What Having Dyslexia Taught Me

In my previous post, I promised I would explain the concept of grit, a powerful trait I have developed, in part, thanks to my dyslexia.

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day-in, day-out. Not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years. And working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Angela Duckworth

To start, I’d like to share an excerpt from an admissions essay I wrote about grit for a leadership program. Below is an excerpt from this essay (which happened to be the first time I admitted to having dyslexia in a “professional” setting). 

The Power of Grit

by Rachel Zaccaro, 2018

One of my most vivid memories of my childhood is from first grade, being called into an impromptu meeting with my teacher and my parents. I was barely 6 years old but I can recall it perfectly, down to the pictures hanging on the wall (U is for Umbrella). Up to that point, I had no reason to worry when teachers and my parents talked. I was a model student, always listening, picking up my toys, and following the rules. As I sat there, looking around the room, I started to hear the concern in my teacher’s voice and I tuned into what she was saying. “We are going to have to hold Rachel back if something doesn’t change.”

I can still hear those words and can feel myself looking up to the ceiling to hold back the tears…what was I possibly doing wrong? As I stared at the ceiling and listened to the conversation unravel, it became clear that I was very different from the other first graders in my class; I could barely read and write. I believed I was like those around me, and being the middle child of two brothers who were naturally talented and gifted when it came to math, reading and writing, I thought I was just as smart as they were.  

This meeting was a pivotal moment in my life. In this moment, I learned that I wasn’t like everyone else, and it set the stage for a long, challenging, and frustrating childhood. I would sit at the table with my parents, tutors, specialists, trying to memorize the sounds of letters that all sounded the same to me and then try to make sense of all those letters and words, typically through the tears of frustration, not able to understand why this was so hard for me when it was so easy for everyone else.  

I would be pulled from class for cognitive, IQ, speech and hearing tests—all trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I would sit at the kitchen table, spending hours reading a passage and trying to answer questions, while everyone else seemed to finish their homework in minutes. 

By the time I was a Junior in high school, I had fought hard for my third-grade reading level. I was spending nearly all my time preparing for my upcoming ACT Test, a test that would ultimately define my future. I needed at least a 19 to get into the schools I had on my wish list.  

Another vivid memory is answering the phone when the guidance counselor called.

With joy, she told me I had scored a 25 on my ACT test!  Once again, tears, but this time for that first grader who was told she would probably not make it to second grade the next year, let alone be able to get into college. 

That first grader who fought and turned into someone who was not only hearing they could go to college, but that they had learned the most important lesson someone could ask for… the power of grit.

It was my grit that got me through the next four years of college, working two part-time jobs to cover the cost of my textbooks and cost of living, on top of handling the workload of college courses plus the extra time it took to read and understand the curriculum. 

It was grit that pushed me through six months of rehab when I blew out my knee, weeks before college graduation. It was grit that urged me to open a video production company, when my full-time (and part-time) jobs were not satisfying my creativity (or paying the bills).  It was because of this grit that I finally landed a job with my dream company, after applying 13 times.  

It was grit that got me through that not-so-dreamy entry level position, with that dream company and inspired me to fight for the job I would earn three years later.  

When I was struggling at that company due to the lack of business experience, it was grit that got me through five years of graduate school, earning my Master of Business Administration. When I again started to struggle working in a marketing position with no sales experience, it was grit that inspired me to move away from Iowa, my home for the last 30 years, to a city I had never been and start working as an outside sales representative. It was grit that got me through the 80-hour weeks and the constant “no’s” to eventually be promoted to a sales director.

Through the adversity I have faced due to my dyslexia, I cannot celebrate my grit without accepting that I have a disability, as I would not have been able to develop grit without my dyslexia.

I hope this blog series can help me accept and own my disability as much as I own and am proud of my resilience, hard work, and the grit that has grown from my experiences.

The Power of Grit, Rachel Zaccaro, 2018

Patience, Appreciation and Acceptance 

How to develop grit isn’t the only thing my dyslexia taught me. It’s also helped me learn how to be more patient, appreciative, and accepting, and to encourage others to do the same when working and learning with people with dyslexia.

The stress hormone, cortisol, is produced when the “flight or fight” response is activated, which causes an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure. This limits brain functionality which will amplify dyslexia symptoms. Having patience and encouraging people when they are struggling with their words, can reduce the stress hormone.

Being accepting and patient instead of correcting and criticizing goes a long way, not only in reducing the stress hormone and helping the brain perform better, but it also teaches us that we are accepted and appreciated; a feeling that can change someone’s life.

I will never forget how amazing it felt to have the support of my teacher when he saw more than my dyslexia and said that he had my back, nominating me for something that would ultimately give me the confidence that would allow me to thrive creatively.

Having dyslexia has made many things harder for me and I still struggle with related challenges today.  

But looking back, I am grateful for my dyslexia because without it I would not have the same capacities for grit, patience, acceptance, and appreciation.

As the most challenging year for me comes to a close today, I am proud to finally (after over a year of working on them) wrap up my series on dyslexia. This is the scariest thing I have done and is a significant first step in the journey to becoming more authentically me. As I mentioned in my first post, I’m terrified to share so much about who I authentically am because it means I can no longer “hide” or sit something out because I am afraid of my dyslexia being discovered…this is me, the real me. 

Looking towards 2022, I know the obstacles will continue, but if the last two challenging years have taught us anything, it is the power of grit and the importance of authenticity and human connection. I leave you with two powerful quotes from one of my favorite authors and social scientist Brené Brown (who has sparked a global conversation about the experiences that bring meaning to our lives—experiences of courage, vulnerability, love, belonging, shame, and empathy):

“True belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are.”

“To form meaningful connections with others, we must first connect with ourselves.”

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