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Charles Schwab and his Learning Disability

Leadership often entails overcoming adversity. Therefore, it is both obvious and surprising that we find individuals with learning disabilities rising to the top of their career fields.  Charles Schwab, founder of the well-known discount brokerage firm that bears his name, is dyslexic. Schwab grew up at a time period when those afflicted with dyslexia were considered obtuse or unmotivated. Even today, dyslexic children are at a much greater risk of having a poor self-image and becoming underachievers. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Schwab, one of many successful dyslexics, and perhaps the richest, with a net worth of more than $3 billion. To help stop the confidence drain in dyslexic children, he launched two web sites: sparktop.org (for children 8 to 12 years old) and schwablearning.org (for parents). Schwab’s story is one of perseverance, honesty, generosity, and hope.

Schwab, 66, spoke with USA Today corporate management reporter Del Jones about adversity’s role in success.

Q: More than 60% of prison inmates have learning disabilities. What separates you and other billionaires from so many who are defeated by adversity?

A: Probably luck. Maybe parental encouragement. My dad was a lawyer, and he had high expectations for me. I went through life until 40 before I knew about dyslexia. I didn’t get interested in the subject until my youngest son was diagnosed with it about 15 years ago.

Q: Are you saying it was an advantage not to know?

A: Times are different. In the ’40s and ’50s there was no science around this issue. Now they have an understanding of dyslexia, a lot of MRI work on brains. It’s good to know that areas of the brain don’t work as effectively as they do for smooth readers.

Q: Describe your dyslexia.

A: It’s not a lot of fun to talk about your handicaps, except in golf. When I look at the words “the cat crossed the street,” I have to sound it out to get meaning. Most people get meaning in an automated way. Now that I’m older and focused on investments and economics, I can see some words and concepts clearly. I don’t have to go through the slow manipulation in my mind. But if you gave me a book on some subject that I’m not familiar with, it would take me twice as long to read it as anybody else. Even then, I’d have a tough time answering questions on what I’ve read.

I don’t read books; I listen to books on tape. Thank goodness for all the new communications devices such as point and click. Literacy is a fairly new thing for the human race. We’ve been around thousands of years. Literacy has only been around for a couple of hundred.

Check out the complete interview here.

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