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


11 Comments / Post A Comment

Blondsak (#2,299)

This reminds me of that recent TED Talk on how the secret to success in life is grit: http://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit.html

CubeRootOfPi (#1,098)

I read Gladwell’s book this past weekend. The point he was trying to make is that some people figure out a way to go around the difficulty and develop other skills to compensate (e.g. David Boies becoming a great litigator because he was forced to develop listening skills despite having dyslexia).

He also mentions that nearly every one of the people interviewed for the book say that they’d never wish their difficulties on their children (e.g. Boies saying that watching his kids grow up with dyslexia broke his heart).

IMO, a problem with Gladwell, at least in that book, was that he goes too far in his arguments. Saying that people were successful because they found other ways to compensate for their disadvantages is one thing, saying that the disadvantage becomes “desirable” takes that too far.

KPeeps (#1,140)

@CubeRootOfPi Yeah I’ve watched people close to me struggle with dyslexia. Just because some people overcome it and become successful doesn’t mean all people will.

notpollyanna (#2,841)

@CubeRootOfPi Agreed. Gladwell is kind of the worst of pop science: he takes anecdotes as trends and trends as irrefutable law. It makes for good reading for some people, it seems, but I worry about the consequences. A lot of scientific studies are already done and interpreted poorly by the scientists and pop science worsens it for the masses.

garli (#4,150)

@CubeRootOfPi Or you could be like me. I have pretty serve dyslexia but just figured out a different way to read as a kid. (I read entire sentences at a time, and have never successfully sounded out a word). At the time everyone just told me I was too lazy to spell correctly.

As an adult people will laughingly ask if I’m dyslexic when they watch me write something, or read something I did that hasn’t been proof read and I always say yes and they apologize. I can’t say it ruined my childhood or helped my life be any better, it’s just a thing I have to deal with.

I imagine it was much harder before spell check.

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

Eugh. That just reminded me of http://gawker.com/the-privilege-tournament-1377171054, which I had previously managed to block out. “Privilege: so sweet to have. But even sweeter to not have. Privilege has its benefits, but the lack of privilege confers that sweet, sweet moral superiority. With that in mind, we have decided to determine who, exactly, has the least privilege of all.”


Liz the Lemur (#3,125)

@Caitlin with a C SO MUCH RAGE! What? WHAT? Who decided this would be a good idea? Yes, definitely a good idea to make a cheap joke out of institutionalized prejudice. And definitely a good idea for the majority to decide which minority is oppressed the most. And laugh about it. Hahaha, I’m so amused.

cjm (#3,397)

What Gladwell doesn’t make clear enough is that these difficulties are a high risk/high reward strategy.

Dyslexia, or having a parent die when you are young, or other “desirable difficulties” are like buying a lottery ticket that costs $5,000, and sells 1000 tickets. 2 guys win $2 million each. 100 guys get their $5,000 back, and 898 guys are $5,000 poorer (and the house keeps $500,000). Gladwell is looking at all the lottery winners and saying, wow, lottery winners usually bought a ticket! They lost something to gain something! While ignoring the 898 losers who lost something and gained nothing.

@cjm “Gladwell is looking at all the lottery winners and saying, wow, lottery winners usually bought a ticket!”

– and that’s Gladwell reasoning in a nutshell.

qwer1234 (#4,140)

For the past several years, I’ve looked at my dyslexia, and my anxiety as well, as super powers I’m just not super great at harnessing yet. When I do manage to use their powers for good, I do some amazing things. But most of the time, my life is a disaster.

VelourFog (#5,077)

The October 2013 statistics for unemployment:
Labor Force Participation:
People with disabilities: 20.0%
People without disabilities: 68.5%

Unemployment Rate
People with disabilities: 12.8%
People without disabilities: 6.7%

So people with disabilities are hugely not in the laborforce at all, and those who wish to be are nearly 50% more likely to be out of work than those without. But it makes a catchy story to say the secret to success is some kind of disability or hardship.

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