Dyslexia: one of the creative industry’s greatest hidden assets

Rather than a setback, dyslexia can be a super power in an industry where creative and visual thinking are vital, says FutureDeluxe’s James Callahan

‘Bicycle’ – it’s a fairly innocuous word. But my dyslexic brain struggles with it. Just today, I got tripped up by a ‘bicycle’ when someone shared our new wifi password and it contained the bastard term. This meant it took ages to connect to the network and I nearly missed our 2023 business plan meeting with the bank.

Things like this are clearly a pain in the arse. But I’m not complaining. I’ve recently decided my dyslexia is a super power. And I’m not alone. Dyslexia is a hidden asset for many in the creative industries. We are the people who struggled at school, turned that struggle into resilience and learnt to communicate more visually.

Mid-March hosted Neurodiversity Celebration Week. And although these special weeks can feel tokenistic, this one got me reflecting on how my dyslexia has shaped my career. I now see that far from holding me back, my dyslexia is a blessing (albeit disguised, at times). Although I’ve felt painfully self-conscious about it for years, I now appreciate how dyslexia makes me tackle problems with images and numbers, rather than written words.

Like other neurodiversities, dyslexia, which affects 10% of the population, encourages divergent thinking. People with these challenges have to focus harder and learn alternative ways to communicate. This explains why so many of us gravitate to the creative roles that value concepts being explained through visual means. Our presentation decks, for instance, are heavy on images and have minimal type. Who doesn’t love that?

We are the people who struggled at school, turned that struggle into resilience and learnt to communicate more visually

Despite bringing these beneficial traits to the table, all is not well. A recent report from Sage, Birkbeck University, and Neurodiversity in Business suggests that 43% of neurodiverse employees are likely to leave their current role unless tailored adjustments are made to suit their needs. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to identify and help those who share my struggle with words. I spot their workarounds and then open up about my personal story and the tricks that help me. From spellcheck to ChatGPT, today’s technology offers many hacks. AI in particular has been a gamechanger in the way it creates sense out of my ramblings.

Now that we can farm out perfect prose to technology, why do we still measure success and intelligence by someone’s ability to spell? Why should I spend three times longer on written comms when my skills could be better used elsewhere? Sadly, these points don’t appease the grammar police.

The belief that poor spelling equates to poor intelligence is deeply embedded in society. Most people perceive spelling mistakes as unprofessional and aren’t afraid to point them out. An inability to draw, take a photograph or talk in groups doesn’t indicate stupidity. So why is it different when it comes to spelling and writing? I don’t bruise easily, but having my errors highlighted can put me off my flow. By assuming imperfect prose is a sign of ignorance, we instantly devalue dyslexics … and all their glorious otherness.

Dyslexia has given me the space I need to develop alternative skills. I didn’t enjoy writing essays or doing written exams at school. So I didn’t do as well as I would have liked. But I sure as hell excelled at creative thinking, talking and presenting. And at a time when technology can polish our writing, aren’t these the skills we need more of today?

By assuming imperfect prose is a sign of ignorance, we instantly devalue dyslexics … and all their glorious otherness

Although I’m still very much a creative at heart, my focus has turned towards the business side of FutureDeluxe and our new global collective, Forever. As I’ve transitioned from designer to CEO of a private equity backed company, most of my new peers – investors, bankers, accountants – no longer hail from creative backgrounds. There are fewer ‘me’s amongst my new colleagues … and less tolerance of my dyslexia. But what I lack in wordsmithery, I make up for in avid reading and number mastery; two traits that have given me an edge in understanding our business and how to foster growth.

As we look towards the next generation of creativity, I’m optimistic. Schools are now far more supportive. My daughter is already showing dyslexic traits and consequently receiving extra lessons. Some parents fear the dyslexia label will jeopardise their children’s futures. But dyslexia isn’t a terrible affliction. Us dyslexics are doing just fine, thanks. We’re managing to be as successful, sometimes even more successful, than our school mates with the A* English grades. What’s more, our tougher early experiences have armed us with bags of resilience: a quality that goes far in creative endeavours.

So why limit neurodiversity celebration to just one week? All industries, but especially ours, need to continuously celebrate neurodiversity and its different ways of thinking and interpreting the world. After all, there’s little room for creativity to thrive when we all think the same way.

James Callahan is CEO & co-founder of FutureDeluxe and Forever; Top image: Shutterstock