The Link Between Learning Disabilities and Entrepreneurial Success.

Did you know that there’s a strong correlation between entrepreneurial success and learning disabilities? In the U.S alone, it’s estimated over a third of entrepreneurs have some form of a learning disability. Nearly 35% of US entrepreneurs suffer from dyslexia. That’s more than double the rate in general population. In Australia, people with learning disabilities have a rate of entrepreneurship 50% higher than the average.

While at first glance, these numbers might point to an optimistic conclusion that suggests learning disabilities make you better suited to entrepreneurship, that’s a false flag conclusion.

If we dig a little deeper it seems a lot of people with learning disabilities are forced into self-employment because the regular workforce is a terrible fit.

“I would have had a great deal of difficulty if I had gotten into a staff job. I knew that. That’s why I started a company. I was fearful to the point of being paranoid that I would end up working in a big company,” Peter Knight, the CEO of Checkfree, about his ADD. (Source: http://yourbiz.msnbc.msn.com)

So with the traditional work avenue unsuitable, starting your own gig seems a simple answer, But how effective are entrepreneurs with learning disabilities?

The research suggests there’s a set of key problem solving / deductive skillsets that entrepreneurs with learning disabilities over-index at:

Spatial reasoning: A greater ability to visualize and solve problems known as spatial reasoning which aids skill-sets in engineering and filmmaking. Richard Branson’s Made by Dyslexia group is doing breakthrough work here.

Verbal Reasoning: Stronger verbal reasoning capacities that enable entrepreneurs to connect seemingly disconnected ideas (E.g Finding analogies). Paul Orfalea, CEO of Kinko’s, has said that his “learning style helped him see the big picture and not worry about tiny details.”

Narrative reasoning: Great memory for personal experiences. This skill can be helpful for poets (such as Philip Schultz), essayists, memoirists, and other writers (like John Irving).

Dynamic reasoning: Ability to reason in novel situations. This is helpful for the business or scientific field, as exemplified by Jack Horner and likely Albert Einstein.

Supplementing this is the following key areas where entrepreneurs with learning disabilities have been shown to have a statistically significant advantage compared to those that don’t:

Financial success:

Psychologists who analyzed the mental makeup of business winners found that learning difficulties are one of the most important precursors of financial success.

Branson has gone on record to say that his dyslexia has made him a better business owner, primarily because it showed him how to “delegate tasks [he] wasn’t so good at” which allowed him to see the bigger picture of his growing the business. (Source: http://fortune.com)

Resilience:

Coping strategies they have used since childhood offset their weaknesses in written communication and organizational tasks. They have nurtured the ability to identify trustworthy people and handing over major responsibilities to them [source]

Big picture thinking:

Entrepreneurs with learning disabilities have an inherent aptitude for tunnel vision and big-picture thinking [source]

Indeed, there’s a bit of a cross-correlation happening with learning disabilities, but our biggest learning has been this:

Learning disabilities drive people to entrepreneurship at a greater rate (due to obstacles in the traditional job market) — but once they get there, more often than not they thrive.

There are certainly drawbacks to having learning disabilities as an entrepreneur — namely the inevitable overwhelm. Founders often lack a strong enough social support system, which can lead to further isolation. The anxiety that isolation can create often makes things like fundraising and networking difficult, even painful for some founders with social disabilities.

Still, entrepreneurs with learning disabilities can build deeply empathetic company cultures that encourage and support innovative problem solving and out of the box thinking. They bring a focus and vigilance to challenges others can’t.

A learning disability can be a debilitating burden, especially when it goes undiagnosed. But the coping mechanisms our brains develop to work around our own particular learning issues can build muscle in other parts of our brains. And those muscles seem remarkably well-suited for the life of an entrepreneur.