Dyslexia and Entrepreneurs

Here’s a random-seeming question that pops up in the news from time to time: why do so many successful businesspeople have dyslexia?

A partial list:

  • Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s
  • Charles R. Schwab, founder of Charles Schwab Corp.
  • Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways
  • John T. Chambers, CEO of Cisco
  •  Craig McCaw, founder of McCaw Cellular and Clearwire
  •  Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop

A 2007 study by Julie Logan of the Cass Business School of London showed that 35 percent of the entrepreneurs she surveyed were dyslexic – a percentage she called “staggering.” (Dyslexia runs at 10 percent in the general population.) But why?

“We found that dyslexics who succeed had overcome an awful lot in their lives by developing compensatory skills,” Logan said in the New York Times. “…Dyslexics are extraordinarily creative about maneuvering their way around problems.”

“Compensatory skills” is the same term physiologists use to describe the principle through which muscles get stronger – when we push them to their limits during exercise, they compensate by getting stronger. What Logan seems to be saying is that for this group, skills work exactly like muscles – their entrepreneurial circuits work well because dyslexia has forced them to practice and strengthen precisely those skills.

For instance, in this article, movie producer Hunt Lowry (“A Time to Kill,” “Last of the Mohicans”) talks about how he was unable to tie his shoes as a second-grader.

“I was Tom Sawyer very quickly on,” (Lowry) says. “It took a little bit of diplomacy to teach kids in second and third grade to tie my shoes and make it seem like it was a good deal.”

It’s an interesting connection, especially when you consider the skill set needed to be a successful entrepreneur: you have to attack problems and solve them. You have to be persistent. You have to be a good verbal communicator. You have to be able to read people quickly, delegate well, figure out who you can trust – all skills that would be developed in a motivated person who was prevented from using the normal communication channels of reading and writing.

In this light, Branson, Schwab, Chambers, Orfalea and the rest are not succeeding in spite of their dyslexia; they are succeeding directly because of it. Their condition is not just a disability; in fact it is also a kind of lever through which they have developed the skills that truly matter in their professions – an irony they seem to realize.

As Orfalea, who says he also has attention deficit disorder, puts it, “I think everybody should have dyslexia and A.D.D.”

I can’t quite get there. But what is true is that when it comes to developing skill, the human brain is amazingly adaptable.

I also wonder: what other disability-skill connections are out there to be found?

Update: here’s a good article on that question. (Thanks, Monica!)