By Joann Ellison Rodgers, published on January 1, 2011 - last reviewed on April 12, 2013
Remember the compelling rags-to-riches sagas that entertained and encouraged past generations of Americans? They now have a modern equivalent better-suited to our knowledge society. It features accounts of men and women who trip over their ABCs and flop on their GREs—but succeed beyond their wildest dreams. Today's Horatio Alger stories star learning-disabled economists who can't count, novelists who can't spell, and tycoons who can't tell "saw" from "was" but can hear a rambling presentation and see The Next Big Thing.
When pushed, a growing gallery of triumphant entrepreneurs, lawyers, scientists, artists, and writers own up to a history of dyslexia, ADHD, and related miswirings of the cerebral cortex. Web sites abound with the usual suspects—Einstein and Edison, whose dyscalculia throttled their efforts at arithmetic—and gush over the more newly revealed, from aviation's Richard Branson and fashion's Tommy Hilfiger to Wall Street's Charles Schwab, author John Irving, and actor/comedian Henry Winkler, who once joked that "we all know what being called 'special' in school really means."
What drives a man who couldn't pass algebra to master physics and change our view of the universe? What compels a novelist who failed to decipher Moby-Dick to put words on a page for a living? Do they achieve in spite of the disability or because of it? Do dyslexia and similar afflictions rob the left brain, dominated by "logical" cognition processes that manage reading and other learning skills favored in school, but pay the right hemisphere, in which neurons instantiate more inventive, ambitious, and creative processes?
It's not yet clear whether dyslexics make lemonade by figuring out ways around their reading problems or actually come pre-equipped with compensatory strengths. But the issue matters to many. An estimated one in ten children in the United States is dyslexic, and for most, their stories bog down in stigma.
"The pain begins the first day in school when kids realize they can't do what others do so easily," says Sally Shaywitz, a pediatric neurologist at Yale, cofounder of its Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, and researcher of the reading disability that accounts for 80 to 90 percent of all learning problems. She believes the learning-disabled are an unmined treasure with great potential value to society.
Shaywitz has evidence that their inability to decode letters on a page is often accompanied by "a sea of strength" in analytic thinking, reasoning, and creativity. Perhaps because they are forced to concentrate harder on particular problems, find work-arounds, and seek alternate ways to sort through chaff, they solve problems more easily, less distracted by irrelevant details. "They learn to think outside the box," she insists, "because they never fit inside."
Schools, however, generally describe cognitive success only one way—fluid reading, calculating, spatial navigation, and linear reasoning. Nevertheless, when doors most students dance through close on them, some of the "weird kids" become intrepid seekers of paths with fewer boundaries.
Their brain makeup may force that. In anatomical imaging studies, neurologist Martha Denckla of Johns Hopkins University finds that language flows far less efficiently through dyslexic brains than through typical ones. "Maybe," she says, "when dyslexics confront the word 'cat' they instantly get a bigger network of meaning. They see, feel, and smell cats." In school, this "rich associative network" encounters only exercises designed to shove the other senses back in the box. But it's the detours that contribute to the rich landscape of creativity and dot-connecting that so often mark the entrepreneur, the innovator, and the creative.
Some of the most exciting clues to the nature and nurture of "cognitive outlaws" come from the most successful among them. All report having developed the "courage to fail" because they experienced failure from an early age. They embraced the "cognitive quirks" that made school and sometimes relationships tough, but also made them charming.
They are self-described "risk takers," "very hard workers," "solution-focused" to a fault, and early on adopt what one has called "the C-student mentality," dedicated to the strategy of "invest low and reap high" by putting energy into what makes them happiest and what their lack of inhibitions tells them they can master if they try. The rest they discard.
Cognitive outlaws describe themselves as anxious, even hypervigilant in compensating for their disabilities. They rely on explicit routines for getting things done, as they can't trust their own instincts. Their impatience with details makes them dogged at simplifying complexity.
There are those among the learning disabled who somehow manage to reject the pedagogical orthodoxy they meet every day in school and instead work to rearrange the world to their own liking. All say that if they ventured triumphantly outside of cognitive boundaries, they did it with the support of others who filled in their gaps and were willingly recruited by their verve and determination. Here are four who have succeeded by anyone's best measures.
Only at the end of a long phone conversation did American hyperrealist and portraitist Chuck Close reveal his most peculiar learning disability. "Sure, feel free to stop by my gallery when you're in New York," he said cheerily, "but even though I have been talking to you for an hour and using your name, have your name written down, and have been told by my assistant who you were when you called, I will have no idea who 'Joann Rodgers' is when you introduce yourself."
Close, 70 and confined to a wheelchair since 1988 after a spinal stroke left him a partial quadriplegic, is not only dyslexic but agnosic, unable to recognize letters, objects, faces, words, scenes, or spaces with any of the five senses. Not remembering names is the least of it; he can't memorize dates or events or anything he reads—although he can recite conversations he had years ago word for word. But if someone who sits in front of him for an hour turns his head 10 degrees, he becomes a mystery guest. Close can't recognize faces no matter how frequently or long he looks at them, even if he knows them well.
Ironically, perhaps, this grand master of contemporary art achieved his fame mostly with monumental portraits of friends, family members, and everyday things. His meticulous method of filling a huge canvas with rings or dots of paint, ink, or paper pulp in whole families of hues brings a pointillist look to outsize images that seem, even up close, like photographs.
By his own account, Close's innovative style grew directly out of childhood difficulties. "I'm very learning-disabled," he says. "Art was the first thing I could do slightly better than most of my friends." After "failing at virtually everything else," he "put all my eggs in the art basket."
Growing up in rural Monroe, Washington, in the 1940s and '50s, "no one ever heard of dyslexia. I didn't until my older daughter [now a physician] was diagnosed," he recalls. "I was considered a dumb, lazy shirker. My biggest problem was trying to show my teachers I cared about the material although I couldn't spit back names and dates."
Art and music, he says, saved his life. "I was first-chair sax in the band, did the art for the yearbook and poetry magazine and the sets for plays, and I would do 20-foot-long murals. I sat in the front row and raised my hand even when I knew I couldn't answer the question, just to show I was eager."
Afflicted with physical disabilities to match his learning problems, Close couldn't run, throw, catch, or hit a ball. "I decided I needed to keep people around me some other way," he says, so he became a magician, puppeteer, and storyteller.
But it was the face blindness that drove him to paint portraits. "While I have very little ability to recognize a face in 3-D," he says, "I can remember a face almost photographically if I flatten it out. So I paint portraits to remember people close to me, but I do the act of flattening out from photos, not life, so that I can translate to canvas."
Overwhelmed by the "whole" of anything visual, he says, he figured out how to make big complicated things manageable by breaking them into parts. His canvases are first penciled with a grid.
"It takes away the fear and dread," he says. "I'm anxious, a nervous wreck with a short attention span, and a slob. I can't get mired in minutiae. I'm valuable only because I see big pictures and can put pieces together."
Like most successful dyslexics, Close recalls particular champions, teachers, and family members who believed in him, although one high school adviser told him he'd never make it to college because he couldn't take algebra and physics.
In high school, he became something of a celebrity for the coping mechanisms he devised. "I developed a method of getting a certain amount of information into my brain. I would use my sensory deprivation tank," he explains.
"I'd get in a tub of water, put a board over the rim to hold a book, turn off the bathroom lights, shine a bright light on the textbook, and sit there and read every page out loud five times to hear it in my ear. All night long I'd do that, then hurl my body out of the tub looking like a prune and rush to the classroom where I could spit back enough to get a C-minus. If the test was postponed a week, I had to do that all over again."
In college, Close was able to pick and choose courses and hire typists to whom he dictated all of his papers. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Washington and earned an MFA from Yale.
His studies completed, Close sent his former high school adviser an official transcript with a note: "Think about this."
She can't add, and she can't navigate well, but with a GPS, a BlackBerry, a Kindle, a calculator, and an assistant who checks her math and spelling, Diane Swonk has forged a blazing career as an economist, macro-trend forecaster, policy adviser, author, and public commentator. Like other dyslexics, she is driven to reduce complex systems to manageable stories. And her passion for her field is in some ways a direct offshoot of her dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder.
Having survived "a train wreck of a family" while growing up in Detroit, difficult personal relationships (two failed marriages), and a "crammed calendar," she credits technology for her professional life. "My Kindle lets me take notes and highlight key ideas. I can adjust the font and limit the number of words on the page so they don't overwhelm me the way a book does."
She can't read a map or anything else very well, including the speeches she composes, but she gets $20,000 a pop because "I use my disability to create a different way to deliver them. I write everything out like a story, and memorize the highlights. I speak the way I think, meaning not always linear." She also plays the flute and paints.
At 48, Swonk is senior managing director and chief economist for Mesirow Financial in Chicago, which she joined in 2004 after nearly two decades with Bank One. Author of The Passionate Economist: Finding the Power and Humanity Behind the Numbers, she is called upon frequently by policymakers and government leaders from Washington to the Far East, and sits on several advisory committees to the Federal Reserve Board, banks, and the Council of Economic Advisors for the White House. Her "simplification skills" have made her a sought-after commentator in the financial press and on national TV.
Diagnosed early with dyslexia and ADD, she learned a Japanese way of learning to read in first and second grade, with symbols standing for sounds. "I was put in with special needs children with low aptitude," she recalls, "but my parents—a General Motors executive married to an art teacher—insisted on an honors program." A "horrific male teacher" hounded her in sixth grade because she couldn't spell at grade level. "But I could memorize everything, so that's what I did. I still have no idea how to spell."
Although she holds B.S. and M.S. degrees with honors from the University of Michigan and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, Swonk's disability early on created tensions in the family, especially for her father. Her parents "needed" to figure out "why my IQ was so high but I couldn't learn to read."
Swonk got lucky with a teacher who taught her certain skills such as how to take notes. "I became a meticulous note-taker of every lecture even though I couldn't do the reading," she reports. "Classmates offered to pay me for my notes. I wrote them out and rewrote them," a prime example of "overreliance on explicit learning methods" that so many with learning disabilities adopt. And after writing and rewriting a semester's worth of notes, she memorized them.
The difficulties she faced with words on a page did not extend to complex math. "If I had to derive answers I could, although I did the derivation out of the box; I got the right answers but teachers couldn't figure out how. Neither could I. But once I had the ability to derive and write about it, I saw my way forward."
Economics, Swonk insists, "was the easiest thing ever for me. It's intuitive because it helped explain the world I was living in. My best friend was poor and we got a new car each year. I wanted to understand better what I saw around me."
To study economic behavior is to study people, says Swonk. "I essentially never turn off. Even on vacation, I question poverty or see big inefficiencies. I am always on stimulus overload. I see links everywhere between what I study and what is before my eyes. I work very hard and I'm also a compulsive perfectionist."
The twice-divorced mother of two confides that both of her ex-husbands were often angry with her for her hypervigilance and obsessive ways. She is married now to someone who "doesn't consider my dyslexia an easy target for ridicule. I couldn't then and can't now help it if I don't know which side of the car the steering wheel is on. If the GPS says turn right, I don't know where 'right' is. My kids joke that it's always the 'other right, Mom.'"
Swonk has "a hard time with lazy students," but admires those who have problems and figure out how to compensate. She insists that dyslexics and ADDs must be marathon runners, not sprinters. "Literally and figuratively, I am never done. I always feel the need to control my life minute to minute. But I am learning to come to terms with some imperfections."
Swonk admits that if she could do her life over, "I would go easier on myself. I don't like my kids to show me their test scores; it's the wrong measure of success. Doing the job is what counts; showing up and doing the homework."
Sloane Crosley: Author
Hailed by some critics as a new—and very funny—voice of her generation, Sloane Crosley, 32, is the author of two collections of essays about navigating the quotidian crises, delights, and humiliations of living in a big city. Smelly taxis, finding an "affordable" apartment, and dating are all grist for her literary mill. For years Crosley worked as a book publicist; she has also contributed to The New York Times, the Village Voice, Playboy, and Mirabella and is a frequent TV and radio guest.
Classic Crosley: "Lately, the sight of a woman walking down the street with one purse strap down morphs me into Henny Youngman ('Take my wallet, please')." And this: "Suburbia is too close to the country to have anything real to do and too close to the city to admit you have nothing real to do."
Her first collection of essays, I Was Told There'd Be Cake, released in 2008, was followed last year by How Did You Get This Number, in which sassy one-liners grapple with, among other things, her particular brand of learning disability known as spatial agnosia. She is the genetically wired poster child for every woman mocked by a man because she can't read a map. "I literally can't tell you where I am in space, or tell time either by reading the hands on an analog clock," she says. "The recurring theme in my life is to struggle with way-finding, calculating, having a game of cards. It's like learning a foreign language each time."
Everyday objects and experiences can create terror. Labeling her disability a "cousin of dyslexia," Crosley assuages the emotional upset with the comfort of storytelling. "Take guidebooks they sell for walks in cities," she says. "To me they are a nightmare. I can remember every sight and sound I've shared with people all over the world. I can tell you what you wore three weeks ago, down to the color of the bow on your shoe. But the panic I feel when I have to go to the store six blocks away is terrible, especially when driving."
"You don't want people to pity you and you don't want to complain in public because what kind of real problem is this?" Being lost in space, she seems to imply, is not cancer. Complaining "is just begging the universe to respond to give you something really to cry about."
Lots of people get lost, she says, "it's just that I get lost three blocks from home or 3,000 miles from home. People think you are just not applying yourself. But in truth, my mind goes blank when I look at a map or a clock."
For a long time, Crosley tried to hide the disability. "I'm phenomenally bad at spatial relations and high functioning in everything else." Still, her spatial agnosia has strengthened her. "I've become a very good listener with a good visual memory. I remember strings of numbers and can recite 20 of them backwards. The compensatory gift is there, and all of us like me develop different ways of compensating."
Her meticulous work-arounds include almost always wearing clothes with pockets so she can keep her fingers in a pocket pointed in the "right" direction. "I have no idea where right, left, east and west are. The adult thing is to ask for help. So sometimes I fake an accent to cover my inability. I like a Puerto Rican/Russian mix."
Crosley has a circle of friends, but admits she doesn't always enjoy them. "I suspect my agnosia keeps me from being as spontaneous as I—and others—would like to be because the unknown is less fun for me than for other people."
In the early morning of October 5, 2009, 49-year-old geneticist Carol Greider was folding laundry after an outdoor run. As her children slept, the phone rang, and a caller from Stockholm informed her that she had won the Nobel Prize. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited her 1984 discovery of telomerase, the enzyme that keeps chromosome tips (telomeres) intact and is essential for the health and survival of all cells.
Greider, along with co-honorees Elizabeth Blackburn, her Ph.D. supervisor, and colleague Jack Szostak, had done the Nobel-winning experiments decades earlier as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. Not only was it unusual for a student to take on such risky research—no one knew some substance was reconstituting chromosome tips—but Greider almost never made it to grad school.
Severely dyslexic, she scored poorly on the Graduate Record Exams, as she did on all standardized tests. Unfortunately, most good schools enforced strict GRE cutoff scores. Of the 13 schools she applied to, only 2 were interested. "If UC Berkeley had not invited me for an interview, I would never have gotten into grad school, discovered telomerase, and won the Nobel Prize," she says.
Currently professor and director of molecular biology and genetics at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences, Greider became interested in telomeres because researchers already knew that small pieces of them weren't copied as cells divided and chromosomes replicated during cell division. That should have left the new cells with shorter telomeres, but somehow the telomeres always kept their length. Blackburn suspected the existence of an enzyme that made telomeric DNA to reconstitute them.
For nine months, for twelve hours a day in the lab, Greider ran experiments using mostly Tetrahymena thermophila, an organism others call pond scum that has 40,000 or so chromosomes per cell, compared to the mere 23 pairs humans have. The organism afforded her far more opportunities to study chromosome ends. Such a practical/logical approach is an attribute shared by many dyslexics.
"For a student to want to get involved in this project was almost unheard of," Blackburn has said. "Students want to do safe things [to advance their careers] and this was not safe. It could have completely crashed and burned. But Carol had a sense of adventure."
Alone in the lab on Christmas Day 1984, Greider spotted evidence of what would be called telomerase—a discovery others have likened to figuring out how cells divide. Greider, a triathlete and long-distance runner, rushed home and "danced and danced" to Bruce Springsteen.
The risk taking, the dogged persistence, the enthusiasm, the sense of fun are counterparts to the dyslexia she long struggled to overcome. Greider first confronted her disability in elementary school, where she was unable to spell or sound out words. "It was terrifying to read in front of a class. I could see the word, but couldn't pronounce it. I felt like a stupid outsider, not as smart as the other kids." She was pulled out of her classes by a tutor for remedial work, making her even more self-conscious.
Eventually, she gave up trying to sound words out. Instead, she began memorizing "literally thousands of words" and how they were spelled. She describes her approach as "putting on blinders and just forging ahead." When her approach garnered her A's, she figured out she wasn't so stupid after all. It wasn't until college, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, that she realized there was a word for what plagued her.
Like many fellow dyslexics, Greider now speaks with charming rapidity, her thoughts tumbling out in passionate coherence. Unlike many other dyslexics, however, she "loves" to read.
Greider doesn't really know if she thinks differently than others, but "we dyslexics do compensate with memory," she says. "I practice memorization." Oh, yes. There's one other thing the Nobel laureate does. "I see the core of a problem quickly. I'm good at rapidly separating wheat from chaff. Others can't or don't do it easily." Learning problems, she adds, "don't have to be obstacles to getting what you want. There are ways to compensate. Persevere. Do what you love and you'll find ways to get it done."
As psychologists, educators, and neuroscientists tease out the nature of dyslexia and other learning disabilities, they find that the conditions also confer certain talents. Yale's Sally Shaywitz defines dyslexia as an unexpected difficulty in reading relative to IQ, education, or professional status.
Typical readers figure out quickly how to link letters with a particular sound. "After some practice, all they have to do is see the letters and it's automatic, like breathing," she says. But in dyslexics the process remains manual; each time they see a word, it's brand-new. With enormous effort, they learn to read, but always slowly. "What's clear is that their brains process information a different way, perhaps due to lower levels of inhibition."
Dyslexics see big pictures, adds Shaywitz. "Their minds wander wider. And they can cut to the chase of a problem and make quick decisions—often to the point that others are annoyed with them."
Learning problems may have their source in cultural evolution. Reading, Shaywitz explains, is based on spoken language, and spoken language took hundreds of thousands of years to evolve. It's hardwired and naturally acquired.
Written language, on the other hand, is 10,000 years old at most, neither natural nor hardwired, although some symbols and glyphs might be. Individual letters must be connected to something with inherent meaning learned from spoken language. "That's why dyslexics may have a hard time learning Cat in the Hat; they may mispronounce simple words repeatedly even after they've heard them a lot."
Research now also suggests why efforts to force dyslexics to learn like everybody else often only makes things worse. Dyslexia and related reading, visual, and spatial disabilities have little to do with intellectual capacity and IQ. In fact, reading ability and IQ operate independently, Shaywitz reports. In a 12-year study of cognitive and behavioral development in 445 Connecticut school kids, Shaywitz and her husband, Bennett, showed that in typical readers, IQ and reading ability align closely at all ages. But in children with dyslexia, they do not, explaining why a dyslexic can be bright but not read well.
It may be that in the chemical soup that bathes all brains, and which flavors personality, cognitive outlaws rely a bit more on dopamine than on serotonin. That neurochemistry may explain their proclivity for brain plasticity, exploration, and risk taking—without which the modern world wouldn't exist.