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The dyslexic CEO

You’re judged more on how you deal with adversity than you are by your successes.

On May 16, Cisco CEO John Chambers made a startling admission in the New York Times “The Boss” feature–he’s dyslexic. He first made the admission to his daughter’s class on bring-your-parent-to-school day, when one of her classmates tried to ask a question but stumbled over her words and was embarrassed by her dyslexia. “Take your time,” he said, “I’m disabled too.”

This revelation should have amazing repercussions throughout the IT industry. If the CEO of one of the largest tech firms on the planet can fight through his disability, anyone can. At least that’s what a lot of kids in that class–and New York Times readers–came away with. As I edit our annual Training issue, I have a strong urge to amplify Chamber’s admission and motivate the folks in IT who have struggled, for whatever reason, with language skills.

I have a theory about dyslexia: It’s a lot more common than people think. In fact, I think most people have mild dyslexia. Think about all the times you have unintentionally inverted letters or mispronounced words, especially when under pressure. Most people can overcome their disabilities and have successful careers through extra study. But many struggle with language skills–especially English skills–and this keeps them from achieving the success their intelligence warrants. Technology can help, but years of focusing on what you do best and avoiding what you struggle with can turn a disability into a lack of necessary skills.

Chambers’ admission struck a chord with me because it reawakened a lot of my own struggles with dyslexia. The idea of a dyslexic editor may seem like an oxymoron, but it is not a contradiction in terms in my case. I remember all those years of working with my mom after school on spelling–an hour a day for five years–without appreciable improvement in what were horrible spelling grades. Most of my struggles were based on my brain’s natural tendency to invert letters on tests. I could recite the proper spelling in our after-school sessions, but it never translated into testing success.

The biggest challenge was not the disability, but overcoming the frustration associated with working so hard and still failing. For me, the natural inclination was to pay attention to math and science and not even try in English. Why put so much effort into something without hope for success?

Mom claimed it was genetic. She was the word person and Dad was the math person. The only impediment to my success in math and science was boredom. English was another story altogether. Mom said I had Dad’s brain. He was an excellent engineer who made himself the consummate communicator. But he couldn’t spell cat if you put him to the test. He knew enough to hire a secretary who could spell, and he had a knack for conveying ideas verbally and for the format of business letters and memos. This was enough in those days.

Nowadays, even the most highly trained programmers and analysts need to be able to write well. You can have the best ideas in your business and they will never be taken seriously if you can’t put them down in a coherent and clean document. When I first figured this out, it was like looking up at a mountain and knowing I simply had to climb it to get where I needed to go. That was back in college, when the PC was new and the most popular word processor at school was PC Write–a DOS-based shareware program with a rudimentary spell checker.

The technology liberated me because I no longer had to check every word in my term papers. I only had to look up the words that the spell checker found. But, unlike current spell checkers, it didn’t suggest alternatives. I had to look up all the misspelled words in a paper dictionary and retype them in the document. Through the process of looking up all those words on all those term papers for several years in college and graduate school, I slowly gained confidence in my language skills. At some point, I got such a kick out of succeeding where I had failed my whole life that I decided to make writing and editing my profession.

Before I started climbing the mountain, I never would have believed that I could be a published author, let alone the editor of a publication. I’ve read that the brain is a very adaptable organ. Stroke victims, for example, relearn language skills by training other parts of their brains. Perhaps a similar thing happened to me. All that repetition allowed me to train another part of my brain, and I no longer show any signs of my disability. I spent so much time and effort overcoming my disability that I became better at language skills than any of the subject matter I had studied for a decade.

One thing I have learned in my climb is that you’re judged more on how you deal with adversity than on your successes. And so I have been richly rewarded for conquering the mountain.

I can say I would never have gotten anywhere without office technology to provide me with a safety net-even a rudimentary one. Today, there is a plethora of assistive technologies to help disabled people. Lots of hardware has been developed to let those with physical disabilities use computers. Special speech technologies allow those with sight impediments be productive. Dyslexia is also overcome with speech recognition; those with written language barriers often are excellent speakers. I could go on and on about the products for disabled learners, but I’ll let you do the research at

My hope is that for those of you struggling with language-based disabilities, John Chambers’ story combined with my own will inspire you to overcome your difficulties. Society will still demand that you learn to communicate well. But with the help of some readily available technology, you can turn language barriers into skills worth boasting about on your résumés.

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