I was in second grade when I overheard my teacher telling my parents that he would be surprised if I finished high school. In the second grade!
Hearing this, you’d guess that I wasn’t the most well-behaved student in my class. Throughout my formative years, I stuck to that persona at times and it wasn’t until high school, when I got my first job, that I really learned to appreciate the value of hard work.
You see, I am diagnosed with dyslexia, and before I knew that I had a learning disability, I was cast as a troublemaker and a failure. It wasn’t until I got my first job working in a vintage car shop that I really found my sense of self-worth. I was able to see the value of hard work and I was given opportunities to do things that others thought I might not be capable of doing. I enjoyed seeing what I could accomplish from working hard—physically, mentally, and financially.
I put myself through college, graduating with an Economics degree from Colorado State University. I went on to receive a master’s degree in Applied Economics from the University of Michigan and eventually got my MBA from the Kellogg School of Management. I have been a successful investment banker on Wall Street, have run my own financial investment firms, and led a dynamic and innovative philanthropy entity, where we help connect socially responsible entrepreneurs and startup businesses with investors of similar mindsets.
The road has been challenging, but now that I look back on some of my accomplishments and look at other successful entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and athletes, I see that certain roadblocks help not only define a person’s path, but also how they navigate that path, and whether they make it to their destination.
Dyslexia and the CEO
In around 2004, when I was applying to business school, I read an article in Fortune magazine about the innovative and influential Virgin Group founder and philanthropist, Richard Branson. One thing that struck me was that he, too, was diagnosed with dyslexia. In fact, survey results show that approximately 40% of CEOs are dyslexic.
Some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople have not only overcome their learning disabilities, but have figured out how to use them to their advantages. It is somewhat of a badge of honor to be in the same group of individuals as John Chambers, former CEO of Cisco, the legendary Charles Schwab, and Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. Even Albert Einstein is believed to have been dyslexic. One might not think this type of learning disability would promote success, but looking at this list of achievers, it begs the question: is it possible that what to many looks like a weakness might actually be a strength?
Sure, those that suffer from dyslexia are said to have a difficult time reading, getting thoughts down on paper, and staying focused, but they make up for things in other areas. Neural plasticity is defined as the brain’s ability to adapt in response to a changing environment. This is why, for example, the blind are said to have heightened senses of hearing, smell, and touch, amongst other cognitive functions.
As I can personally attest to, growing up with dyslexia as a child can make you feel like a failure. However, my personal qualities and innate sense of perseverance have helped me build a successful career in finance and investments. These same qualities helped me persist in striving to achieve goals outside of my professional life as well, including becoming one of about 80 people (at the time) to reach the peaks of all Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each continent. I can relate to the business leaders mentioned above and feel empowered and encouraged by their successes. We may all suffer from a similar disability, but we also all possess a strong desire to overcome our biggest challenges. Many of the world’s top CEOs aren’t afraid to fail. They are some of the most incredibly determined, intuitive, and creative minds in the world.
Habits Become Building Blocks of Success
It is said that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Why 21 days? Research suggests that in the 1950s, plastic surgeon Dr. Maxwell Maltz took note that it would take a patient approximately 21 days to adjust to their new situation. For example, if he amputated a leg, the patient would feel a phantom limb for about 21 days until their cognitive memory made note of their new condition.
Whether this study reflects truth or myth, a person’s ability to change their everyday routine is essentially up to them. Other studies indicate that it can take up to 66, or even 96 days to develop new habits, but all point to the same core idea: if you have the will, if you are persistent, and if you have a strong vision of your end goal, you will succeed in changing your life. An entrepreneur takes risks and will fail many times before finally getting it right. Talk to any entrepreneur or successful business leader and more often than not they will tell you that they fell on the darkest of times before they rose to the top.
Harnessing Your Ability to Become Super
In my quest to climb the tallest peaks on all seven continents, I arguably faced more adversity than I ever did growing up with dyslexia. Before my first attempt on Mount Everest, I was somewhat ill-prepared both physically and emotionally for what was to come. This first experience is one I will never forget and given that I’ve always believed in “go big or go home,” I made the decision to persist.
I began training for what would eventually lead me to becoming a sponsored Gordini athlete, an author, and a philanthropist. Preparing for these extreme climbs, I would weight train for one to two hours a day, five days a week. I would perform intense cardio five to six days a week, including one full 10-hour training session each week. To prepare for the realities of the mountain, every other week I would perform a 15-hour climb while in the middle of a 36-hour fast. And, because we would be climbing in the most extreme and frigid conditions on the planet, during the winter months I would take a cold shower, fully clothed, and then go for a run to prepare my body to resist hypothermia, an incredibly common condition climbers get on these mountains.
It is not uncommon for those who overcome tragedy or a debilitating impairment to rise to greatness. French journalist and author Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a number one best-selling memoir published in 1997. The memoir chronicles Bauby’s life after suffering from a stroke and falling into a 20-day coma. When he awoke, he was completely paralyzed with the exception of the limited ability to move his head and eyes. He wrote the entire memoir through an amazing feat of technology which saw him choose individual letters of the French alphabet by blinking his left eye into a scanner, a partner proceeding to transcribe the results into what would become the book.
The book has sold millions of copies, and though Bauby has since passed, his legacy lives on to inspire anyone who believes they are inferior in the face of truly daunting obstacles.
When I think back on all of the times it would have been easier for me to say no or to quit than to keep moving and pushing myself forward, I cannot imagine the person I would be today had I not learned the lessons of perseverance that came from my experiences overcoming dyslexia. Nothing happens out of luck. It is through sheer perseverance, and the desire to become more than that grade-school boy that had “no chance” of making it through high school, that I have built a legacy of which myself and my family can be proud. I suggest to many people that I meet that they think of one thing that scares the hell out of them, and then just take a leap and keep climbing towards and over it. Where there is weakness, there is always also the very strength we need to reach our summit before proceeding to the next mountain to climb.