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Richard Branson on Turning a Disadvantage to Your Advantage

Richard Branson on Turning a Disadvantage to Your Advantage
Mark Royce

Whenever something goes wrong or you find yourself at a disadvantage, often the best way to handle it is to turn a negative into a positive. I learned this early on as I struggled with dyslexia, a learning disability that affects reading comprehension.

I left school when I was 16 years old partly because of my dyslexia. I couldn't always follow what was going on, so I didn't find the lessons interesting and became distracted. My teachers thought I was just lazy because back then; people didn't understand as much about dyslexia as they do today. On one of my last days at school, the headmaster told me that I would either end up in prison or become a millionaire. That was quite a startling prediction, but in some respects he was right on both counts!

What was definitely true was that I seemed to think in a different way from my classmates, and had from an early age. Throughout my teenage years I was very focused on trying to set up a business and create something. On leaving school I devoted my energy to turning Student magazine into a nationwide publication and a profitable enterprise.

Related: Richard Branson on Facing Your Fears

Over the years, my different way of thinking helped me to build the Virgin Group and contributed greatly to our success. My dyslexia guided the way we communicated with customers. When we launched a new company, I made sure that I was shown the ads and marketing materials. I asked those presenting the campaign to read everything aloud, in order to test the phrasing and the overall concept. If I could grasp it quickly, then it passed muster -- we would get our message across only if it was understandable at first glance.

I still check our ad campaigns today, so we have continued to use ordinary language instead of industry jargon. Our bank, Virgin Money, doesn't talk about "financial services" or "leading industry intelligence;" rather, we talk about building a better bank for everyone. This emphasis on simplicity and clarity also extends to our brand values: Virgin companies stand for good value, quality, innovation, fun and great customer service.

When I did run into challenges, my team and I found a way around them. For many years I ran the Virgin Group without knowing the difference between net and gross profits -- we had some odd board meetings! Despite such problems, we were all able to work together smoothly because I had learned the art of delegation by my teens. This isn't a skill that comes easily to some, but when you're dyslexic, you have to trust others to do tasks on your behalf. In some cases that can involve reading and writing, and so you learn to let go.

As an entrepreneur, I learned that surrounding myself with people who were better than me at specific tasks put me at an advantage because I was free to focus on the things I was good at. We hired fantastic people throughout the Virgin Group to run our businesses, which provided me with the space to think creatively and strategically about new ventures and new adventures as I worked to grow the business.

Related: Richard Branson on When Inexperience Is an Advantage

It wasn't until I was a young adult that I fully recognized that I had dyslexia. By then, I also knew that challenges can be the driving force for success. And in fact, a 2005 study found that one in three American entrepreneurs identifies as dyslexic, while others have shown that people with this disability tend to excel at detecting patterns and grasping the bigger picture. Entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Ted Turner and Charles Schwab all had dyslexia.

So if you are dyslexic, it is important that you do not allow yourself to feel inferior just because you can't spell every word in the dictionary. Vary your activities and interests so that you can uncover your strengths -- in my case, I knew that I wanted to create something to get young people's voice across and then meant creating a magazine and a business to pay the bills.

Related: Richard Branson on Tackling Challenges

Even Albert Einstein is thought to have been affected by this learning disability. The famous physicist once said that "It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education," which is especially true if you have dyslexia. Not being exceptional academically does not mean that you cannot be exceptional.

Whatever personal challenge you have to overcome, you must be brave enough to accept that you are different. You must have the courage to trust your instincts and be ready to question what other people don't. If you do that, you can seize opportunities that others would miss. Believe in yourself, and use everything you can -- including the obstacles -- to propel you along the road to success. Who knows what you might achieve?

The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin Group, which consists of more than 400 companies around the world including Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America and Virgin Mobile. He is the author of six books including his latest, Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won't Teach You at Business School (Portfolio Trade, 2012).
 
Questions from readers will be answered by Richard Branson in future columns. Please include your name and country when you send your question to BransonQuestions@Entrepreneur.com.
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