Friday, February 6, 2009

Dyslexia and entrepreneurship

Earlier this week I attended a gathering sponsored by the Kauffman foundation. They treated a few dyslexic entrepreneurs such as myself to two days in a lovely hotel in Phoenix. (The hotel was a posh spa-type place but being the nerd I am I didn't partake of any of that and instead was looking forward to watching some Mythbusters but they didn't have Discovery Channel. Everything there was exceptionally beautiful but, again being the nerd I am, the only pictures I took were of this nice brick wall in the hotel and this interesting cactus.) Thanks to Marge, Maryanne, Cinthia, and everyone at the Kauffman Foundation who put together this conference for inviting me to such fun exchange of ideas in such a lovely place.

The basis of the meeting was a claim that the set of entrepreneurs is enriched for dyslexia but I was never shown any evidence of this so maybe it's true, maybe not; we didn't have time to review the literature. Anyway, the point was to discuss the anecdotes of the various non-randomly chosen samples invited to this conference for a kind of informal hypothesis building. I wouldn't call what we arrived at as a working hypothesis (indeed there wasn't even much commonality to our traits) but the stories were interesting nevertheless.

There were a number of researchers and educators there. My particular role, as seems to often the case, was to play devil's advocate.

My principal thoughts were:

1. Educators understandably think of anyone who leaves school early as a "failure of the system". I emphatically opposed this view. I argued that while universal access to education is one of the greatest accomplishment of our civilization (indeed, I wouldn't want to live somewhere that didn't provide universal education) that nevertheless universal education is a modern concept and that we *gave up something* when we embraced it. I am not the only person in the world that was poisoned by education (indeed, there was at least one other at this meeting who said the same thing). This claim to educators often leads to: "But how could we make school better so people like you won't leave?" and I counter this with: "Why should you want to do that?" I submit that my value to society is *exactly because I'm an outsider*. The uniqueness of my views are at the core of my contributions both artistic and scientific. Ipso facto, one can't have an outsider perspective by coming from the inside! I know it's a hard argument to swallow as an educator, but there are some people like me who simply should not be educated. So while I appreciate the effort of trying to adapt the education system to meet everyone's needs, I reject the premise that it should be done. Now, how to tell people like me from those who aren't, that's a different question.

2. What evidence do we have that dyslexia is actually a disadvantage? Yes, being unable to read *at all* is a serious hardship and I'm glad I can read. But I read very slowly compared to most people. I can't help but suspect that it is because I read slowly that I both obtain and retain more detail than do my fast-reading friends. Who says that mine is the wrong tactic? (Indeed, I quipped that perhaps we need to go on a negative marketing campaign to bash all the fast-reading people and thereby advance our slow-reading cause!) I have friends who can read ten pages in the time it takes me to read one. On the one hand, that skill is a huge advantage in deciding which papers are relevant while researching. But on the other hand, I tend to remember more detail and consider each little point the author is making. When review science papers for example, our combined skills are better than the sum of the parts and therefore, as is often the case, diversity of skills is a very good thing! Why should we try to "fix" this?

3. Reading is improved with practice. The education system failed me in this respect because it couldn't adapt to this obvious and universally acknowledged fact. In all human undertakings some people are born with higher natural abilities in some disciplines over others. I might find computers intuitive while others might find running fast easy. But *everyone improves all skills with practice.* Indeed, anyone with practice can "beat" anyone with natural skill who never practices. In other words, practice nearly always accounts for more than natural skill. The most common reason for not improving at something is that the initial hurdle of practice is not overcome. If you are naturally poor at reading then it's no fun so you don't practice so you don't get better. The solution is obvious: read stuff that is *fun*! But fun, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder; let dyslexic kids read what they want to. It's not a hard concept; yet most schools don't do this because they are slaved to a contrived government-mandated curriculum. Had someone told me it was okay to read a computer manual instead of some boring book like "Lord of the Flies" then I would have been a better reader by the time I was a teenager instead of having to wait until I got out of school and practiced as a young adult. If I was a teacher, here's what I would do if I met a ten year-old version of myself. I'd say: "What are you interested in?" The 10 year-old version of myself would probably reply "I don't know" and I'd respond with, "There must be something: Dinosaurs? Motorcycles? Computers? Movie Stars? Something!" This line of questioning would last for all of about 10 seconds before we hit something. "Oh, skateboards? Ok, cool, well here's a skateboarding magazine." I'd flip open the pages and find any stupid article on a skateboarding competition or whatnot and scan it for a few relevant details (sponsors, winners, etc) and then hand it over to the kid and say: "Give me an oral report on however much of this article you can make it through by the end of class." Do that exercise everyday in lieu of pointless discussions of characters in whatever idiotic state-mandated literature the rest of the class is supposed to read and by the end of the year that kid is going to be a better reader. It ain't rocket science! (And by the way, who can actually remember anything about any of the books you were assigned to read in junior high? Well, I can remember many of the things I read in the computer books at that age because I've been interested in those ideas ever since!)


John Hayes said...

People who suggest that their experience with dyslexia is dyslexia rather than just their experience with dyslexia can be misleading.

Saying I am dyslexic,
I am successful,
therefor I am successful because I am dyslexic is likely true for you.

Dyslexia is not, in general, a condition that makes success more likely for most dyslexics.

Closer to the truth is that you seem to be a member of a select group of dyslexics that because of brain structure have an inability to process thought in the more common linear fashion and so your thoughts are more tangential. This can result in making association from facts that are often missed in the linear way.

That can indeed be a dyslexic way of thinking and be out of the box and very creative. The only problem is that it really is not all that common or in fact always a useful trait in every circumstance .

You seem to be of the opinion that these benefits of dyslexic thinking are linked to poor reading skills and so why do the work to develop better reading skills.

I don't believe that is the best message for dyslexics in general.

My niche is visual dyslexia another small group of dyslexics with problems reading because of difficulty seeing the text. I never hear my customers say that the removal of their visual problems changed the way the think in general. They are pleased that reading can be pleasurable. What a concept. Reading for pleasure.

Just try to remember that your story of dyslexia is your story of dyslexia and not the story of dyslexia.

Zack Booth Simpson said...

John, thanks for your comments!

You say: "Saying I am dyslexic, I am successful, therefor [sic] I am successful because I am dyslexic"

I'm sorry if this is the impression I left, but I did not say this nor did I intend to imply it. Allow me to clarify. I am saying that my education (independent of any dyslexia) was not right for me and that I'm guessing that there are other people in the world who are like me. I also stated that the educators of my past failed to help me practice (for reasons mostly out of their control) and therefore delayed my reading improvements. I also stated that I don't know how to distinguish people like me from people who aren't.

I have no idea to what degree my "success" is *because* I'm dyslexic. I have no evidence to measure this by. My sense is that it has nothing to do with being dyslexic. I am not suggesting, as you say I am, that dyslexia is a condition that increases success.

You say: "You seem to be of the opinion that these benefits of dyslexic thinking are linked to poor reading skills and so why do the work to develop better reading skills."

Again, I'm sorry if that's the impression I gave you. I did not say this nor intend to suggest it. I am not arguing that I have "poor reading skills", I am *suggesting* (because I have only personal experience to go on) that I have *different* reading skills. I see no evidence to suggest that altering my reading habits would improve my contributions to society; that doesn't mean they wouldn't, merely that I see no evidence that it would. I also made it clear that I very much *do* appreciate the fact that I can read *at all* and for this fact I am appreciative of all those who helped me which includes both family and educators.

I never said anything about the "benefits of dyslexic" as you suggest I did. I read one way, others read differently. I did say, again based only on my personal experience, that I find a diversity of skills to be beneficial.

Thanks again for your comments!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I agree with you totally. On another aspect, my take is that child development during the early stages is extremely important and no parent should ever forget that.