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Lesson #4: Turn a Learning Disability into a Learning Opportunity
Throughout most of his life, Orfalea’s conditions went undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated. In school, he was told he was too bright not to be doing better. But Orfalea remained undeterred and, instead of succumbing to his disadvantages, he decided to compensate for them. Indeed, Orfalea was able to turn his learning disability into a learning opportunity.
“My restlessness propelled me out of doors,” he says. “How many managers do you know who really understand what is happening at the frontlines of their business? I did.”
Orfalea was able to see the bright side of his conditions. First, his inability to focus on details has always given him an innate ability to see the big picture. Where his colleagues would get bogged down in the many finer points of something, Orfalea could cut through all of that to see the end result, and evaluate it accordingly. That, he believed, would be an essential characteristic for a successful businessman.
Because Orfalea could not focus on books and reports, he turned his attention to people. He developed a strong ability to judge and to read people. In turn, he became adept in hiring and choosing only those employees who he believed would well suit his company. “My learning disability gave me certain advantages, because I was able to live in the moment and capitalize on the opportunities I spotted,” says Orfalea. “With ADD, you’re curious. You’re eyes believe what they see. Your ears believe what others say. I learned to trust my eyes.”
As independent as he was, Orfalea’s conditions also led him to rely heavily on others. From filing to accounting, Orfalea knew when he needed help and was not afraid to ask for it. But instead of seeing himself as a burden, he viewed this as a benefit. The experience of asking others for help, in turn helped him understand the nature of working as a team, something he has tried to project throughout his entire company.
“Whenever I felt down, whenever I started wondering what homeless shelter I would die in, [my mother] would buck me up by telling me: you know, Paul, the A students work for the B students, the C students run the companies, and the D students dedicate the buildings,” recalls Orfalea. “All my life I knew I would have a big business. That’s what I wanted from the time I was in second grade; there was never a doubt in my mind.”
Despite his condition, Orfalea knew from day one what he wanted to achieve and nothing was going to get in his way. “When I talk to college students about all of this, I tell them to work with their strengths, not their weaknesses. If at you're not good in reading, do something else. Go where you are strong,” he says. “Building an entirely new sort of business from a single Xerox copy machine…gave me the life the world seemed determined to deny me when I was younger.”
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