Richard Branson has never been reticent to share his personal experience with dyslexia. In the opening sentence to a recent blog post, Branson writes, “I’m often asked how I went from being a dyslexic school dropout to founding many successful businesses.”
Branson wrote the post to promote a new charity called Made By Dyslexia. Led by successful people with dyslexia, the charity’s goal is to help people “see dyslexia differently” and to reframe it as a positive influence in their lives. Dyslexia, writes Branson, is “a brilliant way of thinking.”
Here’s an excerpt of the advice Branson would have given to his teenage self:
I know you’re struggling at school and I wanted to give you some advice on how to become the best you can be…You should never see being different as a flaw or think that something is wrong with you. Being different is your biggest asset and will help you succeed…I know you have problems with reading, writing, and spelling, and sometimes find it tricky to keep up in class. This does not mean you are lazy or dumb. You just think in a more creative way…Use your alternative ways of thinking to be creative and think bigger.”
In another blog post on the subject, Branson said he doesn’t see dyslexia as a disability; he sees it as an “exceptionability.”
Branson is using a psychological brain hack that is highly effective in turning weaknesses into strengths. Reframing, or what scientists call “reappraisal,” isn’t the simple repeating of daily affirmations like “I’m strong enough, I’m good enough.” Reframing means focusing on your best qualities and embracing those traits that give you an edge.
In The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot talks about champion athletes who, when all seems lost, dig deep and find another gear. They do so by “actively reframing the situation in their mind, focusing on opportunity even under threat.” Sharot says we have a unique capacity to direct our inner attention.
I’v used reframing myself to change the way I see my ADHD (Branson also believes he has ADHD, but hasn’t been officially diagnosed).
ADHD: Disorder or gift?
I have diagnosed ADHD. As a journalist, I attempted to learn everything I could about it. I read dozens of medical books and academic papers on the subject, as well as speaking to the world’s most notable experts. I reached the same conclusion that Richard Branson reached about dyslexia: When you change the way you see yourself, the person other people see will change.
I didn’t reframe ADHD on my own. Dr. Ed Hallowell had a lot to do with it. He’s a former faculty member at the Harvard Medical School. His 1994 book on ADHD, Driven to Distraction, became an international bestseller, revolutionized the study of ADHD, and sparked a much-needed conversation about the disorder.
When I first interviewed Hallowell, I saw ADHD as a condition–a psychiatric “disorder” that made it hard to focus. It was frustrating at times, especially when I had to study ten times harder than my peers at UCLA to get good grades. If you have ADHD and you’re not passionate about the topic, your mind wanders–constantly. I’m an optimist, so I didn’t see ADHD as a negative. But I didn’t see it as a positive, either. At least until I met Hallowell. One conversation changed my life. Hallowell said:
“People with ADHD have a Ferrari for a brain, but they have bicycle breaks. Strengthen the breaks and you have incredible power. People with ADHD are creative and imaginative. They’re the people who colonized this country. They are visionaries, pioneers, dreamers, and a risk-takers. It’s an edge.”
Suddenly, I saw ADHD as an advantage.
Fast forward a few months later. I’m walking with my little girl outside of a piano studio after her lessons. She, too, has ADHD (the trait is largely inherited).
“I heard you play the piano. You were wonderful. I wonder where your talent comes from,” I casually said to my daughter.
“It’s a gift,” she said. “You know, like the doctor said.”
My daughter had overheard my conversation with Dr. Hallowell. She doesn’t see ADHD as a “disorder,” which is how its classified in the psychiatric manual. It’s a gift that makes her shine.
By reading stories of successful people who have dyslexia, ADHD, or other differences–and by sharing those stories–it changes the way people living with those conditions see themselves. In doing so, it unlocks hidden talents.
We become what we focus on. Are you seeing your differences as a strength? Branson does, and it seems to have worked for him.