On Monday I was in Madison, Wis., with Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL and chairman of Revolution, on his Rise of the Rest Tour. The five-city bus ride was launched to support the development of entrepreneurship in states other than the "big 3" (California, New York, and Massachusetts), where 80 percent of venture funding is directed. We met with dozens of up-and-coming entrepreneurs, as well as CEOs of larger Madison-based businesses and the leadership of the University of Wisconsin. But it wasn't until I joined Steve on a panel with The Atlantic magazine's editor-at-large Steve Clemons that I gained a new insight on the value dyslexia has for entrepreneurs.
Clemons asked how education policy could help develop a more entrepreneurial nation. Case called for more investments in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) as well as immigration reform so the U.S. can retain more of the talent we develop in our universities. I agreed with Case on those priorities, but I also proposed investing in early arts, music, and theatrical education and middle school sports programs to make sure we are developing creative and resilient leaders. (I've written before about the importance of athletic resilience in shaping entrepreneurs.)
All of the Madison entrepreneurs we met were tackling problems from a new perspective--ranging from a different way for people to order from restaurants to a new way to create mobile code. And while each venture relied on engineering skills in some fashion, the catalyst that launched the enterprise was a creative insight the founders had about how to see the world in a different way ... and that's where the insight about dyslexia came in.
I had spent the preceding day with my cousins in Milwaukee, most of whom are dyslexic. I got to enjoy their artwork and delightfully different view of the world. As I talked with my nephews about some of the challenges they were encountering in school, it brought back memories of what we went through with my oldest son, Jonah, who is also dyslexic.
So much of our nation's elementary school education is focused on clerical skills--including reading and math, but also, to the extent that there is art instruction, how to literally draw within the lines. Those can be painful years for children who are not linear, sequential thinkers. While many of his classmates were enjoying the Harry Potter books, our son was struggling with basic reading and writing, which led to bouts of frustration and a sense inadequacy, for him and for his parents.
Once we realized Jonah had dyslexia, we were able to help him retool his language skills. He ended up graduating from high school with honors, and is now on the President's Council at Colorado College. But he arrived at that point only by working incredibly hard to overcome the academic barriers as well as personal feelings of failure, disappointment, and of being an outsider, which haunted his elementary school years. As hard as those formative experiences can be on a child, they can contribute to the traits that are prized in every entrepreneur:
- Someone who is used to dealing with adversity, and bouncing back from daily setbacks
- Someone who sees existing structures from a completely new perspective
- Someone who is creative and persistent at finding solutions
Many dyslexic children, not as fortunate as Jonah, struggle or even drop out of school. For Richard Branson, dropping out of school gave him a chance to jumpstart his entrepreneurial career. Others, such as Charles Scwhab, made it through graduate school. In an ideal world, our education system would help teachers and parents identify dyslexia early on and provide them with the tools to help children overcome the challenges they face, while also investing in arts programs that encourage and celebrate out-of-the-box thinkers. But until that happens, dyslexics who manage to make it through high school will not only bring alternative thinking to society's problems, they also will have already proved their resilience because they'll have overcome the academic and personal setbacks that many clerically talented students avoid.
It helps me appreciate a saying I heard when we were launching our lemonade line: "When life gives you melons, you just might be dyslexic."