Does dyslexia come with hidden advantages?
It’s counterintuitive — dyslexia is, after all, classified as a learning disability — but it’s a central question in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “David and Goliath.”
Gladwell proposes that some of the world’s most accomplished people succeeded precisely because of this disability. “Dyslexia — in the best of cases — forces you to develop skills that might otherwise have lain dormant,” he writes. “It also forces you to do things you might otherwise never have considered.”
His claims aren’t unfounded. These 17 famous founders, CEOs, and business leaders have one thing in common: dyslexia.
They certainly didn’t let it hold them back.
The wealthy head of the Virgin Group dropped out of school when he was 16, in large part because of his dyslexia. 'My teachers thought I was just lazy,' he wrote of the experience. But the condition that hurt him in academics helped him as he was building his business. He would ask that all marketing materials be read aloud to him, and assessed them by simplicity and how easy they were to understand. 'Over the years, my different way of thinking helped me to build the Virgin Group and contributed greatly to our success,' Branson reflects. 'My dyslexia guided the way we communicated with customers.'
The founder, chairman, and former CEO of Charles Schwab & Co. was always an out-of-the-box thinker. Yet in school he struggled to take notes and flunked English twice. Only when his son was diagnosed with dyslexia years later did Schwab realise he himself had the same condition. The moment inspired him and his wife to start a foundation that helped the parents of children diagnosed with dyslexia.
A well-known dyslexic, the founder of CNN and founder and chairman of Turner Enterprises, Inc., surrounds himself with talented people who specialize in different areas -- that way, he can tackle any problem. That strategy has worked well: he's worth roughly $US2 billion, according to Forbes.
The founder of namesake clothing brand Tommy Hilfiger says he 'performed poorly at school and was perceived as stupid' because of his dyslexia. He admits that he still has trouble reading, and has to concentrate extremely hard to make it through a page.
While dyslexia impaired Hewlett's abilities in school, it couldn't curb his desire to tinker with things or his love of engineering. He went on to co-found Hewlett-Packard, one of the largest technology companies in the world, and he even won the coin-toss with David Packard that decided whose name would come first.
Reed not only headed up Citigroup, but also at one point served as chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. He did all that in spite of his dyslexia, and is known to have once told an associate that he'd prefer a child with a slight learning disability because 'it gives that little bit of extra drive a child ordinarily does not have.'
For a long time, the CEO of Cisco kept his dyslexia a secret, but over the past decade has worked to make his difficulty with reading more public. What's more, he likes to emphasise how the disability has often been an asset to him. 'I can't explain why, but I just approach problems differently,' he told Fortune magazine. 'It's very easy for me to jump conceptually from A to Z.'
Best known as the founder and CEO of the Susan G. Komen foundation, Brinker says trying to read felt like learning 'a foreign language.' Rather than discouraging her, though, she believes having dyslexia fuelled her drive to succeed. 'I just wanted to understand, to strive to get over my learning disability,' she said. 'I just did what I could do. I think it made me stronger to have to struggle with learning problems when I was young.'
IKEA is actually an acronym of founder Kamprad's initials; Elmtaryd, the farm where he grew up; and the nearby village of Agunnyard. The dyslexic entrepreneur picked Swedish-sounding names for all the products so that he wouldn't have to remember strings of letters and numbers.
Credited with building the first practical automobile as the founder of Ford Motor Company, Ford helped create a middle class in America. He was fiercely committed to keeping production costs low, and his innovations led the economic concept of low-cost mass production that pays livable wages to employees.
Billionaire McCaw, the former chairman of Clearwire Corp. and a pioneer of the cell phone industry, says dyslexia pushes people in one of two directions. 'People are either defeated by it, or they become much more tenacious,' he says. When the going wisdom was still that cell phones would never catch on, McCaw says he was able to see the problem differently and insist there was a future for the new -- and now indispensable -- technology.
The founder of McKee Foods Corporation, O.D. never finished college because of his dyslexia. Still, that didn't stop him from founding a small bakery with his wife, Ruth, that eventually turned into a hugely successful business.
The Kinko's founder and former CEO has said his learning disability helped him do business differently from his partners. In Orfalea's case, his learning style helped him see the big picture and not worry about tiny details -- essential skills for a businessman who has lots of ideas. He even wrote a book about lessons the disability taught him.
A Kentucky legend, Samuels Jr. spent decades overseeing the production of Maker's Mark whiskey as the company's CEO. His unique was of thinking through problems kept him faithful that the once-tiny brand could become a national label. 'I can't write,' Samuels told Fortune magazine, 'but I can organise old information into a different pattern easily.'
In 'David and Goliath,' Gladwell counts the JetBlue founder and airline entrepreneur among an 'extraordinarily high number of successful entrepreneurs' with dyslexia. Neeleman is also the CEO of Azul Brazilian Airlines, which he founded in 2008.
According to Gladwell, the president and COO of Goldman Sachs was always slightly contrary because of his dyslexia. That trait gave him his first big break at age 22, when he overheard a well-dressed man on Wall Street calling for a cab to LaGuardia. Cohn ran over the the man and asked if he could share the ride, then spent the next hour convincing the stranger‚ who happened to be a brokerage firm high-up, to give him a job.
Boies is best known as the lawyer who defended same-sex marriage in the high-profile Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry. Because he always struggled with reading, Boies made his way through law school by paying close attention in lecture and reading summaries of major cases. Gladwell argues in 'David and Goliath,' that difficulties in reading made Boies a superb attorney because he excels at listening, thinking outside the box, and processing information on his feet -- abilities necessitated by his condition.
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