In the business world, the frustrating disorder dyslexia can actually be a prime asset.
By Chris Warren
This article appeared in American Airline's American Way magazine in July 2008.
A FEW YEARS AGO, SALLY SHAYWITZ and her husband, Bennett, were invited to travel to Davos, Switzerland, to give a presentation at the World Economic Forum, the glitzy annual gathering of the planet’s most influential people. Bill Gates, CEOs, kings, presidents, and entertainers have attended it. But Sally, who is a co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, and her husband, also an expert on dyslexia, were a little perplexed by the invitation. “My husband said, ‘What are we going to do there?’” she recalls. But after they gave their lecture on dyslexia, it became quite apparent that many in the audience had a keen personal interest in the topic. “After [the presentation], we couldn’t walk through the halls without some head of state or CEO pulling us aside and saying, ‘Can I talk to you?’” says Shaywitz, who is the author of Overcoming Dyslexia.
What those highly accomplished people wanted to discuss, albeit discreetly, was their reading ability, or, more accurately, the difficulty they have reading—one of the telltale symptoms of the disorder.
Believed to be related to how one’s brain is wired, dyslexia often manifests itself not only as trouble reading but also as difficulty with spelling, writing, learning foreign languages, and organization. For a long time, people with dyslexia were considered to be, well, dumb, since reading quickly and well in our society is considered an indicator of intelligence. But what has become obvious—as evidenced by the sheer number of dyslexic World Economic Forum attendees in Davos and by plenty of research—is not only that dyslexics can be, and often are, brilliant, but that many develop far superior abilities in some areas than their so-called normal counterparts.
“Dyslexia is surrounded by these strengths of higher cognitive and linguistic functioning, reasoning, conceptual abilities, and problem solving,” says Shaywitz. “There are so many positive areas in dyslexia and so many strengths.”
Perhaps no evidence of the often extraordinary abilities of dyslexics is as compelling as a quick roll call of some people who have it: investor Charles Schwab; Paul Orfalea, who created the copy chain Kinko’s; John Chambers of Cisco Systems; author John Irving; and former West Virginia governor Gaston Caperton. Even Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein are believed to have had dyslexia. While dyslexics have excelled in many areas, there seems to be a strong connection between the disorder and business success, particularly entrepreneurial. In fact, Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Cass Business School in London, released a study in 2007 that reported that more than a third of the American entrepreneurs she surveyed said they were dyslexic—a dramatic proportion in comparison with the estimated 10 percent of the overall U.S. population that deals with the disorder.
What’s particularly interesting about Logan’s findings is that dyslexics, because they face difficulty navigating their way through school, often develop just the kind of skills they’ll eventually need to launch and grow their own businesses. Logan calls these soft skills, and they include the ability to delegate, excellent oral communication, problem-solving skills, and perseverance. “The ability to attack problems and solve them is essential when one is creating a new venture, so the dyslexic who has had to overcome problems to survive at school has much experience in this area,” says Logan. “[People who are dyslexic] are also already used to persevering in the face of difficulty.” In addition, Logan points out that some dyslexics in her study indicated that having had trouble in school was one of the things that motivated them to succeed later in life.
HUNT LOWRY RECOGNIZES IN HIMSELF many of the traits Logan identified in her study. An extremely successful movie producer— his films include A Time to Kill, The Last of the Mohicans, and A Cinderella Story, among many others—Lowry grew up in Oklahoma City and had so much trouble reading and writing that he had to repeat third grade. He was fortunate that his dyslexia was diagnosed early, at age nine, and that he received special education to help him with school. Like other dyslexics, he still faced plenty of challenges, including any task that involved hand-eye coordination, such as tying his shoes. So Lowry learned to delegate. “I was Tom Sawyer very quickly on,” he says. “It took a little bit of diplomacy to teach kids in second and third grade to tie my shoes and make it seem like it was a good deal.”
Being able to delegate and, more broadly, to think of creative solutions to problems has been a big asset for Lowry. So, too, has the fact that, like many dyslexics, he doesn’t approach dilemmas in a linear way. He describes the way his brain works when he’s analyzing a script and trying to make it better as going around in a figure eight, rather than proceeding directly from A to B to C. “Anything is possible,” he says. “The way my brain flows, it doesn’t flow directly to the problem, and you find a lot of useful stuff along the way.” Both Schwab and Chambers have spoken about how they often see the solution to problems right away, long before someone with a step-by-step process gets there. Irving told Shaywitz that he actually begins his books with the last sentence before going back to the beginning. “People who are dyslexic see the big picture, and then they work in, rather than start from, the minute details and work up,” says Shaywitz.
As is the case with a lot of dyslexics, Emerson Dickman employed creative methods to get through school, including, he says, learning that reading teachers was often as vital as reading the books they assigned; figuring out what they thought was important meant never, ever missing class. Still, Dickman, who is a lawyer and the president of the International Dyslexia Association, struggled, staying back in first grade because of his difficulty reading. From an early age, though, he realized that he had to face his fears if he was to have any hope of future success. Thanks to his experience trying to read in front of his elementary school class -- when he would “choke and gag” until the teacher finally told him to sit down -- Dickman had an overwhelming terror of public speaking. Rather than avoid those situations, he sought them out. “Even as young as in the seventh and eighth grade, I would run for class office, knowing that I would probably lose but that sometime in the next three or four weeks, I would have to talk to a group of people,” recalls Dickman.
In some ways, dyslexics may be drawn to start their own ventures as a last resort, since the corporate world doesn’t always value their strengths. “I think it can be very hard for dyslexics in the corporate world, as they struggle with systems,” says the Cass Business School’s Logan. In the same way that schools evaluate students in one standard way, so, too, do corporations. In both cases, Shaywitz believes society as a whole is missing out on the talents dyslexics offer simply because we have a blunt approach to evaluating skills. “It’s so frustrating to see what people who are dyslexics are capable of and to see society’s misunderstanding,” she says. “The things that dyslexics don’t do well, like read quickly, are what we measure in school. We measure those in tests like the SAT, the MCAT, the GRE, and the LSAT.”
While there are plenty of people, like Lowry and Dickman and Schwab and Orfalea, who persist and overcome obstacles. There are plenty who don’t. That’s why Shaywitz and others are trying to educate parents, teachers, medical professionals, and the general public about the importance of identifying dyslexia early and providing the proper educational tools and assistance.
Despite the difficulties he faced early on in school as a dyslexic, Lowry feels that having dyslexia has been a benefit. “There were some hard times, especially in those early years, when you’re not keeping up in the classroom with your peers; that is tough,” he says. “But I really do look at it as a gift.”
CHRIS WARREN is a writer based in Santa Monica, California.