Disadvantages as Advantages

“You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?”

Gladwell then develops the Idea that dyslexia might be a “desirable difficulty”, a condition that is usually a liability but can also be the engine for extraordinary personal success. He says that it’s hard to believe that the condition could be considered desirable given how many people struggle with it. But Gladwell is impressed by fact that “an extraordinarily high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic”. And he is impressed by people like David Boies, the most successful, accomplished person at the top of a very high legal pyramid, who identifies as dyslexic. Boies is the dream-team litigator who worked on a slew of historic cases, including the IBM and Microsoft anti-trust cases, Gore vs. Bush, and the overturning of California Prop 8.

Gladwell’s idea isn’t just that such people manage to succeed despite their dyslexia. It’s that having dyslexia, and dealing with its consequences, played a causal role in their success. If dyslexia can boost people to stratospheric levels of success in professions like law and finance, and it can stimulate the creative, out-of-the-box thinking that contributes to entrepreneurial success, dyslexia might actually be a kind of “desirable difficulty.” Interesting! Or disturbing.

At Language Log, a blog run by the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania, Mark Seidenberg, who studies dyslexia, looks at why Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath, is so problematic. The book examines how people who have disadvantages (i.e. those who have a disability, who’ve faced discrimination, who’ve suffered a loss of a parent) often use that disadvantage to propel themselves to success. David should not have been able to take down Goliath, and yet he did. I haven’t read much of Gladwell’s books, but positing that having a disadvantage like dyslexia could actually be desirable seems totally misguided—too dependent on stories from people like billionaire Richard Branson who has argued that dyslexia was his secret to success:

From a young age, I learned to focus on the things I was good at and delegate to others what I was not good at. That’s how Virgin is run. Fantastic people throughout the Virgin Group run our businesses, allowing me to think creatively and strategically. This isn’t a skill that comes easily to some, but when you’re dyslexic, you have to trust others to do tasks on your behalf. In some cases, that can involve reading and writing. You learn to let go.

Of course, for every person who has been able to find success despite their disabilities, there is a person who still struggles with theirs every day. And yes, it’s not that Branson succeeded because of his dyslexia—it’s that Branson succeeded despite it. Gladwell, I reckon, is already aware of this. He is also aware that people love an underdog story. But this doesn’t mean that any of us would wish dyslexia on our children—even with Richard Branson telling us it’s the secret to his success.

Photo: Surian Soosay



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