Dyslexia and its role in preparing me to run Moment
Along with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, and LGBT History Month, October is National Dyslexia Awareness Month.
This is a description of dyslexia, my personal experience with it, its influence over my approach to design and leadership, and some of what I’ve learned so far.
Evidence points to the possibility that dyslexia is inherited. It often runs in families; and like me, my father is dyslexic, as is my ten year-old son, Vincent. It’s something I’ve become extremely familiar with, and long ago accepted it as part of who I am.
Did you hear the one about the insomniac agnostic dyslexic?He stayed up all night wondering if there’s really a dog!
What is it?
Dyslexia is a cognitive disorder that compromises basic reading skill. Dyslexics typically learn to read, but the process is more frustrating than anything most of you experienced. Dyslexia is characterized by challenges with phonological processing, spelling, and rapid visual-verbal responding. Symptoms normally present themselves between first and third grade.
The disorder makes associating symbols (letters) with sounds (meaning) laborious and slow. Imagine being unable to immediately recognize and understand whole words. Rather you have to examine each symbol and decode it by consciously associating a letter with its corresponding sound. “Words” becomes wuh, oh, are, dee, ess: words.
As you can imagine, reading is a tedious, exhausting grind to be avoided at all cost.
There is no cure for dyslexia. One never grows out of it. Dyslexics are forced to work with and around their shortcomings. Over the years the approaches educators have taken to help dyslexics work with the disorder have evolved quite a bit.
If life gives you melons, you’re probably dyslexic!
Growing up dyslexic
My father entered first grade in the 1950’s. His mother, a grammar school teacher, was beside herself with the thought that one of her children had difficulty reading. At that time, slow readers were thought of like slow runners; make him train and he’ll get faster. The more training, the faster he’ll get. But dyslexia is a disability, and that approach is akin to taking a person with one leg, and making him run long distances hoping he’ll eventually run as fast as people with two legs. In hindsight, that approach makes no sense, is unfair, and deeply frustrating for everyone involved.
I entered first grade in the 1980’s. By then, dyslexia was deemed a “perception problem” — as if my eyes jumbled letters around. The approach teachers took was to explain how to read differently and more slowly than they did to other kids. I was given all kinds of long-forgotten little mnemonic memory tricks to help spell difficult words, or to distinguish “b” from “d”. This well-intentioned approach resembled someone speaking slowly and loudly to a person who doesn’t speak English. It’s only marginally helpful.
Vincent’s experience with school has so far been met with compassion, understanding, and accommodation; if not empathy. He’s been supported by dedicated teachers, and an especially gifted Orton-Gillingham reading tutor. All work done on a laptop also means he has better tools. Audiobooks, text-to-speech, auto-corrected spelling, and the ability to fudge some phonetic approximation of a term into a search bar and let Google figure out what he meant — all are enormous assets to dyslexic students. That said, school will be a daunting challenge for him, and any success will be hard fought.
Have you heard the one about the dyslexic devil worshipper?He sold his soul to Santa!
How we’re different
Enough of the bad news. The good news is dyslexia is not a vision impairment — I’ve got above average 20/10 vision — nor does it impair intelligence. In fact, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, “Children and adults with dyslexia are highly creative, and have many cognitive and emotional strengths, despite a weakness in decoding words. Successful dyslexics draw on their strengths to hit their targets in life.”
Dyslexia left my father with an unparalleled work ethic. It left me with a unique endurance. And perhaps it will leave Vincent with similar characteristics plus powerful resourcefulness.
Being dyslexic also puts you in excellent company: Richard Branson, Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, John F. Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, Charles Schwab, Steven Spielberg…and the list goes on. Furthermore, while no official diagnosis existed at the time, historians strongly suspect that Alexander Graham Bell, Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da Vinci, and George Washington were all in the club.
Now, I know what you’re asking: Where are all the highly accomplished ladies of club dyslexia? Well, Erin Brockovich and Salma Hayek aside, its ranks skew heavily toward the XY chromosomes. According to Psychology Today, dyslexia affects men two to three times more than it does women.
Another population that’s disproportionately dyslexic: Entrepreneurs. A 2007 study from London’s Cass Business School found that 35% of U.S. entrepreneurs self-identified as dyslexic, compared to one in ten people in general. Dyslexics are also twice as likely as non-dyslexics to own two or more businesses.
Not entirely surprising. At least not to me.
A dyslexic boy asks his mother for McDonald’s.
She said: “Only if you can spell it.”
He replied: “Fine, I’ll have KFC!”
Connections between dyslexia and design
Reflecting on my personal experience, there are aspects of how I approach my job that I believe were shaped by dyslexia — points of view I’ve developed that impact the way I relate to my colleagues at Moment, and how I think about our company.
It’s no accident I ended up studying fine art, and that led to a career in design. After a life of creating workarounds, rarely approaching problems head-on, learning primarily through observation and active listening, asking for tons of help, relying heavily on the abilities of others, and communicating concepts visually before verbally, it’s little surprise I ended up here.
Among other things, designers (at least the good ones) are creative, critical, empathetic, collaborative and articulate. These skills allow us to challenge orthodoxy, break problems into pieces, draw upon diverse resources, synthesize new ideas, vividly illustrate multiple paths, and ultimately to find better ways forward. Like dyslexics, designers thrive in ambiguous situations where rules, requirements and measurements are either absent, unclear, in conflict, or incomplete. It’s our happy place.
So… a dyslexic walks into a bra!
Connections between dyslexia and leadership
Beyond the connections between dyslexia and design, there are points of view I’ve developed about leadership and management that I believe were also, in some part, shaped by my experience with dyslexia:
Defects aside, I know what I’m good at. And it’s not the same as you.
When you’re hyper-aware of a disability, people who excel in areas in which you’re deficient can seem like they have superpowers. I once worked with a woman who could type faster than people talk. A skill, when combined with her formidable intellect, allowed her to simultaneously observe a user research sesson, produce detailed transcripts, and interject her analysis about emerging patterns. She did this accurately, insightfully and in real time. It was awesome to watch. Given all the practice and coaching in the world, I could no more accomplish that task than I could shoot lightning bolts from my eyes.
Working alongside colleagues with different and superior abilities brings a couple points into sharp contrast:
- Effort spent trying to emulate them is probably wasted, so don’t bother.
- If you find yourself being held to the same standard, you need to reset expectations. Change the rules of the game.
- Part of resetting expectations means articulating your value relative to colleagues, NOT compared to them. It’s incumbent upon you to self-advocate for a role in which you, and often only you, will be successful. Not a training-wheels version of your colleague’s role, your unique role.
- And finally, possibly most importantly, if you do all that successfully, then you’ve erased any reason to feel threatened or defensive. You’re more confident, a better collaborator, armed with a clear understanding of your role, and far more likely to recognize and advocate for your colleague’s awe-inspiring superpower. Everybody wins.
Honest, critical feedback is deeply comforting.
My awareness of dyslexia is not to be confused with self-awareness. When you grow up with dyslexia, the world makes you aware of your disability in no uncertain terms. It’s not knowledge that results from an introspective self-examination. You are simply told you are bad at reading and you will always be bad at reading. An endless stream of cognitive assessments leaves you very accepting of critical feedback. It’s not personal or threatening; it’s objective and it’s true. And most importantly, it’s extremely useful knowledge about yourself.
Have you ever delivered critical feedback to someone early in his or her career to be met with shock and amazement? Something along the lines of, “Sorry if I seem uncomfortable, but I’ve excelled at everything I’ve ever done in life. I was captain of the whatever team, and got all A’s in school.” Yeah. Dyslexics don’t have that problem, we’re ok with people assessing our skills and being explicit about what they find.
Understanding yourself and the impact you’re having on people requires a robust feedback loop. Even under the best circumstances, it’s not likely a performance management process will be sufficient by itself. You need to develop an inner circle of people who reliably offer their candid assessment of you. These assessments may be harsh, but as long as you’re confident their words are fair, unclouded, and genuinely constructive, then they meet the requirements for inclusion in your inner circle. Your job is to find those people, be clear that you depend on their unfiltered evaluation; and then hold up your end of the bargain: Be accessible, approachable, never get defensive, and always show gratitude when someone is honest with you. Even when, or especially when, you completely disagree with them. Then do your very best to do the same for them. The most important relationships of your life, not just your professional life, are forged in this kind of mutual openness.
I’m probably not the best person to do most of what’s on my to-do list.
Studies have shown that dyslexics are more likely than non-dyslexics to delegate authority. Like it or not, being dyslexic means you need to ask for lots of help. Over the years, I can’t overstate the importance of mentors, collaborators, and accomplices; anyone who would work with me to achieve something. As a result, you learn to read people, and respect other people’s abilities as different than yours.
Delegation is a classic management struggle. There’s no shortage of articles intended to help people overcome the challenge. It’s something nearly everyone goes through as their career matures, and we’ve certainly struggled with it here at Moment. While I’ve seen it, I haven’t really felt it. I have my own struggles, but letting go of responsibility isn’t one of them. I rely heavily on the people around me, and can objectively state that I’m far more comfortable with delegating responsibility than my peers inside or outside Moment.
PSA: When it comes to delegation, most designers suck at it. The historical models of art direction have to do with delegating tasks to be reviewed and approved. That’s not the same thing as delegating responsibility, and it’s miles away from delegating authority.
If I want want to win, I’m going to cheat.
Increasingly, being a dyslexic student comes with accommodations such as unlimited time to take tests. Some of these accommodations are given to you, like a teacher reducing the amount of homework from 40 spelling words to 20. But others you need to create. Effort, grit, and work ethic are critical to almost any kind of success, and it’s uncomfortable knowing you’re playing by different rules. It means you’re being held to a lower standard.
Over time, dyslexics develop a strange sense of entitlement that dictates rules were created for other people, not for me. Whenever presented with a process for doing something, people naturally acquiesce. Humans like rules, even if those rules are flawed. An established process signals there’s order in the world, and it’s comforting… Unless, of course, those rules put you at a distinct disadvantage or are unnecessarily burdensome.
There is absolutely nothing morally wrong with questioning an arbitrary rule set. I’m not talking about brushing your teeth twice a day, training for a marathon, or paying your taxes. I’m talking about situations where the path of least resistance, is just that, an easier path. Hurdles present you with three options, leap over it, fall down trying, or go around it. It’s a choice. And like designers, dyslexics are predisposed to simply ask why? Is there a better, easier, cheaper, faster, more pleasant, more dignified, more efficient way? And in most cases, making a process or product more accessible to people with disabilities, removes friction for everyone. You may enjoy reading novels, but nobody enjoys reading instructions. Ever. Look for other ways. Simplify everything you possibly can.
Winners quit, they quit often, and I’m ok with that.
Working with limited resources forces you to make deliberate decisions about where to focus. We’ve all been told, “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” But it’s not true. Winners quit all the time. They quit so often they become good at it. They develop keen judgement about what to quit and when.
It’s human nature to gravitate towards situations where your chances of success are high. I believe the difference is that dyslexics are more acutely aware of, and possibly more calculated, about putting themselves into situations that play to their strengths. Making deliberate decisions about where you’re likely to be successful and where you’ll likely fail isn’t “quitting,” it’s resource management.
Whether it’s capital, talent or time, the rules are the same. They are finite resources, and deploying them in any capacity places them at risk. Fundamentally, the art and science of management is exercising judgement in choosing where to deploy resources, and discipline in choosing where not to. You can’t win at everything, so choose wisely.
My strengths will impact my success or failure far more than my weaknesses will.
Academic achievement and learning are not the same thing. Passing a test and having command over subject matter are very different. When I was working to become a pilot, the FAA requires four things:
- Eligibility. I had to prove I was at least 17 years old, spoke English, etc.
- Aeronautical experience. I had put in the required training hours.
- Flight proficiency. I had to demonstrate to a Check Airman my ability to safely operate and maneuver an aircraft within specific performance envelopes.
- Aeronautical knowledge. Lastly, I had to pass a great big test covering applicable regulations, emergency procedures, meteorology, aeronautical information, use of navigational resources, communication protocols, and so much more.
To say I was apprehensive about the test is an understatement. I was panicked. And when my panic became clear to Bill, a fellow pilot with far more grey hair than I had, he said: “You’re a good pilot Brendan. It’s a federal government test. It tests your ability to take tests. It has nothing to do with safely flying airplanes.” He was right. I got an 80, and passed.
Most of our performance management doctrine is focused on identifying our deficiencies and pouring effort into bringing those areas up to par. I find that absurd and completely backwards. While it’s important to identify both strengths and weaknesses, be aware of your weaknesses but pour effort into magnifying your strengths. Those are your superpowers, the areas where you can push beyond mediocrity into powerful, unique contributions.
Moment places great emphasis on teams. We do so, because, properly assembled, a team allows any individual deficiencies to be overcome with the collective abilities of a group. It’s a better approach.
How does it change many dyslexics to take a light bulb?
Moment’s success or failure will have little to do with my disabilities or abilities. I’m surrounded by people who have different skills and backgrounds. Moment currently has twelve Managing Directors, Sr. Directors, and Directors, fully 20% of our total staff. By nearly all measures, they are, to a person, smarter than I am.
In many ways, Moment’s leadership makes no sense. The group is too big, accountability is overly distributed and vague, and our heavily overlapping roles are fuzzy if they’re defined at all. According to most organizational management doctrine, we’re a recipe for disaster. We’re like a corporate version of the Breakfast Club. We’ve got our brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel, and a recluse, plus quite a few more. But it works, in no small part because we respect our differences.
To be clear, this is not a gift, it’s a disability. One I’d rather not have, one I wish my son didn’t have. But it forces me to learn from and about the people around me. It forces me to work as smart as I work hard. And again, it’s simply part of who I am.
Dyslexics of the world, UNTIE!