by Bob Vandersluis

What do the Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, the President of Goldman Sachs, the founder of IKEA,and  the lawyer who won the case to allow gay marriage in California all have in common?  They are dyslexic.  These people are considered successful by many standards, despite their linguistic limitations….or are they successful because of their difficulties.

We have all been in circumstances where we’ve had to adapt to make something positive happen, but let’s take a minute to really examine our own hardships and how they have made us stronger, more resilient, and even successful as a result.

I’d like to give you an example from my own life to start the discussion.

I was a fairly bright student in elementary and high school, and was even part of the enrichment group for a while when I was 11-14.  In high school, academics regrettably took a bit of a backseat to sports and socializing.  Despite the lack of effort, I still was fortunate enough to receive a full scholarship to one of the best liberal arts universities in the United States.  I wasn’t ready by any means.

After floundering a bit in my first couple of months in my first year (like many first years do), I decided that this situation had to change in order for me to be successful and stay in school to take advantage of the opportunity in front of me.  I was in classes with other students who were exceptional, and very intelligent.  We had small class sizes, and were often called upon to participate in discussions.  I knew very quickly that I was out of my league, and felt very overwhelmed with my ability to keep up with these keen students.

At the time, I was also dealing with the initial onset of hearing loss, which is hereditary in my family.  Many of my uncles, and my dad all have hearing aids to help them with every day life.  At this stage of my life, and even to this day, I was not ready to take the step to get a device to hear properly.

I had to figure out a way to be successful, despite my inability, and my disability.

What would you have done?

I took on a few different strategies.  Some I am very proud of, some not so much.

The first thing I did was start reading like a mad man.  I was always a good reader, and my comprehension levels were above average.  So, I read like crazy.  All of my roomates and teammates busted my chops about doing so much work, and said that if I went to class, I wouldn’t have to do the extra stuff.  Just take notes when in lecture, and that should be fine.  I did that too.


I also found some very smart people in my classes to start study groups with.  I wanted to learn how they learned.  I became a regular at study groups before mid-terms and finals, and sometimes in between.  I was very fortunate that the people whom I formed these groups with were open to giving information, more than expecting return info.  I contributed very little.  However, I did provide some comedic relief, and a different, mold breaking personality, and I think I was appreciated for that.


The method that I am not so proud of was that I cheated.  I borrowed old text books, with notes already highlighted.  I found old tests and papers from former students who had compiled a number of valuable resources.  I talked to people about their previous experiences, and got really good at trading services.  I would exchange home game hockey tickets for exam or essay information.  Some people may look at this as a weakness, and as something that is dishonourable, and they are probably right on the second point.


I look back on the schemes and tactics I used to get by, and I don’t suggest that my current students or my kids partake in this type of academia.  However, I became very social, talked to a lot of people that I otherwise wouldn’t have, created a network, and became open to hanging out with people that I didn’t have much in common with on the surface.  I also became very resourceful, and learned how to find things that I needed.


By necessity, I learned a skill set that I find very valuable today.  Before I went to university, I was reserved, a bit shy, and didn’t socialize outside of my small circle.


Now, I don’t have any issues with intermingling with a variety of people, and conversing about a topic that I am not all too familiar with.  I am resourceful, and can find resources very easily.  I don’t mind asking people for favors or for them to scratch my back, because I know that I will eventually be able to scratch theirs.


When you see someone with a weakness, or a chink in their armour, don’t view it as a disability.  It should be seen as a tool to make them stronger in another category, and use their strong suits to their advantage.


This goes for you as an individual too.  Think about your skill set, and what you aren’t comfortable with, or lack aptitude in.  How can you turn those challenges into successes?  What methods do you use in order to be successful?  How have you overcome your weakness, and turned it into greatness?

The people mentioned in the first paragraph with dyslexia all had various strategies, including reading body language, becoming an astute listener, socializing out of a comfort zone, and moving business to Poland.


Take your problem or difficulty, and turn it into an enormous advantage.