"I'm Different — Get Over It. I Did."

When I was younger, I felt like my dyslexia set me apart — and not in a good way. Here's how I overcame my learning disabilities and put myself on the path to success.

Family of Stephen Key, entrepreneur and inventor who overcame dyslexia

"I don't beat myself up any more about my learning disability. I consider it a gift."

I remember realizing that I was different from the other kids in the second grade. I couldn't pronounce words that my peers could. As I struggled to read and express myself verbally, I grew terrified of being called on in class. It felt as if I couldn't get a word out without being made fun of. Every test I took, I failed. I "buried" my test papers under the carpet in my tree house, until the mound grew so large that my parents couldn't help but notice it. After that, they hired a tutor. I practiced reading in a rocking chair, which helped me with my inability to sit still.

My severe dyslexia wasn't diagnosed in grade school, and I managed to graduate high school and was accepted to Santa Clara University. The first test I took there, I failed. However, by reading books more than once and trying to memorize almost everything, I didn't flunk out. It wasn't until I decided to go back to school to complete my degree, in my late 40s, that I was evaluated. When the doctor realized how severe my dyslexia is, he asked me to give a speech about how I coped with it to students with learning disabilities.

Hiding My Struggles

For years, I did my best to hide how much I struggled. Because I have difficulty recognizing the different sounds that alphabet letters make, everyday situations that most people wouldn't blink at can inspire fear and anxiety in me — filling out a routine form at a doctor's office or being asked to take notes on a whiteboard during an important meeting. When I travel to a new city, asking for directions to the airport is out of the question, because I can't write down what the person is saying. Writing a sentence is difficult, at best. To this day, I feel some panic whenever someone singles me out for my opinion.

I used to live in fear of my secret being exposed, but I don't feel that way anymore. Because school didn't come easily, I had to be creative to succeed in my career. I began working with my hands. I learned to be a pattern maker and developed toys and created products. I was good at those things, and I got more involved in product development.

These experiences led me to start inventRight, a business that teaches thousands of inventors and independent product developers around the globe how to sell their ideas. Because I doubted anyone would hire me, I created my own job. Today, I feel as if I've developed enough problem-solving skills that I could work for any company.

Over the years, I developed coping strategies to minimize the impact of dyslexia. In 2011, I did the unthinkable: I published a book — One Simple Idea: Turn Your Dreams into a Licensing Goldmine While Letting Others Do the Work. It has been the top-seller in Amazon's "Small Business Marketing" category since it was released. Earlier this year, it was translated into German, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Portuguese.

My hope is that the coping strategies I developed for myself will help others, too. Here they are:

1. I prepare for every situation.

My learning disability has caused me to fear the unknown. Feeling prepared soothes my nerves. Before I attend a meeting, I make sure to have an agenda. I like knowing what is expected of me. Because I don't like being caught off guard, I am constantly studying up — on all sorts of topics. Much to my wife's amusement, I even studied up on the first book we read for our neighborhood book club. When I'm traveling, I print out a map and study it. When I have to go somewhere I haven't been before, I drive around the area to familiarize myself with it. Getting my bearings puts me at ease, so I can focus on more important things.

2. I give myself enough time.

I've learned that I don't respond well to being rushed. I give myself the time to adjust to any situation without putting additional pressure on myself, even when it comes to performing simple tasks. I'm always early for an event or meeting, for example. If I feel rushed, I panic. When I plan on being early, I feel confident that I have enough time to fix something that goes wrong. That knowledge helps me relax. In the same vein, I prepare for presentations and speaking engagements well in advance. I never practice a speech the same day of an event, because that creates pressure. If I were to rehearse my speech and make a mistake, I would start over-thinking it.

3. I rely on backups.

I keep important information — my name, address, social security number, and birth date — readily accessible in my wallet. Again, this reduces my fear and ensures that I don't panic. If I'm going to make an important telephone call, I have one of my employees listen in and take notes. It's nearly impossible for me to write down telephone numbers that I hear.

4. I use technology.

Someone has always written my e-mails for me, which is both embarrassing and time-consuming. But recently, I've started using the built-in voice recognition software on my Mac, and Siri on my iPhone, to transform what I say into written words. For me, this type of technology is miraculous.

5. I stay organized.

Because it feels like there is so much confusion in my brain at times, it's important for me to keep my physical world clean and well organized. In addition to keeping a well-maintained calendar on my computer, I jot down all my thoughts on loose-leaf paper and keep them in a three-ring binder. I don't like anything to be out of place. When there's so much going on in my head, the last thing I want to do is spend time searching for something I've misplaced. I need to be in control.

6. I smile.

My smile has masked my insecurities for as long as I can remember. Many people tell me I have a wonderful smile. You'd be amazed at what you can be forgiven for if you just smile. I've learned this is especially true with public speaking. When an audience feels the warmth of your smile, they are kinder and more accepting of mistakes.

A lot of this advice comes down to accepting myself. I don't beat myself up about my learning disability. I consider it a gift. It forced me to become creative at solving problems and finding solutions — two skills I put into practice every day and that I've made a career of.

I'm not afraid of anything now. One thing that helped was finding something I truly love to do. It was my savior. I only wish I had felt this way sooner. Life would have been a little easier for me in my younger years.


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TAGS: Learning Disabilities, Comorbid Conditions with ADD, Adult ADD: Late Diagnosis,

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