Confessions of a "Learning-Disabled" Success

They used to think I was the dumbest kid in the class — now the Gifted and Talented kids want to know the secret of my success.

Kids accept the labels they're tagged with, and some never seem to leave that baggage behind.

— James P. Ruth

Last summer I was in Philadelphia, delivering a talk to an international audience of financial planners, asset managers, and insurance executives. A standing-room-only crowd packed one of the smaller venues in the Philadelphia convention center to hear me talk about building a $100 million financial planning practice. As I stood at the podium looking out at the audience, I was struck by this thought: If they knew they were getting expensive financial advice from the dumbest kid in the class, this talk could be given in a phone booth, not in a room with a one-thousand-plus seating capacity.

The program went well. The audience listened attentively and seemed to hang on every word. At the conclusion, many stuck around to ask questions before filing out of the auditorium. Then, as I was packing up my computer and PowerPoint presentation, a young man, maybe 30, approached and said, "Mr. Ruth, can I ask you a question?" "Sure," I said. "What's on your mind?" He said, "What's the secret of your success?"

"Secrets" of Success

I paused for a moment before answering. How could I explain ADHD to him? And even if I could, how would I make him understand that my ADHD baggage became an advantage, once I figured out how to deal with it? Until he asked that question, I didn't realize how much I needed to unload. The young man was going to hear the whole story, like it or not.

I told him I couldn't teach him my secret because it was something I was born with, but I could tell him about it and maybe he could learn from my experience. I told him that whatever success I've enjoyed in the business world over the last 40 years was due to this: "I have ADD and mild dyslexia."

The bewildered look on his face broadcast in high definition everything that is wrong with educational labels pasted onto kids from his and other generations. He must have thought to himself: "ADD and LD? Those kids are supposed to be lazy troublemakers with impaired learning abilities. What's going on here?" Who could blame him? He'd grown up in a Gifted and Talented (GT) world that clouded his perceptions of others. The smart kids, the GT kids, are the ones who are supposed to succeed, right? No wonder he was confused.

Oh, Those Labels!

Had my inquisitive new friend known I had ADD and dyslexia, he probably wouldn't have attended my talk. He was an Ivy League grad, and people like me are supposed to be damaged goods. He ate dummies like me for lunch, and he wants to know the secret of my success? His problem was, he drank the Kool-Aid that the educational establishment served him every day, and he expected the world to be his oyster. He assumed success would be delivered to his front door, like calling up Domino's for a pepperoni pizza. He grew up in a cocoon of academic window-dressing that doesn't deliver in adulthood — when it counts. He didn't realize he was being set up for possible failure in the world by a system rife with labels.

When I was growing up, the labels were different from today's, but they were just as damaging to the development of children and young adults. In my day, you were either one of the smart kids or one of the dumb kids; lost somewhere between these bookends were the average kids, the normal kids. Today it seems it's the Gifted and Talented scholars versus the Learning Disabled also-rans. The problem is that most kids accept the labels they're tagged with, and some never leave that luggage in their rear-view mirror.

NEXT: Alternative Learning Abilities

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