01:18 - Source: CNN
'Shark' takes a bite out of dyslexia

Story highlights

Kevin O'Leary first realized he had trouble reading at age 6

His mother enrolled him in a specialized program at the Montreal Children's Hospital

Other famous dyslexics include Andy Warhol, Leonardo da Vinci and Richard Branson

Editor’s Note: Kevin O’Leary is a successful business entrepreneur and star of the ABC TV show “Shark Tank”. The opinions in this article are solely based on the author.

CNN —  

I was around age 6 when a troublesome fact began to surface in my life. I wasn’t learning how to read along with the other kids, and it became a source of incredible frustration for my mother and my teachers.

It was horrifying to be singled out in class. That white-hot shame of feeling slow left me paralyzed. I was always good with numbers, but the ability to read rows of letters and to turn them into words, completely eluded me.

There wasn’t a word for dyslexia back then, but small pockets of expertise around this kind of learning disability were starting to pop up in academic communities.

My mother, Georgette, discovered one of the best of these communities and dragged me to the 12th floor of the Montreal Children’s Hospital. Bad enough I had a hard time reading; having to go to a hospital to fix it was mortifying. That feeling disappeared at the sight of the bright blue trampoline in a room off the lobby.

Kevin O'Leary on his first day of school.
Courtesy Kevin O'Leary
Kevin O'Leary on his first day of school.

In the burgeoning field of special education, this was a pioneering program led by Dr. Sam Rabinovitch and Dr. Margie Golick. It treated the whole child—body, mind, and soul. Part of my weekly treatment involved jumping up and down on a trampoline so doctors could study my hand-eye coordination, balance and how both sides of my body worked together. It was ridiculous and, being a hyperactive child, it was a genius approach to teaching a kid like me.

With all that energy burned off, I could fully concentrate.

It’s a strategy that I still use today. Though I’ve given up on trampoline, I still love a predawn game of squash before 12-hour shooting days on the “Shark Tank” set.

The hospital’s philosophy was revolutionary. Until I entered the program, I felt massive shame about my learning difficulties. The first thing they did was help me understand that my brain was wired a little differently, but not wrongly, taking away the stigma of my disability.

Dr. Margie explained that their job was to map out how the wires in my brain were connected to figure out what I could do. It turned out to be quite a lot. They discovered that to compensate for my weak reading, I was visually and verbally gifted. I could speak with clarity, tell great stories and had a steel-trap memory with colors and numbers. No wonder I took to photography at a young age and developed an eye for composition without ever having taken a class.

I later learned that dyslexic did not mean dysfunctional.

I kept company with some amazing people like Andy Warhol, Ansel Adams, Leonardo da Vinci, Henry Ford, and Richard Branson—dyslexics one and all.

O'Leary and his mother Georgette celebrate his graduation.
Courtesy Kevin O'Leary
O'Leary and his mother Georgette celebrate his graduation.

It’s no exaggeration that enrolling in special education changed my life completely. To be told that my dyslexia had an upside shifted my perspective on myself and the world around me. It left me with five important principles that carried me through my education, all the way to my MBA and into my business life.

1. Stick with it through difficulties. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to finish.

2. Stand up for yourself.

3. Explain what you need, clearly.

4. Ask questions.

5. If you don’t understand the answer, ask for a better, clearer explanation.

Dr. Margie gave me this list, reminding me that no one else would do those things for me. I had to do them for myself.

All of these skills would come in handy throughout my school years, but they’ve become just as valuable of tools in my business life.

Dr. Margie uncovered my entrepreneurial powers—chief among them turning weaknesses into strengths. For the first time in my life, I looked forward to attending class. The dyslexia felt less like an awful disability and more like a series of skills that my brain had been developing all this time to compensate for its benefits.

O'Leary is a successful business entrepreneur and star of the ABC TV show "Shark Tank."
Courtesy Kevin O'Leary
O'Leary is a successful business entrepreneur and star of the ABC TV show "Shark Tank."

Today, I don’t worry about my weaknesses. I identify them, and if I can’t fix them, I hire people to fill the gaps they create.

Business operations, for instance, require an intensely methodical approach, strict organizational skills, adherence to certain protocols and attention to the most minute details. These are not my strengths, so I hire the best operations managers in the business. I pay these perfectionists well and they in turn keep me fully apprised of the ins, outs, ups and downs of every aspect of my business.

Like a blind person with a great sense of smell, I made friends with numbers. They never betrayed me or confused me, which is why I think dyslexics make great entrepreneurs.

Follow CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter

  • See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

If you must compensate for your weaknesses, you have to come up with pretty creative solutions.

There is a lot of shame when children are told over and over they can’t do something. These children rarely grow up to be success stories. Dr. Margie removed that shame at the exact right time in my life, before it took root and hampered me, and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.

I hope everyone finds his or her Dr. Margie.