Mind Over Matter: How I Overcame My Learning Disability to Build a Successful Tech Career

It was around 2009 that I sat in the neuropsychologist's office as he paged through the many-paged report that contained the answer to a question that had been burning in my mind for decades.

How smart am I, really?

It's the kind of thing I'd imagine the average person doesn't think about all that much. Maybe a little bit. Not enough to spend 16 hours over two days having a PhD grill them with mind-numbing tests. Or, to spend thousands of dollars for these (I fortunately didn't have to, but I sure as hell would have).

Now I was about to get an answer, and one that would open up my eyes quite a bit.

[bctt tweet="#MindOverMatter: How I Overcame My #LearningDisability to Build a Successful Career - @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]


The doctor thumbed through the thick report full of numbers and charts. "Wow, you're really smart," he said. In my mind I felt a bit relieved, validated, even a little excited.

Then he added, quite matter-of-factly, "...but you're a f**king snail!!"

I reflexively laughed at his deadpan delivery, and patiently waited for more explanation.

"Yep, wow...really smart...almost a genius...but you're a f**cking snail." It was hilarious, upsetting, and relieving all at the same time.

The good doctor explained what he meant. My overall intelligence was super high - my verbal ability, for example, was in the 99th percentile - I scored better than 99% of the population. But on certain tasks involving rote memorization, and processing speed, I scored incredibly low in proportion to my intelligence. I was super smart, but super slow. I was a f**cking snail.

It made sense. Most people whom I met and worked with closely respected my ability and knowledge. My career and reputation were stable. But simple tasks that I had done many times over would easily take hours upon hours. It was endlessly frustrating and confusing, but now things were starting to make sense.

It was upsetting to have one of my long-time insecurities verified by science. But also relieving to know what I had wanted to wholeheartedly believe for decades—that I was not a complete dumbass. In fact, I was pretty freaking intelligent.

[bctt tweet="I was upset + relieved to learn - despite a #learningdisability, I was freaking smart - @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

Slow Starts

I had been confused about my own intelligence since I was a kid. I knew I was smart, I did reasonably well in school. Socially, I was odd. Known for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

I did perfectly in some subjects, poorly in others. I excelled at logic, but struggled immeasurably with rote memorization. Things requiring reading comprehension (history, literature) were overwhelming, but I breezed through the sci-fi novels I read at home, sometimes finishing a whole 400-pager in a few evenings.

This strange dichotomy created a lot of confusion. Some things were so easy, and some were disproportionately hard. I felt smart, but often people I met seemed to think I was stupid, or too strange to talk to.[bctt tweet="It was a strange dichotomy - some things were so easy, others disproportionately hard. @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

But even back then, I had a sense that I could do something about it. I analyzed myself obsessively in social situations, and noticed the exact moments when people would be put-off by things I said, or the ways in which I said them - like interrupting them, or talking too long without a pause. Over times I would notice these things before I did them - and ultimately resist those unproductive impulses. Things got better.

My memory was often horrible, as was my distractibility, which as you might imagine, affected my work. I compensated for my poor memory by writing important things down, almost religiously. I've lived by Evernote for years now, but before that, I relied heavily on simple text files.

I worked around distractions with noise-cancelling headphones and sound waves, and improved it with mindfulness, even though I may not have been as intimately familiar with the term back then. I devoted myself to the practice of observing my attention all day long, and every time I became distracted I accepted it, forgave myself, and went back to what I was doing. Dozens and dozens of times per day. I got more focused, and got more and more done.

And my speed, the slow processing speed I wouldn’t understand until years later - that was the most frustrating part. I still found ways to cope with it, keeping my own libraries of copy-and-paste chunks of reusable code. Tons of practice made certain tasks instinctive. Long work hours, and meditation to kept me sane.

It was progress - slow, minute, gradual, and not nearly enough for me. But progress nonetheless. It wasn't until years later that I realized that the possibilities for improving my brain were far broader than I had imagined.[bctt tweet="It took years to discover the breadth of possibilities for improving my brain - @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

The Road to a Higher IQ

Around the time I got my IQ test results, I had already been learning about the phenomenon called neuroplasticity - the idea that the brain can change, sometimes dramatically, and in very different ways. Most notably, positive ones. When I first heard that this concept existed, I immediately wanted to know more.[bctt tweet="Neuroplasticity is the idea the brain can change - positively + dramatically, says @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

I read, I googled, I researched, I talked to people, I asked questions. At some point I came across The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, a book detailing story after story of people who completely transformed their brains. Eradicating learning disabilities. Recovering from traumatic brain injuries. And strokes. And more.

It made me hopeful. If these people could do it, maybe I could too. I refused to simply accept the brain I was dealt. I was sick of spending countless extra hours and tons of energy just to have average or slightly-above-average results. Especially when others who put in this level of effort could excel. I wanted more.[bctt tweet="I refused to accept the brain I was dealt, says @mcavaliere #growthmindset" username="StartupInst"]

It started with neurofeedback—using EEG (brainwave-measuring) headsets to monitor my mental activity. Working with my neuropsychologist friend, I would watch movies while wearing this funny-looking headset attached to a laptop. Anytime my mind was wandering, the headset would detect it and the movie would stop. I had to concentrate—pretty hard in fact—to get the movie going again. I was controlling a movie with my mind! How crazy is that?

The brainwave recordings from the headset showed I was making progress—meaning, my brain waves looked closer to those of a “normal” person. But I didn't see it translate into real world results just yet—my speed, memory, attention and so on didn’t seem to change at all. So I moved on to try something else.

Brain Gym was another method. It entailed lots of physical movements, some yoga-like, some completely strange. Like marching in place, while moving your eyes back and forth and humming at the same time. Goofy. Strange. But impressively effective.

With Brain Gym I saw some wild, near-immediate improvements—my verbal ability improved; my anxiety reduced. My eye control (which affects reading ability, athletic ability and other things) got better, sometimes immediately following a session. It was bizarre, and I remained a perpetual skeptic—trying to be as data-driven as possible. But I couldn't argue that things were happening.[bctt tweet="I improved my verbal ability + eye control + reduced my anxiety using #BrainGym, says @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

Then came the Brain Abilities program, in which I put on 3D glasses, headphones with binaural sound recordings, and peppermint oil under my nose while using a handheld sensor attached to a metronome. More weirdness. And more results—the kind that gave me real hope and belief in the work that I was doing.[bctt tweet="Brain Abilities inspired real hope that it was possible to improve my #IQ, says @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

Brain Abilities took a lot more work to see these results. I woke up at 6:30am daily for core and agility exercises, balance, rhythm, and eye movement training. I didn't see results every day. But when I did...wow.

There were days I left the house after my morning routine, and it was like the movie Limitless. All of a sudden, this fog sitting over my brain had been lifted. I was a far, far sharper version of me. Focused, decisive, organized. My whole day just fell into place, and my productivity was way higher than usual.[bctt tweet="A fog had lifted. I was a sharper, more focused + decisive version of me, says @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

To date, I've undertaken a plethora of these brain-focused experiments, diets, workout routines, apps, and so on (you can read more them at ADHDTechies.com). I've done before-and-after tests that show, pretty conclusively, that things are workingsome measures of my visual memory, for example, improved from that of a six-year-old to that of a normal adult. Yeah, really.  [bctt tweet="Brain exercises brought my visual memory from the level of a 6 yr old to an adult, says @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

More importantly, I've seen some of this translate into real world results. Instead of having to read the same paragraph three or four times, on average it's a lot closer to one. I juggle way more information and tasks regularly, and far less details get missed.  And I don't work late nights nearly as often. But I'm not even close to satisfied.

The truth is, once you've had a taste of what real success is like—what it feels like to be a far improved version of yourself,or in more general terms, to feel what it's like to fully live your dream, even for a moment—you simply cannot stop as you've experienced truth.[bctt tweet="Once you get a taste of your dreams, you can't stop. You've experienced truth - @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

Now as an adult, I'm the tech director of ATTCK, a great web development & design agency with clients like Calvin Klein, HBO and American Express. Before that, I was a freelance developer for many years, working with other big names like like Frito-Lay, Smirnoff, and so on. For a short time I was the lead engineer of an edtech startup called Brainscape, with users numbering in the hundreds of thousands. I own a home, salsa dance, and travel to places like Spain, Italy, and Costa Rica. In telling you this, my intention isn’t to toot my own horn, but I'm proud to have accomplished so much that a lot of learning disabled people truly struggle with.

I'm by no means a millionaire, nor have I accomplished all I plan to, but I've done a fair bit. Regardless, getting here with a very atypical brain took a whole lot of effort, self-acceptance, and perseverance. [bctt tweet="I'm proud of all I've accomplished w/ an atypical brain. It took self-acceptance + perseverance - @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"] 

Lessons Learned from Chasing a Higher IQ:

I've learned a lot on this journey of personal development; much more than can be covered in one article. Here are a few choice life lessons from my experience of succeeding with an atypical brain:

1. Know Thyself

That test that I took in 2009 (and several others I took at different times) helped confirm that my brain is great at some things, abysmal at others. And it shed light on what those things are.

You don’t have to take an expensive IQ test to further your career (although honestly, if you have the means and opportunity to, you should). Instead, cultivate the skills of introspection and self-analysis. The more you know—and truly accept—your strengths and weaknesses, the more effective you will be. [bctt tweet="Further your career by cultivating skills of introspection + self-analysis, says @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

2. Sell Your Strengths, Work Around Weaknesses

When I speak to clients, they're not talking to a computer geek with a learning handicap. They're talking to a tech professional with two decades of experience. I set expectations clearly, listen to their needs, and am realistic about what my team can and can't (or shouldn't) deliver.

What I’m selling is my professionalism, experience, empathy, and communication. Which are hugely valuable.

My biggest challenges are my speed of execution, and ability to retain information. I work around these by prioritizing properly, cutting out distractions, and documenting everything important for easy retrieval.

Most people I've worked with say they would never have known I had a learning disability if I hadn't mentioned it. Your personal flaws become less of a problem with the right structures in place to address them.[bctt tweet="Your flaws are less of a problem w/ the right structures to manage them, says @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

3. Develop Your Weaknesses Too

A suit of armor is only as strong as its weakest link. So, while you’re finding quick shortcuts and strategies to work around your weaknesses, also build up those weaknesses.

In my case, this means doing tons of wild brain improvement experiments, like 10-day silent meditation retreats, balance exercises while listening to Mozart, among others. The latter I did for about 9 months straight, 5 days a week, at a public gym. I didn't care how stupid I looked—in the end, it actually worked.

Learn what you're bad at, and work on it gradually with persistence. It'll get better with time.

[bctt tweet="A suit of armor is as strong as its weakest link. Know your #weaknesses. - @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

4. Set Expectations

Regardless of what you're good at and bad at, clients and employers will always have an idea in their head about what to expect from you and when. Under-promise and over-deliver—always. Whereas it's great to push yourself to do better each time, work harder, and deliver more, if you keep making commitments without reliably keeping them, it'll show, and people will lose confidence in you.

Conversely, if you set the expectation slightly lower and deliver an even better or faster result than you promised, you're constantly building up a reputation for reliability and quality that all clients will appreciate.

[bctt tweet="Always under-promise and over-deliver, says @mcavaliere #expectations" username="StartupInst"]

5. Treat Everything as an Experiment

At a recent presentation I gave at QCon, I talked about how to treat your brain as a startup. In a startup, you attach metrics to each service or feature your business provides, and measure them as frequently as possible.

Improving your brain—or your career, or a specific skill, or anything—is no different in this regard. Find ways of measuring the things you want to improve, then run an experiment. If it moves the needle, tweak it to get better results; if it doesn't, try the next experiment. Rinse and repeat and something will eventually work.[bctt tweet="Treat yourself + career like a startup - test + measure, says @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

6. Learn Grit

Let's say you're learning to ski for the first time. You strap the skis on and fall right down on your face. You do it five times, and start to get the hang of it. Maybe 10. If you're struggling with it, maybe 20 times or more. How long would it take for you to give up?

Now imagine if learning everything were like that. Either you'd get depressed and be afraid to try anything, or you'd accept that you need to make 50-100 attempts before you made progress. And you'd keep on going until you did.

Everyone with a learning disability has felt the latter phenomenon at some point. Often repeatedly. In my case, it led to picking and choosing my knowledge carefully.

Try learning something you never thought you could learn. Something you know you’ll mess up a lot at. See how many tries it takes to make some progress—40, 50, 100, 200? Even if you quit at that point, apply that repetition concept to anything else in your daily life. You'll find yourself giving up far less quickly in general.[bctt tweet="People with #learningchallenges understand the true meaning of #grit, says @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

7. Learn With Focus

Because learning takes time for me, I limit the information I take in. I read fewer blogs and books than some since it takes me longer. I'm really cautious before I choose a new programming technology because I know I'm going to have to drill my butt off to get good at it.

It's far better to master a few things than to dabble in dozens. You can sell the thing you've mastered a lot better than something you're "okay" at. Bruce Lee said, "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10000 times." Same thing with programming languages. And learning a language. And marketing. And basket weaving. You get my point.

Learning one thing at a time also means faster progress. You'll get a lot stronger doing 30 mins at the gym, five days a week than you would spending 2.5 hours only once a week. You'll also be forced to work on only a few exercises, so you'll improve at them a lot quicker.[bctt tweet="Fear not the man who practiced 10000 kicks 1x, but the man who practiced 1 kick 10000x @brucelee @mcavaliere" via="no"]

8. Do it Your Way

Everyone is atypical in some way. Realizing that you're atypical means accepting your shortcomings. It also means investigating strengths other people may not have, or simply haven't considered since they haven't been forced to.[bctt tweet="You're atypical. Realize this and accept your shortcomings, says @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]

Having odd medical challenges, for example, has made me become a pretty talented researcher. Out of necessity, I've managed to discover things like Brain Gym which most people haven't heard of. It's made me far better a networking since I've had to seek out people with similar challenges and others who could help further my goals.

And it's made me far more of a doer. The fact is, I'm trying to change something that few people know how to change. Which means in order to succeed, I have to be ready to fail again and again and keep trying, which is a trait shared by everyone who has achieved anything truly great.[bctt tweet="My #learningdisability has taught me not to fear failure + gives me #grit to achieve @mcavaliere" username="StartupInst"]