By definition, chaos is the state of complete disorder and confusion. It’s a disruption that can come in many forms, happens at any time and can throw things off. Sometimes chaos is very public, like a natural disaster or that last-minute deadline Slack dropped to you at 4pm on a Friday. Other times, chaos is more personal and internal. My chaos is personal.
My form of chaos has a name, a diagnosis, disbelief, doubt and even genius. My chaos is dyslexia.
Luckily for me, it’s also my superpower.
As a dyslexic, I am part of an awesome global community of people who think and see things differently. I am the one in 5 people with this superpower, and just like my fellow dyslexics I’m creative, innovative and successful! And maybe one day I’ll join the ranks of my fellow dyslexics who make up 40% of the world’s self-made millionaires.
What is dyslexia?
Simply put, dyslexia is a cognitive difference on a spectrum that results in disruptions in the way a person can process letters, words, numbers or symbols. Some people see words and letters backwards (in the way that many people define dyslexia), while others have challenges processing numbers, repeating what they hear or even the fluency and decoding of sight words like “the” or “of”.
Dyslexia is a Spectrum - A Beautiful One!
While dyslexia may cause tripping on words and numbers, dyslexia isn’t a deficit in intelligence. Instead, dyslexia is a spectrum of learning differences, allowing us the ability to see and think in ways that other people can’t - and allows us to excel in truly thinking in different expansive ways. Many respected thinkers, artists, musicians, writers, doctors, chefs, scientists, entrepreneurs and inventors are dyslexic - look it up...I’ll wait. It’s because of their dyslexia that they were able to imagine the impossible and make it possible (I’m talkin’ to people like you, Richard Branson, Octavia Spencer, Gil Gershoni, ½ of the Sharks on Shark Tank and to the future...my daughter).
My Dyslexia Wasn’t Always A Superpower
I didn’t know that my dyslexia was a superpower and, for many years, I ignored and powered through. For a very long time, it was a secret that I kept, because I was worried I wouldn’t find a job and begin my career as a designer. I also didn’t want people to think that I was less than others (Made by Dyslexia, Dyslexic Advantage and Dyslexic Design Thinking didn’t exist yet). What I didn’t realize - and what I hadn’t embraced - was the fact that there was no point in hiding who I was because it always came through and was a contributor and guiding factor of landing roles throughout my career. It is truly a superpower.
Embracing My Superpower
I’d like to tell you that I woke up one day with a healthy helping of grit and the revelation that my dyslexia was my best creative asset... but it’s not true at all. I started researching (as we all do) and Googling famous dyslexic people. Much to my surprise and now delight, I discovered that some of the very people that students are taught about - and the self-made millionaires (40% of them to be exact) that the business world look up to share our superpower - they were and are all dyslexic. I was able to show my daughter that she has a gift - and it was time for me to think about how dyslexia has helped me as a creative and experienced professional.
Creativity, Dyslexic Thinking, and Problem Solving
My creativity comes from the ability to see a physical representation of a design problem in my head and almost physically pick it up and turn it around. This ability has always come in handy when working on strategies through a complex problem, talking with friends and colleagues about their next career move, or while sitting with my daughter’s friend when she talks about what to pursue in college. I discovered that I was even using the power of my dyslexia while trying to help my nine-year-old daughter see that her learning difference was going to be her asset. I imagine it as a prism with different facets and being able to see those facets and string together a path, process, and set of to-do’s that will help solve the problem.
I ask a lot of questions and express a lot of thoughts (for proof of this, just ask my teams)
When I’m working with someone on a challenge or problem, I will often sit quietly and write notes. Writing these notes helps to build that mental picture in my head and begin to build very unique questions for this specific challenge. Sometimes it questions about a specific journey, function, or end user. More often than not, my questions are poking on a little detail that may seem trivial, but that my mind has indicated needs a little more digging. I can’t tell you how many times a question starting along the lines of, ‘Can we go back to that detail’ has helped to frame a direction or even uncovered a new business solution or a surprise revenue stream that’s greater than we set out to accomplish.
I’m always looking for a way to make work more accessible in different ways Decoding information is something that I work hard at every day. I often record meetings to playback later, I write notes in 3 different colors and use muscle memory to help me get information right. These activities are a constant reminder that people learn and obtain information in different ways. That’s why when working through a new design deliverable, I’m always asking about accessibility. Does the color contrast help those with different insights? Have we created a proper hierarchy to help guide the user? Is the content delivered in scannable pieces, and do we have enough visuals to help drive home the message? The goal of connecting these dots is to make sure there is representation and accommodation for as many users as possible.
I can take many pieces and build processes that help teams work more efficiently
As a dyslexic, I’ve gone trial and error through tips, tricks and processes that counterbalance my deficits. What I’ve come to discover is that those years of practicing, learning, and iterating now helps me build practices and processes that help my internal team and our external client teams work more efficiently.
I’m not afraid to take a different path, and I’m not afraid to fail
If you read about dyslexics or happen to know someone who is dyslexic, you will know that we’ve had a lifetime of trying and failing and getting back up and trying again because the way we think and the way we see the world is often so different than conventional methods. While it was frustrating growing up, I now see how it’s an asset. I don’t mind thinking about or recommending a different path to creative solutions because right now that’s what industries want. I’m also not afraid to fail because I grew up failing and 9 times out of 10 I failed forward.
I’m not always quick or linear thinker, and it helps to bring new ideas
I’m always amazed when I watch some of my colleagues talk through their thinking because it’s clean, methodical, linear and quick - but that’s just not me. My thinking process is gritty, messy and takes a little time to simmer. It was frustrating to me for a very long time, but after a while, I embraced my process because my slow-burn thinking helps me to think more holistically about the design challenges.
My bonus superpower is ADHD
According to the International Dyslexia Association, 30% of dyslexia population has some form of ADHD and I’m proud to be one of the 30% (I'm inattentive ADHD to be exact). What’s great about this bonus superpower is I can pay attention to and keep track of multiple events, conversation at once. This comes in handy with those important meetings when everyone is talking over one another.
I can go on about the ways my dyslexia is a superpower, and it’s only because I’m finally in a place where I can embrace its creative brilliance. What I will say is coming to this place required me to accept the fact that I may need more tricks and tools to do my job — and that’s ok. What I didn’t realize is some of my tricks have been picked up and used by friends and colleagues along the way.
Tips, Tricks, and Tools That Help Me Everyday
Making lists helps me stay organized and on track
Making lists every evening helps me transition my mind, while creating a tool that will help bring focus to the next day. If I don’t make this list, my evening is fractured and the next day starts in a bit of a free fall.
My Dyslexia Pro-Tip: With Covid and all of its gifts, I double down with my list and block my calendar to match that list. Doing so allows me to make space for last-minute to-do items.
When I’m writing, Grammarly and Otter are my best friends
I have a ton of thoughts and always have a running narrative of topics in my head. When it comes to writing said ideas down, it’s difficult and feels like I’m on a Robin Arzon Peloton Climb (read: doable, but WOW). I rely on two apps to help me get the words out and make sure my writing is correct: Otter and Grammarly.
Otter is a great app that records conversations and transcribes words. This is helpful for me because I’m usually always writing notes when I’m in a meeting, in a coaching session or planning facilitation with co-facilitators. This kind of dual processing is perfect for me. I can go back and make sure that I caught certain details in the conversation.
If you’ve read ‘What’s in Your Apps, Dani’ you know that Grammarly is a major go-to app for me. This app is a great help with spelling, missing words and grammar. It’s also great in showing me if the spirit of my writing is more professional or casual in tone.
My Dyslexia Pro-Tips:
Otter: When I’m writing notes, I may write down the time code (:25 into the call, 1:75…) so I can easily go back into the recording.
Both apps: Invest in their Premium apps - worth every penny.
Notebook-specifics: I only use a grid notebook and create notes in three different colors to help me read, understand, and remember.
For effective note-taking, I use my gridded notebook (buyer’s choice) and divide the page into a ⅓ - ⅔ layout. I usually write my topics on the left in one color and write details in another color. If I have questions or points I want to revisit quickly, I write them in a third color. The colors don’t matter as long as you are consistent. If you decide to change the color, make a chapter page in your notebook with a key so you know the job of each color.
My Dyslexia Pro-Tips: Choose pens and journals that you love. I’m a huge fan of Uniball but I also use Pilot FriXion Clicker Erasable Pens from time to time. For journals, I have been using a Shinola 7” x 9” grid journal, but any large gridded-journal will do.
When I need a break, I take a break
Being dyslexic is awesome but also exhausting. My daughter’s Orton-Gillingham tutor once explained to me that our brains work twice as hard when we are trying to process and not to be surprised if exhaustion sets in. It was a lightbulb moment for me because it explained why I feel drained and can’t focus after completing certain tasks. So, I decided that breaks are ok and if I can’t focus to move on to something else. Sometimes this means I’m working at night but that’s ok because I know the quality of my work will be good and I just make a commitment not to miss my deadlines.
My Dyslexia Pro-Tip: Take a week and observe how much you work, when you feel work fatigued and experiment with taking breaks. You can also use the 20-20-20 rule that eye doctors prescribe to people who do a lot of work in front of the computer - For every 20 minutes you work on the screen, try to look 20 feet away from the computer for at least 20 seconds.
The one thing I should note about my dyslexia is that these tips and tricks are always changing and it took me a long time to recognize that. I try whatever works at the time and I go with it. While it’s not always consistent, and sometimes it may not seem the most organized, it’s the dance between the chaos and superpower that makes me who I am.
Celebrating the chaos and the superpower
I love being dyslexic and I cherish the discoveries that I’ve made through understanding its gifts. I learned to appreciate the chaotic times - the days when one of my tricks doesn’t quite help, when a typo has slipped through on a presentation or something that I want to write about takes 5 times as long (case and point: this blog post). I now know that the chaos is clearing ways for my superpower to shine through a new creation for a project or helping pull several ideas together to help foster innovation.
When this push and pull of the chaos and the superpower happens, I remember that I have grit and I would never have developed that grit if it weren’t for this gift of mine. I just sit back, take in the information until it’s time to pick up that prism in my head to see where I can find that new way of thinking, find new questions and even uncover a new and innovative idea to share.