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By Lois Gilman, ADDitude Magazine
Economist and author
Wondering where the Dow will be at year's end, or how fast the U.S. economy is growing? The go-to expert for economic prognostications is Diane Swonk, author of The Passionate Economist: Finding the Power and Humanity Behind the Numbers, and, until recently, the chief economist at Bank One in Chicago. But ask her to write down her forecasts on paper, and watch out! "I flip numbers constantly," she says. "I joke about it in front of audiences, asking them what's the difference between 1.9% and 9.1% GDP growth? A world, actually."
For Swonk, 42, the youngest person to serve as president of the National Association for Business Economics (past presidents include Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan), flipping numbers comes naturally. She's dyslexic and has trouble remembering phone numbers, as well as her PIN for the ATM machine.
Her numerical problems haven't held her back in her career. She is a brilliant thinker who processes information "multidimensionally rather than in linear form." This allows her to view "the endgame before others do," a distinct advantage in a profession where money is made or lost in seconds. Her special way of seeing the world, she believes, "serves me extremely well for a science like economics, where, if one thing happens, another thing happens, in response.
"You realize that the worst forecasting in the world takes a trajectory, a trend, and says that it will go on forever," says Swonk. "Sometimes the recent past is just a stage, not the trajectory of where we are heading. My learning difference allows me to say, 'Hey, when X happens, it doesn't mean that the next steps are going to be Y and Z.' The next step may be to go back to A."
As a youngster, Swonk felt isolated, even though her parents also struggled with the same learning disability. She had to deal with teachers who thought she was lazy because her spelling was atrocious or her mastery of math facts was poor. But her parents taught her to persevere. "If you had to butter your bread with a chain saw, you did," says Swonk. "You always had to find an alternative way to get things done." That lesson challenged her to find ways around the obstacles that dyslexia placed in her path.
Swonk's struggle with her learning disability has given her a disarming sense of humility. "I know what it's like to be scared when you're crossing the street and to wonder if you're going to be lost once you get to the other side. Or to get behind the wheel of a car and not know if you're going to reach your destination. I have learned to take that in stride."
Swonk believes that humility is a virtue in business. "You never get too far ahead of yourself when you're humble," she explains. "You can be secure, but it's good to keep a clear and open mind about things. My dyslexia probably made me insecure when I was younger, but now it serves as an underlying reminder of my own humility."
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