Episodes

Trip O’Dell on Dyslexia

I am very good at connecting what seemed like unrelated ideas very quickly. They call it dyslexic gist detection.

My guest today is Trip O’Dell. Trip has worked as a product designer for leading technology companies such as Adobe, Microsoft, and Amazon. Before his career in tech, Trip was a teacher, introducing new technologies to students so they could tell stories in new ways. When he was a student himself, Trip was diagnosed with dyslexia, and in this episode we discuss how this allows him to think differently.

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Trip: Thanks for having me. So I am a product and service designer based in Seattle. I actually got into this career about 10 years ago. I used to be a teacher, but for about the last ten years I’ve been working at large product companies such as Adobe, Microsoft, and Amazon, and then went to do a start-up and now I am an independent consultant. My path into design and into sort of high technology was a very interesting one. It actually goes back to when I was a very small child. So I have fairly severe dyslexia and different cognitive styles. So I’m actually going back to about 1979. I was diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and as an adult it was determined that I have ADHD as well. And one of the things that led me into education first and then later technology, is that school and a lot of things that most people take for granted in terms of accessing and processing information really was not optimized for me. And so I had to find interesting and fairly unique ways to hack technology in my life to have my needs met. So when I normally describe myself, I describe myself as dyslexic. There’s a lot of emerging research that suggests that dyslexia actually has some distinct outlier strengths. We’ve heard a lot about cognitive diversity in the importance of cognitive diversity, and there are characteristics of dyslexic thinking that are extraordinarily well suited to the types of jobs that are emerging in an information economy. We’re highly over-represented in areas like innovation, design, engineering — essentially anything that requires complex and matrix thinking, human insights and so forth. And that’s represented in some really interesting statistics like 40% of the self-made millionaires are dyslexic. Where things have normally — and this was my experience in school — where things are normally characterized as a disability or a handicap, it really comes into, is it the system around that person that’s broken? And are we approaching things in a way where we’re not leveraging technology to bring out their strengths? And that’s that’s something that’s been my journey over the course of my life and what led me first to become an educator and then later follow a path of technology, thinking that I was going to be applying that into schools and applying that same sort of inclusive thinking in my design career and that’s led to patents and a bunch of major products that I’ve either worked on or led design on up to some systems that were worth billions and billions of dollars at places like Amazon.

Jorge: That’s fascinating and there’s a lot to unpack there. I’m hoping, just for my benefit, if you could clarify what dyslexia is.

Trip: Sure. Now that’s actually an excellent question because there’s a variety of theories around dyslexia, but some of the things that are becoming increasingly apparent is that it’s a difference — it’s a neurological difference, not like something is broken in your brain — it’s that your brain works completely differently or very differently in foundational ways with certain types of tasks and that it’s very likely to be genetically inherited, that there’s a there’s a strong correlation between one parent having dyslexia and there’s about a 50% chance of the child having dyslexia. And as technologies like functional medical resonance imaging — FMRI — which can actually image the brain in real time, as those of come into their own, they have looked at various parts of the brain. So for instance with reading, where a lot of people think about, “oh, well, you see things differently,” you know, you’re the letters move around, what they’ve noticed is that dyslexics use different parts of their brain. for instance where a neurotypical reader would use the visual cortex and then the language center of their brain, the visual cortex being the part of your brain that breaks down symbols and then the language center — which is called Broca’s area — breaks those symbols into what are called phonemes, which are the sounds that make up words. That’s a fairly efficient process. It’s like on a computer where you have a graphics processing unit — a GPU — and a central computing unit — like the CPU — the CPU is a more advanced system, the GPU is a specialized system. With dyslexics, they see the opposite, where the part of the brain that lights up is the language center with the visual cortex lighting up a lot less. And so you have that more high-powered, generalized, more recently evolved part of the brain that’s trying to process that language and it’s not really efficient at it in the same way that say graphical processing unit or the visual system would break that same information down. And so what happens is that information tends to get garbled. We have what’s called poor phonemic awareness, where it’s really hard for us to determine the specific sounds of a word that are related. And that has sort of a cascading effect with how much effort we have to put into which deals with what’s called limit the capacity of short-term memory being like reading comprehension, things like organization, what they call bilateral processing between the two parts of the brain, of the two hemispheres of the brain — an area called the corpus callosum — in dyslexics tends to be a little thinner. So there’s a lot going on there that systemically just makes it a different kind of brain. But there are also things that they’ve noticed not just that aren’t working right, but that do work right or are benefits and that under these same systems when they’ve looked at the unintelligible of the neurons on the cortex, which is the part of the brain that is where the… It’s the moneymaker, it’s the big deal. It’s the most recent part of it, the frontal cortex. Neurons are very broadly distributed on dyslexics versus neurotypicals and very densely distributed for people, or very densely packed for people that may be on the autism spectrum. And with dyslexics those more broadly distributed networks, you get longer axions, which are the connections between neurons. And as you get older and you add more complexity to those neurons and the distribution of those neurons, you get very broadly distributed networks. And one of the strengths and characteristics, and one of the things that I feel has made me very strong at what I do is that I am very good at connecting what seemed like unrelated ideas very quickly. They call it dyslexic gist detection. I can get the big idea very quickly and see connections that other people don’t, and some researchers attribute that to those very broadly distributed networks.

Jorge: I would imagine that for work such as pattern matching or seeing whole systems this would give you a considerable advantage.

Trip: Absolutely. People on the autism spectrum are very very good at seeing signal in noise or seeing patterns very quickly. So the Israeli Defense Forces recruit them heavily to look for incoming missiles in complex radar pictures. People with autism seem to have a very deep strength in that. On the other side of it, GCHQ, which is the British government’s equivalent to, say, the NSA, they recruit dyslexics specifically to map terrorism networks, to look at those weird interconnected issues between people and systems and so forth. They found that those are discrete strengths.

Jorge: When you were describing the biology of this, you made the distinction between — I think you used the phrase “working right” versus “not working right.” And you also use the word “neurotypical.” And what I’m hearing there, is that when you say “not working right,” you mean as compared with neurotypicals. Right?

Trip: That’s actually a really good point. It’s been a long journey, you know, somebody that has an invisible difference. I’m trying to retrain my way. I was brought up in a coarser time, you know, the late 70s, early 80s where they would call me handicapped or disabled or mentally challenged or what have you. One thing is interesting to know about dyslexia Is that they suspect that up to 20 percent of the given of a given population — probably between 15 and 20 percent of the population — have characteristics of dyslexic processing and that it’s a gradient and there’s multiple symptoms in ways that it can manifest. Really only the people with the most severe cases or that have the most severe manifestations of those characteristics are the ones that actually get diagnosed and labeled. But if there weren’t benefits to it… You wouldn’t have that large of an over-representation in the population if there wasn’t sort of an evolutionary benefit. So as I’ve grown and aged and my thinking has changed about this, it’s changed from a point of view of a weakness or that I’m broken or that I don’t do things right or that I’m stupid — which I’m not — it’s trying to change the way that I talk about it. Because language reflects thought, right? So if you’re talking about things like doing things right or wrong or that it’s a difference or that somebody is more typical versus normal versus abnormal… It’s trying to be more precise with the language and how I talk about it.

Jorge: Yeah, we don’t cast judgment on people who are left-handed, right?

Trip: That’s actually fascinating that you bring that up. So I learned something really interesting the other day, that 10 percent of the population is left-handed but 50 percent of dyslexics are left-handed.

Jorge: Oh, so there’s some correlation there.

Trip: Yeah. It’s actually one of the things for early identification of people with dyslexia. And one of the things that those of us that actually get identified early — especially times like 1979 — there has to be a fairly severe difference. In fact the standard that they use in schools is a two standard deviation difference between measured IQ and performance, academic performance. And so that’s like being in sort of the below average for performance and for high above average for IQ or potential. With mine, there was a four standard deviation difference. It was the difference between being in the bottom two percent for performance in the top 2 percent for IQ or potential. Like the difference between the low 80s and the mid 140s for intelligence which is a staggering difference. That’s a huge difference when you look at where somebody was struggling. And they call those types of learners twice exceptional, in that they have exceptional needs but also exceptional talents. And that followed me throughout my career. It’s how I started using technology to meet my needs. So for instance, I didn’t learn how to read until the fourth grade. My mom bought me The Chronicles of Narnia because she knew that I liked fantasy stories, but she also bought me the audiobooks that were narrated by Jim Dale and this was back on the reel to reel cassette days on a Walkman. And I learned to read by listening because when you get to reading fluency, a different part of your brain starts kicking in when you start recognizing words — it’s called whole language — is that you recognize the shape of the word. You don’t sound out every word as you read. And so I was able to skip over the gaps in phonemic awareness and be able to use essentially the pictures of words to string those together and then get to sort of reading fluency and then my reading took off. My reading was above grade level within a year and sort of didn’t look back. And that’s that’s a pretty common thing for kids that are able to crack the code fairly early using adaptive technologies.

Jorge: I’m wondering, based on the fact that you’re saying that you were — I don’t know if the right word is diagnosed or identified as being dyslexic in the 1970s — and going back to this idea of being left-handed in in a world where a lot of things are designed for right-handed people. These differences in measured IQ and academic performance, I’m assuming have to do a lot with the fact that means for learning have been mostly tailored to neurotypical people.

Trip: Yeah, but I’d go further than that. The school system and the way that we think about the way people learn and the right way to teach is shaped by our economy and the economy or the instructional model that we have today, the school systems were designed for a prior Industrial Age. Bell schedules and blocks of time and sort of an assembly line thing where children move from location to location. Is not unlike a Model T moving from worker to worker, you know to get through classes. Everything is defined in time limits and that we measure things on a standardized scale rather than sort of tailoring something in a bespoke way around the needs of a learner and that’s that’s meant for efficiency. And so when they when they come up with classroom methods and instructional models, they’re looking for the broadest reach. And as I mentioned, I trained as an educator. I spent most of my undergrad as a special education major and I ended up teaching for a while, but I wasn’t able to graduate in that major because my handwriting wasn’t clean enough for my handwritten field notes and I wasn’t allowed to type them. So we have a way of sort of locking in the “right way” to do things in systems that are school-based or corporate-based or information-based. That it takes somebody that’s a little mismatched to say that actually doesn’t work. There’s a better way to do it for me and that might actually work for other people and I think that’s sort of the heart and soul of things like innovation.

Jorge: It makes a lot of sense. You talked about the school system being shaped by the economy, and our school systems — as you rightly point out — acquire many of the characteristics of the Industrial Age, these assembly line processes, these scaling mechanisms. And that’s true not just of the school system, it’s also true of a lot of workplaces and I’m wondering in your work, if you are encountering similar types of constraints to the constraints you encountered in school and if so how you are overcoming those or employing tools that help you be more effective.

Trip: Sure. Well, and I’m not the only one. I mean you’ll see if you look carefully in how people organize themselves in offices and so forth, you’ll see that people adapt their environment to their needs. So I would say that the modern workplace, in the same way that schools are are mismatched, the modern workplace and the kind of problems that we solve and are increasingly in demand in the economy are mismatched with the way that we design offices. These big sprawling open offices with cubicles or adjoining desks and clusters and so forth. It’s the idea that if you can pack as many people into the same space as possible that innovation is going to happen and that’s not the case at all. You actually have to look at well, some people are more introverted or extroverted or some people sort of are ambiverts, right? They like collaborating but then they need to be quiet and heads down and low distraction time. And that’s why you see people camping in conference rooms or putting physical barriers up almost as walls around their desks, whether it’s foam core in a design studio or something like that so that. Or they’ll face their computer and put their backs to the room so that they can look out the window because it’s less distracting. People try to optimize around the way that they process information in the most effective way. And this is a lot of what I studied in graduate school. I became fascinated by the way, the brain works just because I wanted to understand how I work. We have created environments and workplaces and tools that — with notifications and everything else — that are anti-flow. Everything is vying for attention. Everything is ASAP. There’s no patience for anything other than a linear workflow, but I think when we think about when we feel most satisfied and engaged in our work, it’s in those moments were either left alone to be heads down or were collaborating very productively and it doesn’t feel like work.

Jorge: Yeah, that reflects my experience as well. Because you’ve worked in large corporate environments and also independently, I’m wondering what tools, systems, processes have helped you manage your attention and get things done.

Trip: Yeah, so maybe as you can tell through write my storytelling, I have a meandering way of thinking, so typical note-taking systems don’t work for me. I never really learned how to take notes very effectively in school, and my brain is pretty messy and disorganized which is a typical dyslexic characteristic. So my way of gathering information and managing information is a lot more like collage, you know, my desk has things spread out all over it. I use things like Mural to move all sorts of things around and organize all sorts of thinking. And it’s a mix of systems that allow me to spread out and then systems that allow me to focus and then being very careful and considerate about what systems and apps and so forth that I allow to interrupt me. But I designed my phone — the screen — the way that I organize things on the screen of my phone so that those more distracting time-wasting apps are two or three steps away versus the ones that I actually need to be productive or I’ll optimize this is the screen just for work stuff or this is the login that’s just for work stuff and then I’ll put a completely different login on the computer for personal stuff so that I actually have to be intentional about getting off track.

Jorge: The image that comes to mind is like the digital version of putting the cookie jar up in a higher shelf or something

Trip: Or the padlock on the refrigerator.

Jorge: Yeah, right.

Trip: The other thing too is that those are systems that separate but then I also have systems that bring together and synchronize. For instance, it’s really easy for me to lose things. That’s sort of the the dyslexic characteristic like where are we think in matrices we kind of also need to have everything out in front of us to be able to make those connections and a lot of software is built to just have you do one thing at a time. It’s built modally, right? I find a lot of word processing very frustrating for this purpose because I have to move text around constantly. It’s really hard for me to just take pieces out and move them back in. So I’ll use services that bring things together. I think I mentioned mural.io which is like an infinite messy desktop that I can just throw stuff on and move stuff around and create relationships with, or Branch into other sort of ways of thinking. I use Trello, which is really meant for task management, but I use it for categorizing and capturing details and then allowing those details to grow and merge and organically move them from columns that I can define on the fly or to different boards in a similar fashion. And that brings things together services like Dropbox and others I use. Probably the most important tool in my life is Grammarly which is an AI-driven spell checker because I do a ton of writing but it’s really difficult for me to catch all the nitty-gritty minor errors that because of my dyslexia I just don’t see. And so it’s very good at finding those and helps me be a better writer and the statistics I get back on that on a weekly basis are fascinating.

Jorge: I’m curious about your use of Trello because I can see how Mural would serve — I think the phrase you used is as an infinite messy desktop — and I can see that and I can imagine how you would drop stuff into that. I’m curious about Trello though because my understanding of Trello is that it has this card-based metaphor at its core. How do you decide what goes in there and the level of granularity?

Trip: So I guess the way I use it is probably more along the lines of a stack of sticky notes that is searchable and easy to organize. So like if you were doing some design workshop where you’re coming up with ideas, and then you’re making associations with ideas and then your clustering those ideas and putting them in sort of in stack. It’s probably like that, although every card becomes really extensible. So, you know something that might be just a reminder sort of to do like I’m just going to drop this idea in there and I’m going to throw it into this list of a rough category of ideas, like paint the house, right? But that paint the house card it could go under a column that I might call Home Improvements, that paint the house card might then start accruing links to websites, or paint chips that I like, or Pinterest links that I like of other paint jobs and styles or whatever and it just allows me the freedom and because it can take a lot of different types of information and render them in useful ways in line or you can collaborate and invite other people to work on it, it’s like a really lightweight collaborative Google Docs that’s super flexible, that you can kind of point to a particular issue where you know, the infinite messy desktop of Mural is great, but it’s really hard to be specific. You kind of get this middle ground with Trello where you can capture. A lot of thinking and be specific about the idea that you’re talking about as well as having a bucket to catch all of the things.

Jorge: So you were telling me about this tool, “Seeing AI.” How are you using that?

Trip: Yeah. So “seeing AI” is really… Going on the Grammarly track talking about applications of machine learning and AI for people that think differently, Microsoft has done an amazing job of thinking broadly about people with differences with their inclusive design. And one of the products that’s come out of that effort has been an app called Seeing AI, which uses their computer vision cloud service. It’s a free app. I think it’s iOS only right now. But it’s intended for people that have low vision or are blind and it can recognize things like faces and gender and approximate age, but it can also read signs. It can read short texts, it can also read longer bits of text, and scan that text and read it out verbally or clip it and use it elsewhere for writing or whatever. I used to work for Audible, and I have thousands of audiobooks that I listen to. I’m a passionate audiobook listener. And I read just fine, but I prefer audio if I have to do a lot of reading or it’s very dense, sometimes I’ll use reading AI to either read it to me or I’ll use it if I need to transcribe it. I will use reading AI to capture the text in a usable format I can clip it and send it to myself. Because as somebody with dyslexia, I’m very error-prone. I have trouble with telephone numbers and not flipping the order of numbers in a telephone number for longer passages of text, it’s very very exhausting. And so I think it’s just one more opportunity where designers and innovators and information workers can think really broadly about the tools that are out there not just put it in one category of oh, that’s for people for people who are blind. That’s not for me. It’s a hammer is a useful tool in various contexts. And I think how we can look at the information tools we use. There’s so much opportunity out there for what machine learning can do to scale human opportunities or to scale human abilities. It’s something that I just find fascinating.

Jorge: It’s fascinating indeed, this idea that digital tools can augment our abilities is… Is just one of the blessings of our time. Trip, it has been such a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much for your time. I’ve learned a lot, and I have a lot of stuff to look into because this Seeing AI tool sounds absolutely fascinating. Now, if folks want to follow up with you, where can they find you?

Trip: They can either contact me at Dark Matter. So darkmatter.design and I blog there I’m getting more of my articles over there at dark thoughts. Or they can follow me on Twitter at Trip O’Dell.

Jorge: Well fantastic Trip. Thank you so much for your time.

Trip: Thank you, Jorge.