Diane Swonk, Chief Economist and a Senior Vice-President at Bank One Corporation, has spent most of her life setting ambitious goals and achieving them. But even as a highly successful and visible economist – she makes 100 speeches a year and frequent television appearances – she has only recently gone public with the story of her struggle to overcome dyslexia. “I spent a lot of my time trying to be something I wasn’t, in my earlier career and education,” Diane says, “I was always trying to cover up who I was. Now, dyslexia is just a part of me.”

Like many people with a learning disability, she often felt like an outsider among her peers because she had to work so hard at tasks that seemed easy for classmates and colleagues. But self-assurance comes with age, experience, and achievement, and Diane has come to terms with her learning disability. In fact, she credits her uniquely wired brain for her passion for economics.

A Few of Many Achievements and Honors

  • Past President of the National Association for Business Economics (an honor she shares with several Federal Reserve presidents)
  • Sits on several advisory committees to the Federal Reserve Board, its regional banks, and the Council of Economic Advisors for the White House
  • Author of The Passionate Economist: Finding the Power and Humanity Behind the Numbers, published in 2003

In this interview Diane Swonk talks about growing up – and growing wiser – with dyslexia.

Q: When did you and your family first discover that you had a learning problem, and how did it come to light?

A: I think it first came about when I was in second or third grade, when I was learning to read. This was in the early ’70s when they did all kinds of experimental programs. This is early on in dyslexia, in terms of diagnosis. My family sort of diagnosed it and started learning a lot about dyslexia. Then my dad realized that he was very, very dyslexic, and that he had a speech impediment. He had all the signs. My mother was somewhat dyslexic, as well, and she is an artist. I was diagnosed fairly young, and, certainly, family recognition [of dyslexia] was very high. It was really the infancy of a lot of research in the area.

I had to think “outside the box” to figure out how to get things done that were easy for other people to do. For example, I had a biology teacher who graded our notes which taught me how to take good notes. My best resource for learning was taking meticulous notes because I couldn’t do all the reading. Also, she would also grade us on our ability to summarize a chapter. I would say it. I would write it. I would do it in different colors. And I would repeat it. It was a lot more work than other people probably did, but it was what taught me a skill that I used throughout the rest of my schooling.

I had some very good teachers who identified not necessarily that I was a different kind of learner, but who taught people how to use all their resources in learning. I learned early on if one resource didn’t work well for me, to use another.

Q: Do you have any recollection of how you initially responded – at age 7 or 8 – to discovering that you had a learning disability?

A: I never thought of it as a disability. I didn’t understand why it wasn’t as easy for me to do some of the things because I knew I was smart. I think early on what was frustrating to me was that you had to fit in the mold [in the way that you learned]. I think that’s still the case in many schools today, unfortunately. You find ways to do things differently than other people, but you don’t tell anyone you’re doing it that way…You’re not supposed to use your fingers, but you’re using your fingers to count. And it’s almost like you feel you’re cheating the system. But in reality what you’re doing is surviving, trying to figure out another way to learn.

As I look back now, on the frustrations that I had… For example, I loved to dance. I still love to dance. But I could not do dance class because I did not know my left from my right. And I was constantly singled out for doing it wrong. In my world there wasn’t a lot of room for doing things wrong…So I ended up not doing things that I knew I did “wrong.”

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.”

Q: Has your experience of overcoming a learning disability affected the way that you parent your own children?

A: There is just no question that having a learning disability is already influencing the way I raise my daughter. One thing we affirm as a family is that no one is perfect, and perfection is not a goal in our house. What we try to stress is that she is unique and special in the world, but that has nothing to do with perfection. We have to accept all of the things we are, if we’re going to deal with who we are – get over our weaknesses and embrace our strengths. Our strengths may be our weaknesses in disguise. We don’t always know. That’s what I’ve learned.

My daughter has a really hard time with numbers and flipping numbers, and subtraction has kind of thrown her. One of the things I have to emphasize to her because she didn’t realize it, is that things aren’t easy for Mommy all the time. Having overachievers in the household, sometimes your kids forget that things are hard. And it’s okay that it’s hard. Just because your teacher says there’s one way to do it, that doesn’t mean you can’t figure what’s best for you. Let’s figure out what’s best for you.

I pushed her school on the issue of dyslexia, because the reading program they’re using I would have been terrified at. And the program they’re using to spell would have terrified me. It’s just amazing to me that in this day and age there is still such an enormous gap in educators’ understanding of learning disabilities. In fact, someone who had suspected that my daughter might have a learning issue, said to me, “Well, I didn’t realize she was in accelerated math, she’s in accelerated reading, she’s performing above her grade level in almost every way.” And I said, “That doesn’t matter.” Her teacher didn’t get it because she doesn’t understand the difference between intelligence and learning [ability].

In first grade, my daughter had to complete an assignment that she’d worked on all weekend long. And the assignment was: What makes you special in this world? She hemmed and hawed and wanted help. I said, “No, no, no. You have to do it yourself.” She handed me these four simple words when she was done on Monday morning, and I had tears in my eyes – [it had been a challenging week for many reasons] – because her words were: “I don’t give up.”