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Personal Stories

An Eye for Opportunity

By: Paul Orfalea

Dr. Mel Levine says, "Teachers must realize that the very qualities that trip up a child may be the source of his success as an adult." That was sure true in my case. I couldn't read and I couldn't sit still. What blessings these turned out to be!

Dyslexia and hyperactivity make school difficult today, but imagine how it was in the early 1950s - in Catholic school. I still have ruler imprints on my knuckles. I flunked the second grade because I could not learn the alphabet, and I got kicked out of school repeatedly. It was hard on me and it was hard on my parents.

But I was very lucky to have parents who saw me as an individual. One day after I was expelled from school at the age of 13, the vice principal told my mother not to worry about my future: "Maybe someday he can learn how to lay carpet," he said to console her. I remember my mom came home crying that day and said, "I just know Paul can do more than lay carpets." Mom knew me. She talked to me and she listened to me. The teachers and administrators only knew what I couldn't do; Mom saw with her own eyes what I could do.

See with your own eyes

This is an important theme in my life. I believe something I read in a fortune cookie, that "your eyes believe what they see; your ears believe others." Well, reading is just listening with your eyes, right? Good readers collect other people's words and dyslexics tend to see things for themselves. Who is more likely to repeat others, and who is more likely to be creative?

Because I couldn't read, I learned from direct experience. Experience is a harsh teacher because the test comes first, followed by the lesson. But lacking the ability to learn by reading, I embraced every chance to participate in life. I started businesses, like my vegetable stand. I skipped school to watch my father's stockbroker at work. One thing I saw for myself was that to succeed in school, you had to be good at everything, but to succeed as an adult, you only had to be good at one or two things.

When school had me down, Mom used to tell me that "the A students work for the B students, the C students run the companies, and the D students dedicate the buildings." My experience and observations suggest that she was absolutely right. I'm not recommending that parents say this to a child who's getting As and Bs, but the child who can't play by the same rules needs to know there's much more to life than what goes on a report card - like personal relationships.

Look people in the eye

To be successful in life is to be engaged with other people. We need other people. We need to know how to talk with them, argue with them, build with them, and introduce ourselves to them. Yet when I suggest that the college students in my seminar at UCSB ask each other out on dates, these young adults do not know how to speak up, express themselves, or look one another in the eye. They may read very well, but they don't know how to talk to each other. They do not want to take chances, but life is full of risk. Since dyslexia prevented me from doing things the conventional way, I grew up experimenting and trying new things. Taking chances became second nature. By forcing students to ask each other out, I give them a crash course in surviving rejection and handling unexpected success.

I learned early that I would only get through school with a lot of help from a lot of people. This dependence taught me how to ask for help, and how to provide what help I could. I learned to appreciate people's strengths and forgive their weaknesses, as I hoped they would forgive mine. This was important when I hired my first coworker at Kinko's. How important were people skills when we employed 25,000 coworkers?

My longtime coworker Mike Fasth says Kinko's succeeded because nearly every coworker in the company knew the owner. I traveled continuously, visiting stores all over the world. I personally greeted coworkers when they arrived for the company picnic, and personally bid them farewell when the event ended. I believe I owe my people skills to dyslexia. With my love of numbers, as a good reader I might well have spent my life as an accountant in a little office somewhere. Instead, I trusted and engaged with other people to imagine and build something larger than ourselves.

Use the eye of the mind

In college, I gathered with friends after a lecture and discovered that although they took detailed notes, I remembered the lecture better. While they were frantically scribbling, I was listening. Coming from the oral tradition, I had developed a good memory.

Plato didn't care much for the rise of literacy in his time: "If men learn this … they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.…by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows." If you've ever been in a meeting where executives must consult notes to tell you what they are working on, you know that Plato had a very good point.

On the other hand, I know a fellow who says, when he cannot remember some detail, "My brain is a factory, not a warehouse." Like Sherlock Holmes, this man prides himself on his thinking skills, and does not want to treat his brain like a dusty attic full of accumulated bric-abrac. But good readers have the choice to store information outside their own heads. They can easily look up details they have forgotten. I cannot. Dyslexia made me develop my brain into both a factory and a warehouse.

A former Kinko's executive tells this story about my memory. We were dining with some store managers in San Antonio. As I went around the table to greet people, I asked a woman if she had completed her degree, and if her husband had fulfilled his dream of starting a game ranch. After I moved on to talk to others, she turned to my friend and excitedly confided that she and I had only spoken once before, for about five minutes, three years earlier. They were both impressed. He said it showed that I care about people and pay attention to them-two critical traits of leadership.

Other business partners used to comment on how well I knew the numbers. Well, I take that for granted; you have to know the numbers. But it took me a long time to realize how hard it was for others to retain details.

I think that filling my brain with so much information stimulates my imagination in a very productive way. The warehouse supplies the factory, so to speak. The facts, figures, and physical observations stored in my brain mix together in creative ways, but keep my creativity grounded in reality. In other words, I have a practical imagination. I don't just have dreams; I have ideas.

See beyond labels

Remember that scene in The Matrix, when the little boy bending spoons with his mind tells Neo that he mustn't try to bend the spoon, because that's impossible? Instead, the boy explains that you must try to recognize the truth: that there is no spoon. Well, that's how I feel about "the box."

After I became successful, I was praised lavishly for "thinking outside the box," even though as a child I was ridiculed, shunned, or even struck for not fitting into "the box." Lately, I've heard it said that dyslexics, like me, think out of the box because we've never been in the box. I say, "Enough! There is no box."

For people with dyslexia, expressions like "learning disability" or "learning difference," or my own choice of "learning opportunity" are simply new boxes to fit people into. How differently would we view the world and ourselves if we saw that the human race consists of seven billion unique individuals? If we did, we'd have to see everyone else more objectively, and we could better appreciate everyone's individual strengths.

In The Matrix, the little boy eventually tells Neo that if there is no spoon, it is we who must bend. He means that Neo must open his mind to unlimited possibilities, and I believe we all must do the same. Dyslexia helped me see with my own eyes, learn to look others in the eye, fuel my imagination with everything I saw, and look beyond the labels that others applied to me. What I ultimately saw, and believe you can see as well, was a world of endless opportunity.

About the author

Paul Orfalea is an entrepreneur who founded Kinko's, which grew from one store in 1970 into the world's leading business services chain with over 1,200 Kinko's worldwide. He is now involved in a range of activities, including the Orfalea Family Foundation, West Coast Asset Management Inc., Stone Canyon Venture Partners LP, and other business ventures.

Printed with permission from The International Dyslexia Association. Originally appeared in Perspectives on Language and Literacy, vol. 34, no. 3; Summer Edition, 2008; pp. 46-47.