Dyslexia affects about 15 percent of Americans. But the apparent weakness can also be a covert strength, especially in business, Shark Tank investors Barbara Corcoran, Daymond John and Kevin O’Leary have found.
Dyslexia is far more common among entrepreneurs than the general public. A study by Julie Logan of Cass Business School in London showed that 35 percent of U.S. entrepreneurs—more than twice the national average—identified themselves as dyslexic. (High-profile dyslexics include Virgin’s Richard Branson, Jet Blue founder David Neeleman and investment guru Charles Schwab.)
Recent research conducted at MIT suggests why people with dyslexia may excel as innovators: While ordinary readers focus on the central field of their vision, dyslexics are more likely to flash on images at the periphery. That, in turn, gives them an edge in taking in the big picture.
The Sharks coped with dyslexia in their own ways. Corcoran’s reading challenges led her to focus on building verbal and social skills, indispensable talents in a business like real estate. “Dyslexia teaches you how to get people on your side for reasons other than you’re smart,” she says. “You learn how to make friends readily, and because as a kid you knew what it felt like to be a loser, you develop great empathy. When I was building my business, I could walk through a sales floor with 150 brokers and if somebody was in pain, I could feel it. I’d go up and say, ‘How are you doing?’ and comfort them with the words they needed to hear when they were absolutely ready to give up.”
When O’Leary was enrolled in an experimental program at McGill University in Montreal where he grew up, he was taught that his dyslexia was actually a superpower, just like those possessed by the heroes of Marvel Comics. “I could hold a book in front of a mirror and read it. No one else could do that. That’s not a weakness; it’s a power, and I was going to advance because of it. After a couple of months of that being drilled into my head, I came to believe it. And I still do. I consider dyslexia a strength. You just need to be taught how to harness it.”
John didn’t realize he was dyslexic until a decade or so ago, when emails and texts became the primary form of communicating. “Everyone was always saying, ‘What’s wrong with your spelling?’ ” That eventually led him to a diagnosis of dyslexia. As a child he’d struggled with reading, and while he sometimes wondered whether he was as smart as other kids, he recognized that he excelled in math, science and anything creative.
By age 9, John had started a business assembling bikes. Within a year he had so many requests that he was hiring other kids. “Dyslexia forces you to solve problems in different ways, so you use more of your brain, including your capacity for visualization,” John says. “Like dyslexic musicians who say they can see the notes that they’re playing, I can see a business unfolding in my head.”
Today he has people spell-check his texts before he sends them. “I have no problem turning to someone who’s sitting next to me and saying, ‘Hey, I’m dyslexic, can you look this over for me?’”