Guest Blogs

“What the 80% Can Learn from the 20% with Learning Differences”

My child’s learning style fell outside the mainstream. Sometimes, that meant lower grades that I attributed to a lack of interest, focus, or motivation. Here’s the story of how I realized that was one of my life’s biggest (and most hurtful) mistakes.

Most people know Pareto’s principle as the 80/20 rule. Simply put, 80% of results come from “the vital few,” or 20%. So, 80% of business comes from 20% of your customers. Or 80% of your tomato crop comes from 20% of your plants.

Thanks to Laila, I’m attaching a modern meaning to the old economic concept.

First, the backstory: Laila is my daughter. She is a beautiful, vibrant young woman who loves seafood and traveling the world, which she does completely on my dime (hint, hint: time to get a job, Laila… LOL). She’s the oldest of three.

A few years ago, one of our random, normal parent-child conversations rocked my world. Our dialogue revealed my assumptions, unconscious bias, ego, and the startling realization that not everyone’s worldview matches mine (imagine that!).

I dubbed what I learned the new 80/20 rule (I’ll explain in a moment). I’m sharing it with you because it could profoundly influence how you work with others, how you succeed, and how you help others succeed. If my experience is any indication, it could also reframe your relationships, making them more meaningful and more enduring.

[Click to Read: Accept Them. Support Them. Have Their Backs.]

That’s just for starters.

To preface, I am an African-American man, a computer science major, and father of three. I crunch numbers the way some people run marathons. I own a successful consulting practice. I’m also a licensed and ordained Elder and Prophet.

Then the pivotal conversation with Laila happened like a bright light in a pitch-black room, and I realized I wasn’t all that. I was an idiot, too. Here’s how it went down.

Me: I see you’re struggling in math. Let me take a look.

Her: (sigh) I don’t get how they arrive at this answer.

[Read: How to Be a Good Dad When Your Child Needs You Most]

Me: This is simple, sweetie, you read the word problem carefully, retaining each fact until the end where you assemble all the facts to calculate the answer.

Her: (She writes out the problem. Wrong answer. Again.) This is impossible.

Me: Laila, I just explained this to you.

Her: But, Dad, I’m doing the best I can.

Disappointment was etched all over her young face. Worse, it was self-disappointment. Worse still, I caused it. My impatience in that conversation was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I basically told my daughter that her best wasn’t good enough. Realizing this was a crushing, heartbreaking moment for me, triggering serious self-assessment. Although I didn’t ask, I’m sure Laila wasn’t encouraged by the conversation.

I needed a different approach. That day, I decided I wasn’t the best person to assist Laila with her homework.

Like most of the 7 billion people on the planet, though, my real failing was to assume.

Before the encounter, I attributed Laila’s report cards to lack of effort. I assumed the up-and-down grades (sometimes it seemed like As and Fs were the only available letters on the grading scale) were due to her not paying attention. She needed to study more, work harder. I assumed she was on her phone too much, lacked empathy toward me (her self-appointed coach), and was overly defensive.

These assumptions, I found out later, are common misunderstandings about people with ADHD.

After the encounter, I gave her a slip of paper that read “I’m not a failure.” I asked her to tape the paper to the underside of the bunk bed above her so she could see it every morning and every night. I knew she was lacking confidence in her schoolwork and that it stemmed from something deeper. That’s about all I was sure of.

I Didn’t Know How to Handle the Situation

I turned to a CEO friend of mine who produces educational material for the 20% of children with learning deficits. We sat down for lunch. I told him my daughter was not grasping core concepts and that I assumed she chose the grades she earned.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

My friend explained, “Dwight, 20% of kids in every school do not learn like the other 80%. Education has been designed around the 80%. For the 20%, though, it is hell on earth.”

He then shared a story with me that turned on the light. He said, “Dwight, a teacher asks a class of students for the plural of the word leaf. One child responds with the word ‘tree.'”

My immediate response to my CEO friend was, “That’s crazy.”

He continued, “Dwight, that’s exactly how 80% of people respond to the 20% of children with learning deficits. But for that child, plural means more than one. In an effort to solve the question, in that child’s thought process, a tree is an excellent place to find more than one leaf.”

After picking my jaw up off the floor, it was clear to me that my CEO friend hit the nail on the head and unknowingly identified the issue in that conversation with Laila; I was ignorant to Laila’s learning style.

I am passionate to share my story because I want to make a difference in your life. I want your life to be better by understanding the lives of others through my failures and missteps.

I’ll close with this: the new 80/20 rule rewrites how we navigate the world — from pursuing career milestones to being thankful for a great marriage to saying the right thing in the right moment when our child is struggling.

[Read This Next: Dear Parents, You Are the Solution to Your Child’s Biggest Struggles with ADHD]

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