For most people, dyslexia has negative connotations, but is it possible that the learning difference can make people better entrepreneurs?
According to Dr. Sally Shaywitz, codirector of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity and the author of Overcoming Dyslexia, the highly prevalent learning difference is often misunderstood. According to her, dyslexia affects people of all intelligence levels, and it can provide fertile grounds for entrepreneurial success. "People who are dyslexic have learned how to deal with adversity," says Shaywitz. "People who are dyslexic are so used to having challenges that they become resilient. Nothing puts them off."
Shaywitz tells Fast Company that the earlier a person can be diagnosed with dyslexia the better, but acknowledges that schools have not been great in identifying children. "In studies where every child was evaluated, it was found in one of five, which means that virtually every classroom has several students with dyslexia. It’s not something you grow out of. It affects about 80% of all people who have a learning disability."
Despite the age of diagnosis, many entrepreneurs list supportive parents and teachers as building their confidence in themselves and their professional capabilities.
"The diagnosis is the first step," says Brett Kopf, cofounder and CEO of teacher resource Remind, who was diagnosed in fifth grade. "You have to find a support system to help you through when you're young, and my mom and a teacher named Mrs. Whitefield created that for me. That made all the difference. I was taught at a young age that when things seem impossible, you just ‘find a way.’"
"Unless you are understood for your differences, and what you can achieve, you can often feel like a great failure," says Nancy Brinker, founder and chair of the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Brinker discovered she was dyslexic when her son was diagnosed. "I was such a hard worker all my life. I wasn’t stupid by any means, I had the intelligence, but I couldn’t learn the way other people did," she says.
An everyday task like reading can be incredibly grueling for those with dyslexia, but for Steve Mariotti, the recently retired founder of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, reading is a favorite pastime instilled in him by his father, who would spend an hour every evening teaching Mariotti how to read. His love of books is so massive that Mariotti has started a rare-book business. "I own 11,000 books," he says. "I try to read two books a week. I usually read more."
Learning to turn their weaknesses into strengths has been an essential quality of these entrepreneurs. Experiencing hardship since childhood has enabled them to embrace failure, persevere in their businesses, and made them more attuned to the attributes of those they hire.
"You learn to work with people very well, which is an obvious place for why dyslexics are good entrepreneurs," says Matt Keiser, founder of content platform LiveIntent. "You learn early that there are some things that you are never going to do well, and that to me is one of my superpowers. I’m a good delegator. I’m also good at the people around me, moving them to roles where I know they will be successful, as opposed to asking them to be successful in areas where they’re not."
"I think going through things like this has made me sensitive to how different people are and that each human being has different skills and different faults," says Mariotti. "I think that’s been a huge plus in my career."
Mariotti believes difficulty in working for someone else at the start of his career provided the motivation to become his own boss, but recognizes that it’s not easy for most to make the transition. "The pain is people that don’t have that chance or can’t find that niche where they can be self-employed," he says. "They are put into jobs that they are no good at and they are never going to be good at. You don’t have a comparative advantage."
While some dyslexics may thrive in an open office startup culture because of their ease in interacting verbally with others, Shaywitz believes that it's also important that they have a place to go when they need quiet, distraction-free time to get reading and writing done.
Brinker emphasizes the importance of daily meditation and exercise in helping manage her dyslexia: "I am currently in boxing. I box four days a week and it completely absorbs my mind. It’s almost chess-like. I do things that put me in a different sphere so I can clear my mind to think."
When it comes to handling the everyday, Kopf focuses on strategic goals by prioritizing only three things he wants to do for the day. "I put a huge line under those three and then list everything else below that with bullets," says Kopf. "We also use a lot of alternatives to email—we use Slack and Quip several times per day to collaborate on documents with our marketing and PR team members."
In addition to having Jaybird Bluetooth earbuds around his neck at all times, Keiser employs Voice Dream to read his emails and news articles, along with Evernote for retaining information and Audible for consuming books. "The speed at which I’m now reading through my ears, which felt like cheating at times, is transformational," says Keiser. "I used to give up most of Sunday to read the things I couldn’t read the rest of the week. I’m so thankful, because what I got back was time with my children."
—Rakhee Bhatt is a freelance writer and storyteller based in New York City. View her work on her website.