Gifted or a hopeless misfit? That was the defining dilemma of my entire childhood, adolescence, and young life.
At a time when the spectrum of autism disorders wasn’t easily diagnosed or even talked about, minds like mine were simply considered odd. The polite and friendly would focus their attention and their remarks on my special gifts: my extraordinary skills with numbers, which put me on national television as a preschooler, having memorized entire calendars and able to name a day of the week on any date, years or even decades into the future; or my exceptionally rare musical talent, which had me on concert stages performing with adult skill-level peers when I was unable to even reach the piano pedals. But the real label was far more stigmatizing: I was different, quirky, a social and emotional outcast. It was nothing short of a disability.
Surviving, let alone succeeding, along a self-imposed ambitious career path took an enormous amount of work. I always needed to try to look and sound and behave like everyone else. I was among the fortunate ones, so close to the top of the high-functioning range of the autism spectrum that I could manage. In fact, it became less and less work as my social coping and adapting mechanisms gradually morphed into second nature. But I never stopped feeling like I barely deserved to be where I was, always weighed down by an extra dose of natural insecurity and fear that I could be found out.
As Justin Trudeau noted in the foreword to my book Misfit, “Too often, in our quest to fit in, we end up quashing those very things that could make us special.”
“It’s impossible not to wonder if the massively disproportionate concentration of autistic-spectrum minds (diagnosed or widely presumed) among the world’s leading corporate revolutionaries is purely accidental…”
It was almost 20 years into an action-packed, emotionally exhausting but reasonably successful career as a marketing executive when my handicap magically turned into a powerful crutch. My almost uncontrollable obsession with numbers had fuelled, among several other eccentric numerical hobbies, a deep fascination with weather and climate statistics. Through a gorgeous twist of fate, that talent transformed me into a pioneering expert in a brand-new, 21st-century hot topic: climate change and its impact on the behaviour of consumers. I was uniquely tooled to invent something by simply combining what I had learned through my career with just one of the many quirky, obsessive hobbies of my unusual mind. Before anyone else even imagined such a marginal idea, I had created the first eco-loyalty reward points program on the planet and had set my life, my career, and my mind on a completely new, unbounded journey.
Embracing diversity has almost become a standard mantra and a cliché in our beautiful society. We all talk about it, understand it, and practice it in our own ways and in our own worlds. But there are still forms of inclusion that we haven’t fully explored or harnessed. Neurodiversity, the beautiful mosaic of behavioural and mental variances between us all, continues to be a challenging concept for our corporate society. Jobs, careers, and organizations are still generally designed with neuro-conformity at their core. Weirdos like me need to adapt to the world and the jobs around us in order to thrive, instead of our environments finding ways to make the best use of our weirdly wired brains.
There is an enormous amount of additional economic (let alone social) value we could be unlocking if we figured out how to create more specialized jobs for “minority minds,” as I call them. Lower-functioning autistics who crave extreme routine in their everyday lives are known to generate dramatically lower error rates when performing highly repetitive tasks, so why bore a non-autistic person and waste their (other) talents at a data-entry or document-scanning job when someone with a perfectly and naturally tailored mind could be hired? All it might take is a very slight broadening of our perception and our definition of a skill versus a disability.
My original, entirely accidental, burst into entrepreneurship a decade ago was completely irreversible. For the first time in my career, I felt free to explore and exploit my mind. My quirks and obsessions and useless hobbies suddenly created exceptional value and fuelled a success story. And then a second successful venture, and a third.
It’s impossible not to wonder if the massively disproportionate concentration of autistic-spectrum minds (diagnosed or widely presumed) among the world’s leading corporate revolutionaries is purely accidental, or might it be that the inherent behavioural autonomy of entrepreneurship offers one of the few available escape routes for quirky minds like mine? And what about all those other minority minds, some of whom couldn’t survive in an autonomous work setting: could they add enormous intellectual value in other ways?