02 June 2012

Misunderstanding Misfits

The Economist: Schumpeter Column | In praise of misfits: Why business needs people with Asperger’s syndrome, attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia

Entrepreneurs also display a striking number of mental oddities. Julie Login of Cass Business School surveyed a group of entrepreneurs and found that 35% of them said that they suffered from dyslexia, compared with 10% of the population as a whole and 1% of professional managers. Prominent dyslexics include the founders of Ford, General Electric, IBM and IKEA, not to mention more recent successes such as Charles Schwab (the founder of a stockbroker), Richard Branson (the Virgin Group), John Chambers (Cisco) and Steve Jobs (Apple). There are many possible explanations for this. Dyslexics learn how to delegate tasks early (getting other people to do their homework, for example). They gravitate to activities that require few formal qualifications and demand little reading or writing.
What?! Dyslexics become entrepreneurs because they have experience cheating on their homework? What mental slag heap did they drag that idea out of?

Take dyslexia out of the picture. Who would possibly contend that the people most likely to be entrepreneurs are those who are good at passing work off onto others? If that's your goal you're far better off in a big, byzantine organization than going it alone. If you want to avoid responsibility for your own work why in the name of St. Drucker would you start your own business?

Here's an alternative explanation. If you have dyslexia you learn early that you have two options: use it as an excuse, or work harder than everyone else to overcome your limitation.* The ones who choose the second path make natural entrepreneurs. We live in a world of written language. Since six or seven years old dyslexics have been surrounded by people who move through this world effortlessly, seemingly without thought, while they've had to grab it by the short hairs and bend it to their will. Having succeeded in doing that to language, why wouldn't they do the same to business?

* I am sickened by the number of students in Mrs SB7's classes who tell her they should have less work because of their learning impairments. They have it exactly backwards. I'm dyslexic. I didn't need less work, I needed MORE. That's your only hope of overcoming your bad neurocognitive luck. Gear the hell up and work harder than everyone else instead of wasting time whining to your teacher about how its not fair that you "only" get twice as much time as everyone else to do the assignment instead of an infinite amount of time you want.

There is, of course, an entire bureaucratic structure arranged to enforce and normalize these students' outlook; something like half of her students have official "accommodations" from the county.


Recruiters have noticed that the mental qualities that make a good computer programmer resemble those that might get you diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome: an obsessive interest in narrow subjects; a passion for numbers, patterns and machines; an addiction to repetitive tasks; and a lack of sensitivity to social cues.
Maybe programmers do like repetitive tasks. I don't know; I'm not a sociologist. In my experience this isn't the case. But I do know this: if your programming is a series of repetitive tasks, you're a shitty programmer. Paul Graham (or Joel Spolsky? or...? I can't find the quote) said that if you're typing the same line over and over, or using copy-paste much, you're Doing It Wrong. If your coding is boring or repetitive you're at the wrong level of abstraction: move up until there is no repetition.

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