I’ve often suffered shame. I have a secret that very few people know. I have dyslexia — or rather, a form of it: mild dyscalculia, involving difficulties with time, measurement, maths and spatial reasoning, which affects between 3 per cent and 6 per cent of the population. I often wear my clothes inside out or back to front and wonder why people are laughing at me. Recently I wore an elegant hat with the label sticking out on my forehead. Prancing down the street with people staring, I thought: “I must look fabulous!”
Unlike regular dyslexics, I’m a whiz with reading and words, but when handed bills in shops or restaurants, I stare for too long at the numbers, often sweating in anxiety or frustration. Friends think I am being mean with money. As for spatial awareness, I’m an excellent driver but, sadly, concrete pylons in parking stations and petrol bowsers keep running towards me and headbutting me.
Ironically, despite my (then undiagnosed) disability, I became a finance journalist. I love the corporate world, the excitement, the intrigue, the passion, and never wanted my disability to stop me following my dream.
Some people have noticed my weakness and been cruel. A former accountant humiliated me publicly when he could see I was struggling. “What kind of financial journalist are you?” he demanded. I went red. I wish I’d said: “A good one.” I learned to compensate by getting my interviewees to write numbers down for me (“forgotten my glasses”) and trusted colleagues to crunch the numbers back in the office. This way, in 25 years I’ve never made a numerical error in my articles. I was finally diagnosed recently and I no longer hate myself for “being an idiot”.
So how do people with any disability rise to great heights in any profession, be it in sport, business or the arts, exposing themselves to work or a life that demands extraordinary perfection when they are well behind the pack?
They succeed because they have what Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, author of international bestseller Learned Optimism, calls “grit”. During an interview in Australia a few years ago, he told me there were three types of people: optimists, pessimists and people with determination whose passion outweighed fears, humiliation and failure manifold.
“People with grit don’t give up,” Seligman says.
They ignore pain, setbacks and immediate gratification to get where they want to be.
Grit people are the dogs that never let go. They are people whose arm might be broken on the football field but they put the pain aside and keep going. Studies show grit can be at the root of success because it leads to perseverance, tenacity, resilience and commitment to the long-term objective.
Recently Isley Hermansen, a 12-year-old girl from Queensland with severe dyslexia, made a video and sent it to Virgin boss Richard Branson. Branson, who also has dyslexia, praised her “inspiring” story. In her video #likeadyslexic, with pictures of Branson, Hermansen says “one day I’m going to fly like a dyslexic”; “sing like a dyslexic” — John Lennon; make movies like a dyslexic — Steven Spielberg; make discoveries — Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking; do business — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Kerry Packer. She mentions Leonardo da Vinci, Roald Dahl and Jamie Oliver, and quotes NASA as saying it loves hiring dyslexics for their superb problem-solving skills.
The point is that disabilities, be they dyslexia, autism, stroke or no legs like Oscar Pistorius, need not hold you down if you have grit. Indeed Peter Fox, son of Lindsay Fox and executive chairman of Linfox, says his learning disability prompted his success. “Negatives are great positives,” says a man who failed his final school exams but achieved miracles, expanding the Linfox empire a staggering 14 times since taking over nearly 22 years ago to a turnover of $3 billion. And he eventually got a degree from Harvard in 1996.
The trucking magnate says that reading felt like pushing a truck uphill. But he learned to compensate for his weaknesses by playing to his strengths. “I’m great with numbers, I can do them in my head quicker than a calculator.” Not that he gave up on his deficiencies. “You have to keep the mind working, applying yourself: drilling down and down, practising.”
“Use it or lose it,” say renowned neuroscientist Michael M. Merzenich, recently in Sydney for the Mind & Its Potential conference, and psychiatrist Norman Doidge, author of the international bestseller on neuroplasticity The Brain That Changes Itself. They maintain the brain has the capacity to grow, change, rewire itself and develop new talents. When you switch on one area, the whole brain is stimulated to grow. They advocate going back to university, or doing any course, to keep expanding neural pathways.
It’s true. Like Peter Fox, I took myself back to uni and did a masters in the very technical field of video-making, requiring editing suites, camera craft, spatial awareness and lots of buttons. I explained to my tutors that I had a learning disability — and needed to be told and shown things three to four times. They’d laugh and laugh as I battled through, pressing exactly the button they said not to press.
They said I was their most entertaining student ever. But all of them helped me because they said they admired that I never gave up (besides, I always brought them chocolate). I did well and found my brain was better all around.
Associate professor Angela Duckworth, who studied under Seligman and operates The Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, has examined the interplay between grit and self-control. “Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort towards very long-term goals. Self-control is the voluntary regulation of … impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations,” she says.
I’ve interviewed many corporate leaders over the years for my book The New Boy Network on the psychology of success. Many came from war-torn countries, or had been in concentration camps, or came from abusive families. As one man who escaped a prison camp said: “Despite the odds, you just climb over the wall.”
Fox says part of his success was to see what was lacking in himself, then hire people who could do better. He says: “Don’t fight where you can’t win.”
Fox says: “I got through school eventually because I surrounded myself with people who had the abilities I didn’t. I learned by association. I also learned never to give up — true persistence.”
His advice to others with any disability: “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. When you are young and told not to touch the hotplate, what do you do? We are trying to push ourselves to excess and how can that mean not falling over and making mistakes? Make them, don’t be afraid. Why are there rubbers on the back of pencils?”
He says: “Never feel shame. I never did.”