Do some disadvantages come with a hidden upside?
Malcolm Gladwell, popular author of books like “Outliers” and the recent “David and Goliath,” thinks the answer is a resounding yes. In a conversation at the World Business Forum he discusses how “strategic disadvantages” such as a learning disability can be instrumental to your future success because they force you to adjust your learning strategies and work around obstacles from an early age.
Gladwell calls this phenomenon “compensation learning.” People who lack certain skills — for dyslexics, the ability to read easily — make up for the weakness in other, often more important, areas.
As an example, Gladwell describes how the best dyslexic compensation learners cope from a young age: If
you can’t complete your first-grade reading assignment, you get a friend to do it for you. That’s delegating. When your teacher chides you for not turning in a paper you talk your way out of the jam. That’s communication. As you continue through school, you assemble a group of people who like you and are willing to help you out. That’s leadership. And each time another hurdle comes your way, you problem-solve around it.
“So you take this group of people, this small group of successful compensators, and they emerge out of high school or college if they get that far, and they want to start a business, and they have been practicing the four skills that are absolutely essential for entrepreneurship,” Gladwell explains. “Delegation, leadership, oral communication, problem solving. They’ve taken a graduate level course in the four most important traits by virtue of the fact that life dealt them one of its most grievous disadvantages.”
One person who did just this is Richard Branson. The now billionaire founder of the Virgin Group dropped out of school when he was 16, after struggling in class and being called lazy by his teachers. But out in the real world, the skills that had previously held him back helped him flourish.
“My dyslexia guided the way we communicated with customers,” Branson reflected. “When we launched a new company, I made sure that I was shown the ads and marketing materials… If I could grasp it quickly, then it passed muster.”
Roughly one in five people are thought to be affected by dyslexia, and Gladwell says some estimates say 33% of American entrepreneurs have it or a similar disability. Charles Schwab, Ted Turner, and Paul Orfalea are others on a long list of business titans that credit their learning disabilities as a factor in their eventual success.
“The definition of a strategic disadvantage is that it is selective; it’s not overwhelming,” Gladwell says. “It allows you to learn without being defeated.”
He thinks that knowing how to walk the line between a strategic disadvantage and an unbeatable setback is the hallmark of a natural leader.
“If I had to define one of the traits of a great leader,” he continues, “it’s that they have an understanding, intuitive or otherwise, of where that line is between the overwhelming obstacle and the useful obstacle.”