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By Diane Swonk, M.A.E. , Linda Broatch, M.A.
Q: You said your dad wanted you to be President of the United States. Did you set goals for yourself as a young person?
A: I always had goals. That was the one thing I was brought up to do was to achieve goals. I'm constantly revising my goals, but they're always: Reach for the stars and see how close you can get. I always felt like an outsider, but that didn't stop me. In many ways, I have none of the appropriate pedigrees to do what I'm doing. But I figured out how to do it in a different way. That's what all my life has been about - not doing what was traditional - because traditional didn't fit who I was. My dad's motto was always: Don't give up. If you had to cut butter with a chainsaw, you cut butter with a chainsaw.
In college I couldn't tie my shoes right or dial a telephone, but I could get straight A's in economics. Go figure. It turned out that economics is a really good fit for my dyslexia. Thinking in that multidimensional world was where I was comfortable. People would get freaked out when we'd get into five dimensions. To me, that was fascinating. My brain thought that way. I saw things that others didn't see, and learned over my life to convince people of my view. I also learned the skill of convincing other people because I had to convince myself first.
Q: Did you have important mentors along the way?
A: One of the most inspiring people is the person that I worked for 16 years out of 17 years, [James Annable], who retired last May. He understood something in me - how to motivate me. He's helped me tremendously to turn lemons into lemonade, mentoring me through the political world of corporate politics, through my own changes, our department changes, and my responsibilities. He can be very harsh, but he has an enormous respect for intelligence. I always "got" his economics. He's someone who thinks out of the box and is exceedingly creative.
He's still a mentor and friend of mine today. He also jokes, he said, "At one point in time I really wasn't sure which way you would go, Diane, whether you would cave to your own insecurities or just embrace them and say, 'I'm not going to let this faze me.'" I went the [latter] way.
Q: A lot of people identify learning problems and disabilities with childhood, and there's this mistaken idea that somewhere around 11 or 12 they all go away. Could you comment?
A: You just learn to live with it. I mean it doesn't go away at all. You learn to cope with it much better as you get older, hopefully, or you get lost. I think it's been quite empowering this last couple of years, realizing that [dyslexia] was actually an asset in my life. But it is hard. Every time I get off the elevator in the place that I've worked for 17 years, I'm still lost. I still can't get on the right train going home from work unless I try really hard. Going from Point A to Point B is just not easy for me.
But, it also lets me see the world multi-dimensionally. It lets me see the world in a way that others can't. The way dyslexics see the world compensates for the fact that they see it and feel it differently, and experience it completely differently.
It makes you strong. But being strong is also saying: "I need to be vulnerable now, too. I need to open myself up to the world; otherwise I won't be part of it." That was a big leap for me. Because having this adolescent insecurity following me through a good portion of my early adulthood wasn't serving me well.
Especially in the last few years dealing with this, I'm much more open. People will laugh at me; they'll say, Turn left at the corner, and I'll say, you'll have to tell me which way that is because I'm dyslexic. People laugh, and it lightens things up. But I can't tell you how many people come up to me afterwards and say, "Are you really dyslexic? I have a dyslexic child and we've been really working with him." I say, "Yeah, I'm really dyslexic. It's okay."
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