Failure, boxes, startups, and Neurodiversity. A conversation with Shawn Smith.

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If there’s one thing Shawn Smith doesn’t want from you, it’s pity.

What he does want? Tangible action, honest dialogue, and a healthy dose of imagination.

On July 12th, Shawn will be at Startupfest on the “How To” stage talking to us about sadness and the ways it can intersect with neurodiversity. Lucky for us, he’s uniquely positioned to help us navigate these tricky conversations. Diagnosed with ADHD at age 30 after years of struggling with the rigid structures of academia, Shawn went on to earn a Master’s of Education in Counselling Psychology at the University of New Brunswick. As CEO of Don’t dis-my-ability™ , he’s now built a powerful name for himself by sparking innovative, enterprise-ready solutions to getting the best work out of uniquely gifted people.

We had a quick chat with him about failure, boxes and startups. Here are some of his big ideas.

1. Failure matters most

According to Shawn, the way you fail says much more about your agility, resilience and personality than the way you succeed. But let’s be clear; the goal here isn’t to simply put a positive spin on every hard knock. It’s going to hurt, it’s going to be scary, and it’s important to sit with that and speak about it openly.

“It took me 30 years of exploring what was wrong with me, to finally discover what was right with me. Now I want to be a model to show others that it’s ok to fail (…) you’re going to learn a hell of a lot more from my screw ups than from success, and you’re not alone. There are so many of us struggling out there, it’s just that no one is talking about it. Everybody’s fixated on the successes.”

His plea? Let’s talk about it. Let’s post Instagram selfies of us looking defeated and depleted, let’s normalize transparency around difficulty. After all, it’s simply part of the process. In fact, the odds of going through life without a single bout of anxiety or depression are practically null — especially if you’re trying to push boundaries. If the last few years of high-profile entrepreneur suicides have taught us anything, it’s the importance of seeking and accepting support. But first, says Shawn, we have to agree to be vulnerable and honest.

2. Quit with the boxes, already.

Nearly all of the latest neurological data and scientific studies seem to agree: our current way of educating, labelling, fostering and developing talent doesn’t work particularly well — especially for the neurodiverse. So why do we insist on sticking to it?

As a first step towards constructive conversation about neurodiversity, let’s clarify Shawn’s definition of a few key words. Of course, these definitions are his own and vary greatly for person to person, so it’s important not to assume they’ll always apply.

  • Neurodiversity: A word to describe people labelled as disabled who see the perks of their differences as outweighing its challenges.
  • Disability: A word imposed by institutions to categorize and institutionalize a wide swath of people while regulating access to resources
  • Inclusion: A well-marketed approach to diversity that’s proven unsuccessful and is based on the presumption of burden, or disadvantage.

If we let go of the basic premise that neurodiversity is a burden, says Shawn, we have an opportunity to identify and focus on the unique abilities presented by each and every one of us — neurodiverse or not. Once those skill sets and passions are identified, he says, we can start working backwards from there to find well-suited, meaningful and stimulating work.

His suggestion?

We need to stop with the can’ts.

“When it comes to individuals with a disability label, the focus historically has been what they can’t do, not what they can. Look at our education system: kids are being assessed for deficits — not giftedness. So one of the things I do is ask people if they have an identified gift. Because I truly believe that we are uniquely gifted. If you’re playing to someone’s strength, then they’re going to want to do the work.”

3. Where startups fit in

While the startup community has embraced some of the narratives around the hyper-productive programmer on the autism spectrum, Shawn believes we still have a good way to go.

“I think there’s some hypocrisy in saying one thing, but doing another. For example, Human Resources would say they’re there to screen people in — whereas I’d actually say they’re there to screen people out. In some cases, they’re actually counting keywords. So if the individual doesn’t know the structure of the interview ahead of time and they don’t use those keywords, then they’ll get screened out even though their skills may far exceed every other candidate combined.”

But given the right support and encouragement, startup life and entrepreneurship can be a great option for those who identify as neurodiverse. In fact, he believes ADHD and learning disabilities are already much more prevalent in the entrepreneurial community than we realize.

His prescription? The fostering of programs designed to truly nurture and foster a diversity of talents through accessible resources that adapt to new ways of structuring thoughts, communicating and evaluating intelligence.

Our job: sharing a new narrative

One of the first steps to empowering those traditionally left out of conversations about work and entrepreneurship is getting more stories out there about success and diversity. So in that spirit, meet Zofia Perez: a young woman on the other end of the neurodiversity spectrum from Shawn who may not seem quite as relatable to the average startup folk, but who’s story deserves to be told.

“I partner with a company called Picasso Einstein started by a couple who decided that traditional education wasn’t for their kids. They’ve based a online programs on their own experience with their children and created these cohorts for entrepreneurs with disabilities to support them to start their own businesses. One of the families I’ve met through the program is the Perez family; their teenage daughter Zofia has Down syndrome as well as ADHD, which is now understood as a neurological divergence of its own. She creates these sensory wands which she actually sells back to the school district that failed her.”

That, he says, is what happens when you focus on what people can do, as opposed to what they can’t. It’s about moving beyond the what ifs to take the next step towards the and thens — something all of us entrepreneurs could afford to do more of.

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An international gathering of entrepreneurs, founders, investors, and mentors from around the world. July 2020 in Montreal. | www.startupfest.com

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