy who could see without eyes), Saqib Shaikh (the blind engineer at Microsoft who built AI-powered seeing glasses), or T. V. Raman, a blind engineer at Google. It’s because they have decided that they want to make a choice. Rather than letting the outside world control what happens to them, they want to take charge and make the final decision in how they react to external events.
I hope this post has given you an insight of why I believe that the lack of anything—be it sight, hearing, money, or whatever—is as much as a gift as actually possessing those things. Even more, perhaps, because the lack of something gives you a vision and a purpose. I believe the reason for humanity’s improvements every day is because of its inherent quality to focus on the things it doesn’t have. At this point, those who decide to make the final choice, rather than allowing the choice to be made for them, are the ones who gain more success.
It is the decision we all have to confront in our lives: will we learn to play with every kind of hand fate deals us, or are we going to curse our luck?
Allow me to close this post with a quotation from the favorite song in my teens:
Like those who curse their luck in too many places
And those who fear are lost
– Sting: SHAPE OF MY HEART