Saturday, July 11, 2020

Commencement Address, June 9, 2020

Dear blog readers, I thought some of you might be interested in the talk I gave last month at nearby high school for college bound dyslexic students. I agreed to do the talk long before the virus changed everything. I was impressed that the students and teachers put together a nearly complete graduation experience via Zoom -- even including caps in the air at the end. Again, showing their talent for creative solutions in adversity. -- TGW

Commencement Address -- Siena School
June 9, 2020 -- Thomas G. West

Final Draft -- June 7, 2020

Thank you Sophie for your kind introduction. 

I also want to thank Jilly and all the staff of Siena School -- and especially the class of 2020. I am greatly honored to be your speaker today. 

Initially, I puzzled about what to say to you today -- the first “virtual” commencement -- at a time of many difficulties and dangers. 

I realize that I must fully acknowledge that what you are seeing now is indeed, in so many ways, The Worst of Times

But I hope to be able to show that this, in some ways, may also be seen as The Best of Times -- for you and your class. 

In The Worst of Times -- it is, indeed, a time for resilience and fortitude. You are having to deal with a global pandemic. You have been locked in, away from school and your friends, having to continue classes virtually, facing an uncertain future. In recent months, all over America a great many have lost their jobs. In recent days there have been protests and demonstrations in DC and all around the country -- and, indeed, all around the world. 

After a long wait, some places are slowly “reopening” -- but even this has many hazards and dangers.
In spite of all of this, I’m going to be bold to say that these could be seen also, in some ways, as The Best of Times

In the long history of human kind, we are told, dyslexics seem to have had a special role. According to some researchers, dyslexics sometimes seem unusually well suited to big changes and to being able to see opportunities inside of adversity. They are particularly good at rethinking situations in an original way. They are good at not being stuck with conventional views and conventional solutions. They have trouble reading and memorizing old knowledge -- but they are often really good at creating new knowledge.

My own story is that I came into this field (as is so often the case) with the testing of our two sons -- who started having dyslexia-related problems in school in the earliest grades. As a worried parent, I got myself tested. I did not learn to read until about the fourth grade -- and have always read very slowly -- but I had been totally unaware of the larger pattern of dyslexic traits.

I soon realized that our family included at least three generations of dyslexics. My father was a brilliant and highly skilled artist and teacher -- but with many classic dyslexic traits. My mother was also a highly skilled artist who won top prizes. They had met in art school. Both had great visual talents.

When I began my own serious study of dyslexia -- I immediately looked to the dyslexics who were successful in various fields. I was less interested in fixing the problems. Rather, I was more interested in understanding areas of distinctive strength and talent. I wanted to look at the fields where dyslexics were successful. I wanted to see what we could learn from them. 

First I saw that many things have been changing in fundamental ways -- many that favor dyslexics. All the things that dyslexics have difficulty with are becoming less and less important in the world of work. And the things that dyslexics are good at are becoming more and more important.
Shortly, my interest in strengths and talents led me to meet some extraordinarily amazing people and directed me to looking into some new and exciting areas of work. 

One of the first places I looked was computer graphics (including simulators and video games) -- the remarkable melding of ancient forms of art and story telling -- with the newest high-speed computer graphic technologies. I attended the conferences -- and there were major technical advances every year. Right away the people I met in the computer graphics conferences explained to me that probably half the people in the industry were dyslexic. 

I met a woman who was responsible for the computer graphics in major films like Titanic and The Fifth Element. She told me that she had assembled a small group of the most talented computer graphic artists and technologists. They dealt with the most difficult problems in the films. She had hired them for their extreme talents based on samples of their work. She had ignored their paper credentials. Soon, she discovered that entire team was dyslexic, one hundred percent. 

This taught me a lesson -- that dyslexics can be stars when they find their special areas of talent -- and when they find the right industry to put their talents to use.

This also taught me that one of the most important things is to be able to retain one’s spirit -- one’s resilience -- and not be beaten down by many early failures -- and not be convinced that you can’t move on to higher levels of accomplishment. 

Indeed, when I talked to highly creative and successful dyslexic people in the sciences and business and elsewhere, they say the higher up you go the easier it gets. 

A wonderful example of great success after repeated failures is Jack Horner -- the famous paleontologist who has been advisor to Stephen Spielberg for his four Jurassic Park films. I got to know Jack over the years at several conferences and I have visited him twice at his digs in northern Montana.

Jack was mostly a failure in lower school and high school. His high school English teacher gave him a grade of D minus, minus, minus. The teacher said you barely passed but “I never want to see you again.” Jack said he sent this teacher a copy of his first book (written with help from a co-writer, of course). Indeed, Jack says he has written more books than he has read.  

Although Jack had failed a lot, he never felt a failure. Why? Because he won all the science fair prizes. He built a Tesla coil -- and he also built a rocket. When he first told me this I just assumed he used a small model rocket. But he said, “Oh no, it wasn’t a small model rocket. It was 5 feet tall and it blasted to 27,000 feet.” I said, “Jack you could have shot down an airliner!”

In Montana, if you have graduated from high school you could start college. Jack failed in college 7 times but he never gave up. He took a low-level job cleaning and preparing fossils. He kept searching the dry wilds of Montana. He could not get funding from professional grants. But he asked a local beer company and got the funding he needed -- to eventually make important discoveries. In time, his work was respected and he became famous. He designed the dinosaur museum exhibits in Bozeman, received honorary degrees and started teaching paleontology.

He would have his 19 graduate students write their papers and put them in the computer so Jack could have his computer read the papers to him. He said that his mission was to get these graduate students to think like a dyslexic.

You didn’t want them to clutter their minds with “other people’s thoughts,” he said. He wanted them to observe nature directly and see what was there in front of them in the fossil evidence. He tried to teach them how to think “out of the box.” He said that normally dyslexics think “out of the box” -- because “they have never been in the box.” 

 I think Jack’s example is a great one because it shows that he is definitely not suited to conventional academic studies. But he was very well suited to understanding nature and science -- seeing clearly what the fossil evidence showed. 

Another great example is Mary Schweitzer, one of Jack’s grad students -- who is also dyslexic. One year Jack and his team had found a very large set of fossil bones from a Tyrannosaurus Rex at the face of a cliff in Montana. It was in a remote area so it was hard to get people and equipment in and out. They found that the fossil femur (that is the upper leg bone) of the T Rex (when covered with protective plaster of Paris) was so big and heavy that the loaned helicopter couldn’t lift it. So they had to cut this femur in half. 

They sent one half to Mary. They didn’t treat it with any chemicals as they normally do. Mary looked inside this bone and what she saw immediately was a deposit of calcium inside the bone -- like the deposits of calcium found inside bird bones when they are ready to make egg shells. So Mary knew right away that the T Rex had been a pregnant female. But there was more.

Inside the bone Mary also found tiny flexible blood vessels and the remnants of red blood cells. Mary and her assistant said they could not sleep for weeks because they thought they would never be believed. 

She published her findings in Science magazine and indeed she was attacked. The critics said it is not possible for such things to survive for more that 60 million years.  However, later, other scientists repeated her discoveries and admitted that her work was legitimate. So, Mary Schweitzer, Jack’s dyslexic grad student, started a whole new subfield --  molecular paleontology. 

Another amazing story is about William J. Dreyer, a dyslexic molecular biologist at the California Institute of Technology, “Caltech.” Some years ago Bill contacted me and said he had read my book and thought that I understood how he thinks (“no one else does,” he said). He suggested, “Next time you’re in the Los Angeles area come and visit. I want to tell you my story.” Turns out that Bill’s story was very interesting indeed.

Bill started off as a dyslexic ski bum. But he took some tests and realized he had some areas of special ability. So he started studying biology and he soon realized that he could understand what was going on in the laboratory better than others. Because he could use his powerful dyslexic imagination to see how the molecules fit together in various ways, he developed a new theory related to the human immune system. 

He told his professors which experiments they should do and what the results would be. They helped him write his papers, based on his new theories. For 12 years, he gave talks about these new theories. Many professionals in the field were angered by these talks; it was all so new that they could not understand; they thought it was heresy. 

Later, another scientist, working in Switzerland doing experiments that were illegal in United States at the time, proved that Bill’s new theories were correct. And this other scientist received a Nobel Prize. 

Bill told me, I think honestly, he did not resent not receiving the Nobel Prize. He told me that once you receive the prize your life is not your own -- everybody wants a piece of you. Bill said that he was happy to be vindicated and to know that his theory was correct and was eventually accepted by everyone in the field.

But there’s still more to Bill’s story. Bill had a dyslexic grandson named Brandon King. Brandon was in high school flunking everything, depressed, taking medication, fighting with his parents, feeling very low. So his grandfather asked him to come and visit and help with his research using Brandon’s computer skills. 

Each day Bill talked to Brandon and said this is what I want you to do today. Since you are good with computers, I want you to write this little search program -- but before that you need to know this biology . . . 

Shortly, Brandon started to help in the laboratory at Caltech as a volunteer. Then he was part-time employee. Eventually he was a full-time employee helping with the computer side of the biology laboratory at the Caltech. Soon, according to Bill, Brandon was doing “post doc” level work at the laboratory -- and he still hadn’t graduated from high school. Eventually Brandon went on to college at Berkeley (because they had a good LD program) and was be able to graduate with honors and start his own business. 

Because of my books and talks, many stories of successful dyslexics have come my way. The field is full of paradoxes. Great writers who cannot spell. High level mathematicians who don’t know their math facts. A Nobel Prize winning biologist who been in “special ed” and thought she was stupid. It is important for educators and test designers to understand that there are whole areas of talent that they do not know how to measure or comprehend.

Over many years stories of dyslexic entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Charles Schwab have been written about in the business press. This is not new. However, what is new is that in the last couple of years there have been formal reports written by major management consultant firms. A report by one of the big four management consultant companies (EY -- formerly Ernst and Young) states the case that what businesses want in the future are the skills and talents and strengths that are common among dyslexics. 

With the new fast, powerful computers many of the clerical tasks that our educational system trains human beings to do are now being done faster and more cheaply by machines -- especially with massive data available in the cloud along with “deep learning” and artificial intelligence (AI). Businesses realize that what they now need from their human employees is the innovation, creativity, big picture thinking and other abilities that are common among dyslexics (but may be rare among certain non-dyslexics). 

These are the kinds of things that some of us been saying for many years, but it is wonderful indeed to hear these from established management consulting companies. 

I think it is important for you, the class of 2020, to acknowledge, of course, the many great problems and stresses of our time. But along with all your own difficulties with dyslexia, remember that you have many advantages in ways of thinking that others do not have. 

So I want you to see that it may be possible to view the problems as opportunities as well -- to show the world -- and to show yourselves -- what you really can do.

Thank you. 

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