Thursday, July 8th, 2004
Â© 1997 Richard Wanderman
There has been lots of talk over the years about gifted dyslexics. The list includes Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and many others who have shown talent in diverse areas and were or are dyslexic. I get many requests from people wanting the complete list (as if it were compiled and held by some authority), and I can see how it might be motivating to see such a list. On the other hand, what does such a list prove or mean?
Many people would like to think that there is some correlation between being dyslexic and being gifted; as if having this particular kind of learning disability/difference means that there is a higher probability that you will be bright. It’s like a rebound from the correlation between being dyslexic and being stupid.
In asking these questions I am in no way saying that people who are dyslexic can’t be gifted or are always gifted; I’m questioning the seemingly automatic linking of the two.
First of all, what exactly is “bright” anyway? Fast? Horsepower? Horsepower expressed in what kinds of environments? I suggest anyone reading this who hasn’t read the essay What is Intelligence, Anyway? by Isaac Asimov should read that essay. It says a lot about this issue.
It certainly is possible and probable that people with certain kinds of learning styles that are marginalized by the culture end up doing what looks to the culture like creative “end runs” to achievement. Who knows, this may be the culture’s built-in way of changing through mutation: catapulting an Edison or someone of lesser stature into a place where they can get things done by calling their different learning style “creative.”
There is another question here: can we separate Edison and his achievements from the fact that he was dyslexic? Can we separate Stephen Hawking from the fact that he has ALS? Does Hawking’s having ALS make his achievements seem even more amazing? Did/does Edison’s having dyslexia make his achievements seem even more amazing? Or, maybe, the dyslexia is what made the achievements possible in the first place.
On the other hand, if you change the culture to the point where being dyslexic is not unusual and there is no cultural resistance, would an Edison be able to achieve as much?
Certainly in my case, a certain amount of energy has been spent proving that I am both dyslexic and not as dim as people thought. The question is, does the energy spent proving myself account for my (few) achievements?
It’s an interesting question.
As a dyslexic adult who’s not particularly gifted but is certainly performing better than anyone thought I would when I was younger, let me tell you that when you’re coming to terms with dyslexia, it’s nice to know that it is possible to be both dyslexic and smart. But after you’ve “come out” and are grown up and have a life, it really doesn’t matter. Why? Because when you’re older you have experience to reflect brightness (or lack of brightness).
What matters, with anyone, is what you do, not what you’re capable of doing. Yes, it might be nice to know that you’re capable of doing more than you are, but that knowledge alone might not be enough to prime your pump. You also have to do the hard work of doing.
Being smart does not assure that you will do anything with what you’ve got.
It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it.
I know many people who seem to have more “horsepower” upstairs than I do, but for one reason or another they’re not doing much with their lives. It doesn’t mean they’re not smart, but so what if they are?
Would you rather know you were smart but have no achievements, or achieve great things not knowing how smart you are?
Or, put another way, if they were mutually exclusive (they’re not, but just for argument’s sake), would you take the horsepower or the accomplishment, the knowledge that you could do something or the actual doing of something?
Horsepower isn’t all its cracked up to be. Doing things, on the other hand, is more important than most people believe it is.
Give me experience over horsepower any day of the week.
So back to Edison. It’s only in retrospect that we make an issue of his dyslexia. Why? Because he achieved something. But his achievements stand on their own. He was one of the greatest inventors ever, who happened to be dyslexic. To reverse this and say that if you’re dyslexic there’s a higher probability that you will invent things is ridiculous. On the other hand, when you do invent things and you happen to be dyslexic you’ll then know that you can be smart and creative and also dyslexic.
But, you have to do the inventing first.