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How Kinko’s Founder Paul Orfalea Maximized the Learning Opportunity of Dyslexia

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Hello everybody! Before sharing today’s story I want to show you a couple of pictures. The first is a grid. Take a look at this grid and while you’re looking at it, try moving your eyes across the grid from one direction another. Move your gaze across the grid and see what happens to those little white dots in between the squares. Did you see black or gray dots appear? That’s an optical illusion. It’s caused by the way your brain processes visual information.

Now here’s the second picture. It looks like it’s moving! You see movement all through this picture, it’s really freaky, but the truth is this is a stationary picture. If you look at just one tiny part of the picture at a time you’ll see it freeze and hold still and you’ll realize it’s just a trick that your eyes are playing on you.

Looking at an optical illusion can help give people a notion of what it might be like to have dyslexia. There’s nothing wrong with a person with dyslexia. That person’s brain processes information a little differently from other brains, using one large area rather than three smaller ones, and they may see the letters that they’re trying to interpret, trying to decode, the same way another type of brain sees an optical illusion. The letters might go 3D suddenly, they might flip vertically or horizontally on their axis, and they might look like they’re floating off the page or sliding off the side. When people with dyslexia focus harder it can get worse, the way focus makes it harder to see the dot picture. A few decades ago, most people didn’t understand what dyslexia was or that people could have different types of brains that were wired to specialize in different things.

Paul Orfalea grew up during an era before people understood what dyslexia was and he struggled  hard in school as a result. People didn’t understand why he couldn’t learn his alphabet! He flunked second grade, and he felt awful about it. What kid flunks second grade? But he just couldn’t learn the alphabet. Imagine trying to learn what a “b” looks like if it flips over while you’re looking at it or decides to hop upside down or maybe float off the page. Trying to decode the information was impossible for him, he could not figure it out. His second grade teacher held him back to try to re-teach him the alphabet, but his third grade teachers (he had several, he kept getting switched to different schools), well, they didn’t know what to do with him at all. At last he was sent to a school that was for children who were incapable of learning. Luckily someone gave him an IQ test while he was there. He scored 130, and the teachers there sent him back to a regular school. But Paul still couldn’t read and he still didn’t have the assistance he needed to help him. What Paul did have was an amazing ability to work with people, a strategic mind, and plenty of humility. He learned to ask anyone, to ask everyone, for help.  

Not everyone learns to ask for help the way Paul did. As Paul once said, a lot of children in school believe they have to be good at everything. That’s what children are taught. They receive grades for every subject and they’re supposed to be good at every single subject. In the real world outside school, it isn’t like that. People aren’t like that. We’re designed to specialize and specialize is exactly what we do when we become adults. Paul had to make his way through school with the assistance of other students and the families of those students. He finally had a tutor who was able to teach him how to read, more or less, through phonics. Of course it’s still incredibly difficult, but he was able to graduate high school and he was able to apply to a college, he got in and he was able to take classes. As he was taking those classes, he came upon an unmet need. Students and teachers needed to be able to complete their school projects outside of the campus library. They needed to be able to make copies of their work, they needed to be able to collate and staple handouts and get them ready to go for school the next day.

Paul had a great idea. He could open a copy business. He didn’t understand the machines and he didn’t know how to run them, it just wasn’t his forte, but he saw a need that he could fill and he was determined. Because he was used to working collaboratively every day with sometimes dozens of other people, he knew he could find people with the skills and talents needed to make his new business a success. He had no problem delegating and he had no problem inspiring other people to help him. He was an expert at seeing the big picture. He could see the gestalt, see all of the ways things would fit together to solve the problem for the customer and make money for him and for his friends. His college friends called him Kinko because of his blonde curly hair, so he decided to call his shop Kinkos. Drawing on his experiences in elementary and high school, he recruited managers and owners for new stores, incorporated all of their best ideas and developed a unique collaborative model for his business. It was so successful that by the time he sold it to FedEx, Kinko’s was a two-billion-dollar-a-year business.

Paul had the humility to recognize what he was good at, what he wasn’t good at, and ask for help. He had the ability to inspire other people with the talents he needed to help him. Paul later worked as a professor, and taught young people in his business classes to talk to each other, to ask for help, and to work collaboratively. He used his gifts to show his students how to tap into the gifts of others.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, section 46 verse 11, we read what Paul learned for himself– that not everyone is given every gift. Different people are given different gifts, and when we put those all abilities together and work together we can accomplish amazing things. As Paul said, he learned when he made friends that one plus one equals three. We are greater together than we are apart. When you add all of our abilities together, we are far more amazing we could be alone. As he also mentioned, this is something that maybe you don’t learn if you’re a straight-A student. Maybe this is something you don’t learn unless life has thrown you a few curveballs.

From Paul Orfalea, we learn that it’s ok not to be good at everything. It’s ok to ask for help, in fact, it’s the smartest thing we can do. We were designed to need each other, to support each other, to rely on each other. We don’t all have every gift given to us, and that’s a GOOD thing.

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