David Flink on How We Can All Think Differently About Learning

Dave Flink
I’m Alan Alda, and this is C+V, conversations about connecting and communicating
Dave: I think things like dyslexia and ADHD can be a part of your identity in positive ways, without discounting the real negative experiences. But on the other side of those challenges are stories of joy, stories of accomplishment, stories that are about potential. And I think it’s one of the things that I could never have guessed at 18 that I would get to do in my life.
Dave Flink was lucky. He was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD while still in grade school. With training and support he got into an Ivy League college. There he helped start a program where college students go into schools to mentor kids with a diagnosis of dyslexia or ADHD. Called Eye to Eye, the program is now entering its 20th year. Dave has recently written a book, titled Thinking Differently, recounting his experience and that of hundreds of others with the same diagnosis. We talked in our Manhattan studio.
Alan: 00:00 This is so good to be able to be talking with you today, because we’re covering when we talk I think today, an angle on communication that we’ve never touched on before, which is dyslexia. I think when I first heard about dyslexia, all I was aware of was that it had to do with mixing up letters and words, that the words would get scrambled on a page. But it’s much more than that, isn’t it?
Dave: 00:25 It is. And I was thinking as I was heading down here. When we first met, which was what, 10 years ago maybe?
Alan: 00:33 Yeah.
Dave: 00:34 And we were doing a panel, you probably remember, on dyslexia with scientists. And one of the things I think came out of that panel was in fact exactly what you just said. It’s not just about switching letters; it’s really about learning. And I’ve been listening to the podcast. I’m a fan.
Alan: 00:53 Thank you.
Dave: 00:53 It’s my favorite podcast. And one of the things that I was thinking about, I hope we can cover today, is really the idea that it’s so much more than dyslexia being about reading. It’s really about everybody learns differently. And in communication, that is the challenge. How can the way that I learn and what I learn maybe from you or from someone else, be part of our shared experience?
Dave: 01:19 Because I think that’s a lot of the challenge that we’re having in our schools, but it’s also the challenges we’re having in our society.
Alan: 01:24 So when you say it’s about learning, what do you mean? If it’s more than scrambling letters up when you read, do you mean that as someone is trying to teach you something, you can’t keep track of the thoughts the way they’re coming at you? You scramble up the sounds coming in the way you scramble up the words when you’re reading, or the concepts coming in?
Dave: 01:48 Yeah, and it’s worth going back a bit, so how we started to understand dyslexia and now. You go back to the beginning of when dyslexia first came about. It came about when we invented the written language.
Alan: 02:04 When you say it came about, you mean people realized that-
Dave: 02:07 That it was a thing.
Alan: 02:08 But was it not possible for it to be a thing before that?
Dave: 02:12 Yeah.
Alan: 02:13 Because people were learning things in an obstructed way, but they didn’t know they had a problem ’til they tried to read.
Dave: 02:19 Exactly, exactly. So when reading was invented, then suddenly there were some people, people who have dyslexia, who did not read particularly well with their eyes. And what we started to understand is that those people, when the medium of learning was reading, those people were failing. And we thought smart people, good people … Moral judgments were put upon reading. Smart people and good people read with their eyes. And in fact, those people who didn’t were somehow defective.
Dave: 02:50 Now, thankfully, between the invention of the written language and now, we started doing FMRIs on the brain. And what we learned is that there are literally different parts of the brain that light up when you have dyslexia and try and read than people who read and don’t have dyslexia. So what’s interesting about that is that it means that yes, reading with your eyes the written language is inherently a problem for someone with dyslexia. It also means that the way that that person’s brain is lighting up actually leads to different thinking.
Dave: 03:25 And so that’s why I say it’s actually broader than just mechanical decoding words on a page.
Alan: 03:31 Right. Can you give me an example of different thinking?
Dave: 03:35 Yeah. There’s a story I like to tell about one of the first Eye to Eye mentors who’s dyslexic.
Alan: 03:43 So Eye to Eye is your organization, Eye to Eye, where you help mainly young people with dyslexia to do what? To face the world and know they have it and advocate for themselves, or what? Or do you teach them to get over the dyslexic problem?
Dave: 04:04 Eye to Eye is all that that you just described. It’s a mentoring program that matches college and high school students with dyslexia and ADD.
Alan: 04:12 So the kids mentor … Young people mentor other young people?
Dave: 04:15 Yeah. And they walk into a middle school and already, as a dyslexic college student, they are innately cool in the eyes of a little kid. And they can share how they succeeded, how they got through school.
Alan: 04:29 Good. At Eye to Eye, you’re dealing with how people think differently?
Dave: 04:35 Exactly.
Alan: 04:36 How do you do that?
Dave: 04:38 Well, I’ll explain that in a minute, but I wanted to respond to the different thinking possibility.
Alan: 04:42 Yeah, that’s what I meant.
Dave: 04:45 Yeah, yeah, yeah. So one of our first mentors, a college student who has dyslexia, he has grown up as I have, at 39, and he lives here in New York, actually. And he is the head of Phase I research at Sloan Kettering. And that’s important because his different thinking brain, his dyslexic brain, has allowed him to start working on ways to cure cancer that other people hadn’t thought about.
Alan: 05:14 Oh, this is fascinating. How? In what way did that happen?
Dave: 05:18 As not the scientist, I will try my best to explain what Dr. David Hyman is doing. But from my understanding, for years they were trying to cure cancer based on its location. So if you had cancer in the lungs or you had cancer in the pancreas, they called it that. And what he realized is it’s actually about the mutations. So a mutation in the lungs or a mutation in the pancreas could actually be similar.
Dave: 05:43 And so we could actually cure two types of cancer at the same time by aiming for the mutation. Now, I don’t know if that’s because he’s dyslexic; he’s also just brilliant, but I think there is something interesting … and I’ve seen this played out time and time and time again with a huge community of dyslexic thinkers that I’ve gotten to be apprised to … where the world is thinking you do it this way and for whatever reason, a dyslexic mind comes to a different conclusion. A conclusion that actually is something we all appreciate.
Alan: 06:11 So in a way, you’re enabled by dyslexia to come at it from a different angle. And that may be a critical step.
Dave: 06:20 Yep. And we spend a lot of time I think in school making kids who learn and think differently feel less than. It’s not a malicious intention. My mom’s a teacher. There are absolutely no teachers on this planet who show up every day thinking, “Oh, I’m gonna get these kids.” That’s not-
Alan: 06:40 Well I think I had one of those.
Dave: 06:41 Oh, you had the one? Hopefully that teacher’s now retired.
Alan: 06:45 Yeah. But the coming at it at a different angle sounds like such an important thing to do. It’s a creative way to approach any problem and not be stuck with the way the problem presents itself to you. If you can get around that interface where that’s difficult, the blockade, and come in from the side, you have an advantage.
Alan: 07:12 So it sounds like there actually could be an advantage to having dyslexia.
Dave: 07:18 Yeah, and I’ll actually just say that dyslexia and ADHD too, which is just an attention difference-
Alan: 07:28 Do they come together often?
Dave: 07:29 About 40% of the time. They are contextual, so they have strengths and weaknesses. For instance, we use the example of dyslexia, right? You can either struggle with reading or you might cure cancer. Both of those things can be true. Same thing can be said for folks with ADHD. In school … I don’t know about for you, but I know for me, a good student often sat still for eight hours a day. You got a gold star if you could do that. Now-
Alan: 08:00 That’s also a torture when you’re captured by the other forces.
Dave: 08:04 That is right. That is exactly right. And that is why you see kids who have a different orientation to learning get punished. Because they’re really bad at that. And as long as they can get through … and this is what Eye to Eye provides, and I can explain a bit more about how we help them get through … but as long as we can get kids through school, we see people with ADHD fly and come up with really creative ideas.
Dave: 08:31 So my inability to sit still and focus on one thing for a period of time is also my ability to juggle multiple things for a period of time. I was just listening to my second favorite podcast, How I Built This. I don’t know if you’ve ever-
Alan: 08:44 Oh yes. No, I haven’t heard it but I hear it’s great.
Dave: 08:46 It’s a really fun and interesting podcast. And I was listening to it just the other day and there was a guy on it, David Neeleman, who started JetBlue, who has ADHD. And his story was very much an ADHD story. He struggled in school and then he got out in the real world and his ability to juggle all these different ideas and essentially create an airline that, at the time, really hadn’t been done … a relatively inexpensive ticket that still had good service … everyone thought that wasn’t possible.
Dave: 09:14 And his ADHD brain connected a bunch of dots and said, “Oh yeah, we can do that.”
Alan: 09:19 And Richard Branson has dyslexia, apparently very severe.
Dave: 09:25 Yep. Chuck Schwab, Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Spielberg.
Alan: 09:32 Henry Winkler.
Dave: 09:33 Henry Winkler. Yeah. There’s a laundry list of really successful and notable people who I think have enriched my life and probably yours as well. And also, there are statistics we don’t talk about, which is if you have dyslexia and ADHD, you’re twice as likely to drop out of school. 40% of our prison population is illiterate or has a learning disability.
Dave: 09:56 So I think about the 1 in 5 people who have learning and attention issues as this incredible opportunity for us, for all of us.
Alan: 10:05 We’re wasting talent.
Dave: 10:07 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Alan: 10:10 I wonder if you agree with this. I’ve spoken with scientists who have shown that when you’re deprived of sight, the brain compensates by making you better at other senses like smell and that kind of thing. Do you think that happens with dyslexia? Other parts of the brain take up tasks to compensate?
Dave: 10:34 Absolutely. And the science is just getting there to prove that out, too.

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Alan: 10:40 What do you do at Eye to Eye? How do you help young people?
Dave: 10:43 I think it’s worth rooting it in a story in failure.
Alan: 10:47 Good, good. That’s the best kind of story.
Dave: 10:49 That’s right. 20 years ago, almost to date, I was starting as a freshman at Brown University. And I knew I really didn’t have any role models who had gone to college who learned and thought like I did. And I thought somehow I had slipped through the cracks, and I just wasn’t gonna tell anybody. And so I went to Brown and quite quickly realized that there were actually people who got into college who learned and thought like I did.
Dave: 11:22 And all of us had the same story. We wish we had known one person in our life who had dyslexia or had ADHD and then made it to college. Because we had all these heroes, but they were really far to reach. I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Branson, Chuck Schwab, and Whoopi Goldberg, but none of those people were available to come mentor me, it turned out.
Alan: 11:43 They weren’t next door.
Dave: 11:44 They weren’t next door. And so we thought, “We’re 18, we’re in college. Maybe we could be those people that we never had.” And here’s the failure part: we organized; that was good. We found community; that was good. And then we went to the local elementary school and we literally said, “Show us your dyslexic kids. Where are they?”
Alan: 12:07 They didn’t know they had any?
Dave: 12:08 Well they did know they had any, but we didn’t know what we were gonna do once we got them. We had gotten as far in the plan as go to the school. And thank God there was a teacher there, Maureen Kenner, who was like, “Here they are! They’re right here! What are you gonna do?” We’re like, “We don’t know. We don’t know.”
Dave: 12:27 And so the first day, we sat there and we kind of looked at each other. And we made a lot of mistakes. We started tutoring them, which I think was the first mistake, because these kids didn’t need fixing. And implied in tutoring is that we’re trying to fix something. And we quickly moved to what is now called a social-emotional learning curriculum. And that was teaching kids about resiliency, about grit, about metacognition, thinking about thinking, understanding how their mind works, empowering them once they knew how their mind worked, to be able to advocate for what they needed.
Dave: 13:06 So, for instance, my first mentee, like me, struggled with reading. And I said, “Well, you know, you can read with your ears.” He’s like, “You can?” I said, “Yeah. You can …” At the time it was called tapes, you remember those? I know you’re a millennial, so-
Alan: 13:22 Yeah, I know. I’m the oldest millennial.
Dave: 13:23 The oldest millennial. But I said, “Yeah, you can have books on tape.” Now kids obviously use their iPod and can download things all the time. And I said, “You can read with your ears.” So if you know that about your brain, metacognition, you have enough self-esteem which I can give you because I learn and think like you do. So immediately I can imbue some self-esteem on my mentee. You can ask for that accommodation, a book on tape.
Dave: 13:48 And now, literally, his grades went from failing grades to As. And, more importantly, he was happy.
Alan: 13:56 I know a woman who helped her … Sorry. I know a woman who helped her son through high school and college by reading to him everything he needed to learn. And he became a best-selling author. You’d think that he’d be doomed, but you’ve shown that you don’t have to fail at it. Part of it sounds to me like knowing it’s okay to be dyslexic.
Dave: 14:34 Yeah, yeah. Knowing it’s okay to be dyslexic. I would go a step further even and say it’s okay to have it part of your identity. I think a lot about what we as people identify with. We’re very tribal these days. And we like to embrace the part of the tribes that look really positive, and we kind of like to reject the things that feel like a weakness or negative.
Dave: 15:01 And I think things like dyslexia and ADHD can be a part of your identity in positive ways, without discounting the real negative experiences. And one of the things that’s just been a joy for me is I don’t think that I was a particularly good mentor. I was okay. What I see now in this work of this nonprofit Eye to Eye, 20 years in, I see young people doing the work better than I ever did.
Alan: 15:30 Well, what do you think makes a good mentor?
Dave: 15:33 First off, you have to get through the shame.
Alan: 15:37 That they feel?
Dave: 15:38 Yeah. If you’re gonna show up and step into a kid’s life, you need to be able to have a sense already of your own experience, and to feel some pride around wherever you are, how you got there, and recognize that you have something to give. And so I see … We now have thousands of mentors across the country. And I see these young people doing things that I was not confident enough to do.
Dave: 16:03 So I often … Even though I knew I was mentoring a kid who learned and thought like I did, I was scared to even use words like dyslexia. And now they show up wearing t-shirts that say “Dyslexic and proud,” and they wear ADHD on their sleeve. And it takes such courage and such bravery. And I should mention, we don’t compensate our mentors. They’re busy students, particularly now that we work with high school students too. And they’re doing this because they’re good people and they wanna make a difference.
Dave: 16:36 And I think we talk about young people often as people we need to protect or people we need to punish. And the reality is, these young people are changing the lives of kids across the country selflessly and nobly, and around something that has often been a challenge for them.
Alan: 16:58 How many people do you think you work with?
Dave: 17:01 We now know … We work with tens of thousands. There are 2.4 million kids in America in our public schools that have identified learning and attention issues. At Eye to Eye, we have a lot of work ahead of us, even though we’ve done a lot of work that we’re very proud of. The good news is that we actually do know now how to help them. And I think that’s what the science is so exciting for me. I know you and I both share a love of science and a curiosity of science.
Dave: 17:29 So I am unpacking this in real time, as the science is becoming more available to us. And so one of the things that’s been interesting: we just completed a three-year study with UCSF BrainLENS Lab. They are the best in research around this issue. And the first interview that we did back in the day, Dr. Fumiko Hoeft was one of the people on the panel that you interviewed. And she’s the woman who led this research.
Dave: 17:57 And what this research told us … and it wasn’t just about the effectiveness of our work … but you could go into schools and they were looking at kids who had dyslexia and ADHD. They were looking at kids who had dyslexia and ADHD that were in Eye to Eye, and they were looking at kids without learning and attention issues. And if you looked at just middle school, you would see things like depression and you would see that kids without learning disabilities often have an uptick of depression. But kids with learning disabilities in school, their depressive symptoms highly increased just by being in school.
Dave: 18:33 And you could tell it’s just because they weren’t-
Alan: 18:35 There must be tremendous pressure on them then, and they can’t meet the demands.
Dave: 18:40 That’s right. And then you could look at Eye to Eye, which was interesting for us, because it’s not like we had made a focus on depression. And we would see that just by having a mentor in a kid’s life who learned and thought like they did, their depressive symptoms were suppressed. And then if you looked to other parts of the research, you would see that their self-esteem went up. And of course those things are very related.
Dave: 19:02 And if you asked them, “Do you feel connected and in community?” You would see that in Eye to Eye, these kids felt a community. And you would actually see, whether it be with a learning and attention issue or not, in both of those situations kids felt disconnected. And we need to feel more connected. We need to feel more understood. That’s why I really love the work that you’re doing here, because I think you’re helping us all feel more understood.
Alan: 19:24 We’re hoping everybody will get more connected. And I get the sense that the kids with dyslexia feel more connected, first of all being connected to other kids with dyslexia … But I also feel that they must get better connected to people who don’t have dyslexia because they have more self-esteem, they don’t feel they’re deficient; they just have a different way of thinking.
Dave: 19:49 Yeah. We need our allies.

MUSIC BRIDGE

Alan: 19:52 Yeah. And that helps you make better contact. I heard you tell a story once that was so interesting. First of all, the story started with you getting a government piece of paper or a card that said you were dyslexia. What is that? I never heard of that.
Dave: 20:16 Not quite. It was close, it was close. I realized that i think there was an unintentional test being done by our government to find people specifically … It wasn’t so much about the dyslexia, but the ADHD. And this test goes like this. I can ask you the test and we’ll see if you pass. Are you ready?
Alan: 20:35 Yes. I’m bad at tests. I hate tests.
Dave: 20:37 Actually, that’s step one. If you’re worried about the test, that’s step one.
Alan: 20:42 Okay, okay. I’m at your disposal.
Dave: 20:44 Okay. Step one: I don’t actually know. Do you have a driver’s license?
Alan: 20:49 Yes.
Dave: 20:49 Okay. Have you ever lost your driver’s license?
Alan: 20:51 No.
Dave: 20:52 Okay. So you already are probably not part of what I call the 1 in 5 LDHD Republic.
Alan: 20:57 Well you all lose your driver’s license?
Dave: 21:00 I think you have a higher tendency. But that’s not the full test. So step one is if you’ve lost it.
Alan: 21:09 Okay, go ahead.
Dave: 21:10 Step two, for everyone who’s listening, you can continue to go through the test with us. If you also lost the other form of government ID that you are required to have in order to get your driver’s license, which was the case for me, then you may … it’s not an official test … but then you may have ADHD.
Dave: 21:27 Because what happens with ADHD is that truly, your mind works in such a way that holding onto things like a government-issued ID is not what you’re good at. You are good at lots of things; that is not one of them.
Alan: 21:40 I take it that’s the social security card you gotta have if you lose your driver’s license?
Dave: 21:46 Correct. And the story-
Alan: 21:47 So how do you get over that problem?
Dave: 21:50 The rest of the story, which was actually a really nice one … so you have to go get your … Just for anyone who has had this problem, you have to get your social security card and then you can get your driver’s license and then you can drive. But for me … So I went down to the social security office. And I was living here in New York, actually. It’s just a couple of blocks from here. Big scary brick building, exactly where you want all the social security cards kept.
Dave: 22:13 And I’m about to walk in. And I will tell you, even though I’m fully an adult, I still freaked out. Because it’s a test. I knew I was gonna have to go there and fill out some forms, and these are the things that I’m not good at. And I have a history of knowing that I’m not good at them; I’m good at other things. And so, I’m sitting on the street about to go into this building, and I pick out my cell phone and I call my mom, because there’s no age in which calling mom for help is inappropriate.
Alan: 22:43 And she talked you down?
Dave: 22:45 She did. She gave me the thing I needed. She couldn’t take the test for me. I actually didn’t need her to. But she said the thing that all good mentors … and this is to your point of anyone can be an ally … say. She said, “David, relax. You’re gonna be okay. I love you. I believe in you.” And I always think about it like a little self-esteem piggy bank. I was broke and she just put a little self-esteem in there. And then I could go into the office, get past the form which I was scared to fill out, and little things like I was born in Phoenix. I’m dyslexia, I was born in Phoenix. Seriously?
Alan: 23:26 What letters would you rather have in the word Phoenix?
Dave: 23:29 I mean, can we get rid of the P-H already? It’s F. And there’s so many vowels.
Alan: 23:35 And they come in the wrong order.
Dave: 23:36 They come in the wrong order. X? Do we still need that letter? It was torture for a dyslexic to be born in Phoenix.
Alan: 23:44 Wait, that could be one of your great tasks, is to rewrite our alphabet.
Dave: 23:48 That’s my next [crosstalk 00:23:49].
Alan: 23:49 Make it easier for everybody.
Dave: 23:50 Yeah.
Alan: 23:51 So you got past the word Phoenix and then what?
Dave: 23:54 I got past the word Phoenix. I fill out the form, I sit down. And this is when I have this thought about community. And this is why I created this little test of my own, which is if, in fact, people with ADHD tend to lose things more often, then in fact looking around this room, there should be more people like me.
Alan: 24:15 That’s a very creative thought.
Dave: 24:17 And I felt really good, Alan. I felt so good about just the idea that I wasn’t alone. And the story progresses in that somebody-
Alan: 24:26 Somebody actually came in, right, who had the same problem? And you helped that person through.
Dave: 24:32 And they were smarter than me, because I called my mom, got some self-esteem, and then kind of worked my way through it. This gentleman who walked in came into the office, first thing turns around on his heels, and says, “Can anyone help me fill out this form?” And I said, “Oh, why didn’t I think of that? That was such a better idea!”
Alan: 24:50 What a concept!
Dave: 24:51 And I helped him fill out the form. And I’ll tell you, each question that I helped him fill out, he had a question for me about, how did I know how to do this stuff?
Alan: 25:02 How did you know how to do it? How did you get to the point that you could fill out a form like that?
Dave: 25:06 The answer is, as I was filling out the form I learned a lot about him. And our generational difference matters. So when I asked him when he was born, and I think it was like, 1765-
Alan: 25:17 And they were still letting him drive.
Dave: 25:19 They were still letting him drive. He would ask me the question you just asked me: how do you know how to fill out this form? And the answer is, I was very lucky. While I didn’t have the time to explain it all to him, I can explain it to you.
Dave: 25:35 First through fifth grade was a struggle, but I got identified, knowing that I had dyslexia and ADHD. That didn’t happen for him. That’s number one. He learned later. By that point, he had already dropped out of school. From fifth through eighth grade, I was able to go to a school specifically for kids with learning and attention issues. And they taught me a different way to read called phonemic awareness, multi-sensory instruction, as opposed to whole-language, which is what we predominantly do in our schools.
Dave: 26:04 And I still read slowly and spell probably closer to an eighth-grade level when I started at a third-grade level, but I could fill out a government-issued form. Moving on, I had self-esteem, I had a sense that I needed accommodations like spell-check. I think I was the first kid with a laptop ever, and this is the early 90s. I learned I needed allies.
Dave: 26:26 And so I had this whole training that happened, that this guy didn’t have.

When we come back, I share with Dave Flink some of my own anxieties – and he gives advice to parents whose son or daughter shows signs of having learning difficulties
MIDROLL
This is C+V. And now back to my conversation with Dave Flink, picking up on his point that identifying his problem was the key overcoming it
Alan: 26:31 You know, as you describe this, I think in a personal way that when I know I have a problem I have to get around, things go so much better than if I am only vaguely aware of the problem and feel bad that I’m not accomplishing what I want to accomplish. And I get anxious and angry. Whereas if I just am able to say, “Oh, I know what the problem is.”
Dave: 27:04 I’m curious, Alan, as you say that, when you think about the anxious piece or the part that’s the emotional piece to the reaction of how do I get through this, what allows you to get past that? Because that’s the stumbling block, I think, that all of us face, regardless of whether you have a label or not. Because we were talking a bit before we started about literally it took four people to get me here today on time, dressed appropriately, without … And that’s my team of people who understand my weaknesses and support me despite them.
Dave: 27:37 And I’m curious for you, I’m sure … This is, I think, a very human experience. We all have weaknesses.
Alan: 27:43 Yeah. I find I benefit a lot from knowing I did it before and I can do it again. So experience helps. Encouragement helps. When I leave the apartment to go out and accomplish something or perform or do this podcast, the last thing I hear before I leave the apartment is Arlene’s voice saying, “You’re gonna be great.” That actually has a very important effect on me. You hear it a thousand times, you can’t help smiling when you hear it. It’s almost a joke.
Alan: 28:20 But at some level, it buoys me up. So that encouragement, that takes away some of the anxiety I think.
Dave: 28:32 And I think that’s half the issue for all of us.
Alan: 28:36 Being accepted, knowing that the problem isn’t the thing that’s going to get you down. I think curiosity helps me. Do you find this with dealing with people with dyslexia? Since I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I find myself ruled more by my curiosity about it than I am by the negative effects of it.
Dave: 29:02 I think you’re exactly right. I think curiosity is a great instructor of life. I would also suggest that community … And I hear that in the story of Arlene, but I recently listened to the interview you did with some of your old friends and colleagues from M*A*S*H. And what I heard in that interview was so much love and fun and joy. And I can only imagine while you were making that show, but also it sounds like in the many years following, how you all stayed in touch, that that gave you all the strength to continue to do great things.
Alan: 29:40 It did, because as much fun as it was, it was hard work. 15 hours a day or more. And you get tired and cranky, but we had one another to rely on, to lean on. And it took effort, by the way. It wasn’t automatic. It took effort for us to learn to work together, to learn to be together those long hours and put up with one another’s idiosyncrasies. But we worked on that because we knew it was important to do that, to be able to get good results.
Alan: 30:15 So there’s a human element involved in all of this. I hear from you, it’s not a paternalistic pat on the head, “You’re gonna be fine.” It’s genuine caring that’s communicated from one person to another. The way you helped that guy at the driver’s license, or the social security office, wherever that was. That was a genuine extension of yourself to him, to another person who could use the help.
Dave: 30:45 That’s right. And I have an incredible joy and gift that has been given to me through the work that I do, both at Eye to Eye but also now as an author. And the pages of my book … which is so ironic that a dyslexic would write a book … but those stories are connective tissue. And so when I get to travel the country, and I just got in from literally Dallas last night, and have only been to Dallas a couple times.
Dave: 31:13 And I showed up there and people immediately came up to me, hugged me, strangers, which is a weird experience if you’re not comfortable with it. And I’m more than comfortable with it now, because what I’ve learned is whether it be the stories in my book or the stories that are shared by our mentors to the kids, these are common stories. These are stories of the human condition. These are stories about learning challenges, these are stories about misunderstanding.
Dave: 31:38 But on the other side of those challenges are stories of joy, stories of accomplishment, stories that are about potential. And I think it’s one of the things that I could never have guessed at 18 that I would get to do in my life. And not just me. It’s worth noting, on the other side of this glass wall that is our studio, my best friend and also the president of Eye to Eye came to just support me today. His name is Marcus Soutra, he’s an incredible human being.
Alan: 32:12 I think it must be going well. I haven’t seen him cry much.
Dave: 32:14 Yeah, so far so good. He’s giving us a thumbs up. And maybe that’s to you. I’m not sure if it’s to me. Oh, both of us. We got two thumbs up. And he’s a really busy guy, but he came today to just have my back. And that’s what we do across the country, and I think that that is something that is getting more and more lost. We think a throwaway like on a social media post is enough, and sometimes it’s about showing up.
Alan: 32:42 Yeah, very much so. Do you find that … Along those lines, do you find that when a college kid mentors a high school kid, that that high school kid winds up mentoring a young person afterwards? Is that common?
Dave: 33:00 It is common and it is also a message that we send. We realize that intentions matter, and so we help our mentors understand that this is not a time to be humble. It is okay to say, towards the end of your mentoring relationship, “Hey, you know what? I need you to pay it forward. So I showed up and I made sure that your journey was a positive one. You now know how to succeed in school, and hopefully to succeed in life. So when you’re a little bit older, your job is to go back to this classroom and do the same thing.”
Dave: 33:36 And we’ve had these really amazing stories where we’ll go to visit a high school where we’re teaching the mentors just a bit about how we use the curriculum. It’s an art-based curriculum. Not every mentor is prepared to do that. We teach them on how to use the curriculum, and we’ll say, “Have any of you experienced this work before?” And inevitably, there’ll be a couple of hands that are raised now.
Alan: 34:00 So it’s really spread?
Dave: 34:02 Yeah.
Alan: 34:04 You have plenty of work to do, helping dyslexic kids, but do you ever think that this sounds like it could be useful for everybody? Why wouldn’t schools regularly help all students develop this kind of self-esteem and sense of self-worth and ability and that kind of thing? Could it be extended to that?
Dave: 34:31 We’re starting to understand that what we do at Eye to Eye is really not just about the 1 in 5 kids who learn differently, but to your point, it’s about changing school culture. And so we actually have three levels of work we do. We do work where we do this mentoring that we’ve described. We also do work where we go into schools and teach exactly the same skills that our mentors know to the broader community.
Dave: 34:57 So we help parents, we help teachers, we help students who are in the 4 and 5 bucket, meaning they don’t necessarily have a label of a learning and attention issue, but yes, could use a little extra self-esteem, a little better sense of their own metacognition. So we help change that school’s culture. And we also have some free or relatively inexpensive tools that can be disseminated across the school. So we have a free app that you can download on the iTunes store called “Empower … Eye to Eye Empower.” And it’s the same journey that our mentors provide that any kid can download.
Dave: 35:31 Obviously the book that I wrote was a tool for parents to be able to understand what that experience might be for their kid, but for all kids. So I agree. I am happy to say I think there’ll come a day when Eye to Eye will no longer exist.
Alan: 35:45 Because it’s integrated into the system?
Dave: 35:48 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alan: 35:49 Tell me about the idea that … You mentioned early on this idea that everybody has a different way of learning, or there are so many different ways of learning. that it’s not a question of dyslexia and ADHD; it’s everybody who thinks they are so-called normal may have their own special way of learning. Is that too extreme a thing to say?
Dave: 36:21 This is why I love your show, because we get to talk about those kind of ideas. No, I think it is exactly right. I think we think about learning in the context of school, often. And you finish school and you’re done. You haven’t learned anything since school, right Alan?
Alan: 36:42 That’s when I started learning.
Dave: 36:43 Right.
Alan: 36:48 I always think back to geography class, which was many, many years ago, many decades ago. And I had to memorize how many pounds of coffee Brazil produced that year and exported. What possible good could that do me? Even a year later, or at any time? Whereas to understand the economic process, what it meant to produce coffee and transport it to another country and how they collaborated to get it, that would have been interesting and would have taught me something I could use the rest of my life.
Alan: 37:27 But I can’t remember now how many pounds of coffee were produced, and I can’t fathom how it could be useful to me in any way.
Dave: 37:33 But I think what’s important is what you learned about yourself in that.
Alan: 37:36 Ah. Tell me about that.
Dave: 37:39 The idea … Going back to that moment, you were sitting there thinking, “Why do I need to know this?” But if you could understand, “Okay, maybe I don’t need to know the specific facts, but I can figure out how to solve it.” Because the rest of your life … because this is what it is to be human … The rest of your life, you’re presented with problems. And the question isn’t what problems are thrown our way; the question is how do we know when to address them, how to address them?
Dave: 38:09 And to be frank, to not feel shame if we struggle with it.
Alan: 38:14 Yeah, I think that’s really important. And I was lucky that I didn’t have my curiosity squashed.
Dave: 38:21 Right.
Alan: 38:22 Because I could get curious about things that they didn’t need me to be curious about, because they needed me to give them the answers to their test questions. But I was able to stay curious anyway. But tell me some more about the idea that we all learn differently. It’s a little radical, because most of us think that there’s one way to learn, and any other way is an aberration.
Dave: 38:50 Yeah. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, how did we get to putting morals around types of learning styles. And I do think there’s a kind of hierarchical, “This is a good way of learning, and this is a bad way of learning.” And it’s usually in some kind of context.
Alan: 39:08 It might be born out of the idea that this is a convenient way to teach for me, and if you don’t learn by my way of teaching, you must be immoral or no damn good.
Dave: 39:18 Right. And I think that’s a strong statement which I 100% agree with.
Alan: 39:23 As long as you keep agreeing, I’ll keep making these strong statements.
Dave: 39:28 Well I like where this is going.
Alan: 39:29 No, I also want you to push back when I get too extreme. But how does it play out that somebody who seems to fit in okay, but has a different way of learning, might even learn better and learn more if that way of learning were appealed to? Can you think of an example like that?
Dave: 39:50 Just so I understand, so a chance where a learning orientation is presented to somebody that doesn’t work, and there’s a different way that-
Alan: 39:58 Or it might even work okay, but something is not being tapped in that person which is another way of learning. Maybe they learn better through listening than seeing, or vice versa. Or maybe they learn better through music. Maybe they have an associative way of learning and you need to teach them biology by talking about physics or something. I don’t know. I’m just searching.
Dave: 40:26 Well, I think what I’ve been reading about and learning about from researchers is that there in fact are tons of different ways to learn. And this idea that there’s one way that’s best for a person isn’t exactly true. So I can tell you for myself, in general, if you wanted me to learn something, I would probably prefer to make it a conversation than a written book.
Alan: 40:52 That’s a very good example.
Dave: 40:54 But that’s a very general idea.
Alan: 40:57 Most textbooks that I came in contact with … They may be different now, but when I was in school, most textbooks were written from the top down. These are the things I want you to know. It’s not my responsibility … that the author of the textbook is not my responsibility to make them especially interesting to you. It doesn’t matter to me where you came from. These are the things I want you to know. It’s your job to squeeze them into your head somehow.
Dave: 41:24 Right.
Alan: 41:26 That leaves out the most important element, is the person you’re trying to talk to, to communicate with, to teach, is the one who’s gotta get it.
Dave: 41:36 This is why I keep agreeing with you, Alan, because-
Alan: 41:38 Oh, I’m so disappointed.
Dave: 41:39 I know. This is gonna be very boring for all of your listeners. We should really get into a fight at some point. We’ll work on that. But I think to the idea about the person behind it … Whether it’s learning through reading a book or learning through a conversation, that’s not the question. The question is the person that you’re speaking with. Who are they? Why are they learning? Why are we doing this?
Dave: 42:03 We’ve discounted passion in the pursuit of owning stuff in our head that we likely forget. And so, I mentioned those two economies because while I prefer interpersonal learning versus reading with my eyes, if I’m passionate about a topic, it doesn’t matter anymore.
Alan: 42:24 You’ll go after the written word?
Dave: 42:26 Yeah. And that’s why I wrote a book. I remember sitting down, thinking, “Why would I write a book?” It’s not something that I have dreamed about. It’s not something that I felt particularly passionate about. But what I recognized is, while I like to learn, sitting down and having a conversation with someone, that is number one, not the way that everybody likes to learn. Number two is, that is not necessarily scalable.
Dave: 42:54 And so, what I did in sitting down and writing this book, which led to a whole series of other questions which is why I’m working on book two and three right now, as I said I need to make a collection of stories. And I actually did not want to include my own at first. I was really trying to take this more as a journalist and a collection of stories of others.
Dave: 43:11 And then I came back and my publishers at HarperCollins said, “You need to include yourself because of the humanity. You’re trying to connect with people. You’re using this vehicle of a book to do that. So they need to know who you are.” And so I went back and I had to edit it.
Alan: 43:27 Did you find that hard to do? Did you not wanna open up to the world?
Dave: 43:31 Yeah. And some of that was this work has never been about me. I feel very passionate about the idea that I hope folks listening today, while if my story of being someone with dyslexia and ADHD and graduating college and writing a book and being a happy person is inspiring, it shouldn’t be about me. And so, including some of that in the book was very hard for me, because I was worried that that might over-index on the wrong part of my message.
Dave: 43:58 It turned out not to be the case. HarperCollins was right here. But what I really have tried to stress is, every lesson here, these are broad lessons that I gathered from thousands and thousands of interviews. And every word in this book was in many ways written … Other people were holding my hand. Mentors from other communities, people different than me, we tried to find the similarities. And it was the boiling up of those similarities that allowed us to be successful, the stories of that journey.
Dave: 44:29 And when I say the lessons that came after, what I remember there was an experience … Actually, across the street at NPR, I was going over there to do the Author’s Corner. I don’t know if you ever went on the Author’s Corner for some of your books.
Alan: 44:44 I don’t think so.
Dave: 44:44 I didn’t know what it was.
Alan: 44:46 What is it?
Dave: 44:47 Well, it turns out, it’s literally just you reading your book for three minutes.
Alan: 44:52 Oh my God.
Dave: 44:53 Right.
Alan: 44:55 Did you know that before you went in?
Dave: 44:56 No. ADHD. I just stepped in impulsively and said, “Yes.” I didn’t look through what it was.
Alan: 45:02 So how did that go?
Dave: 45:03 I went there and I had done a ton of press around the book, and so I was used to questions and just having a conversation like we’re having. And I said, “Okay, I’m really excited to do this.” And they put the headphones on and the microphone and the whole thing. And they just slide this sheet of paper in front of me, and it’s not even my book.
Alan: 45:23 Oh really?
Dave: 45:24 Yeah. They said, “We read your book; we love it.” I said, “Great.” They said, “We made a mashup of your book.” I said, “What’s a mashup?” And they said, “Well, we cut different parts of the book together so the listener will get kind of a summary of it.” And I said … I should mention I memorized a passage because I’d been asked enough to read out loud, which is just not something my dyslexic brain is good at.
Alan: 45:48 So now they subverted that attack, that approach.
Dave: 45:52 Right. So what happened, right? Immediately I went back to all the things I learned about successful people. Okay, I needed some self-esteem, so I made a little withdrawal and I said, “I’m gonna need-”
Alan: 46:05 From your piggy bank?
Dave: 46:06 From my self-esteem piggy bank. I said, “I’m gonna need a moment with this.” They said, “You can’t just read it?” And I said, “I’m the same dyslexic guy who wrote this book. I’m still dyslexic.”
Alan: 46:20 And you’re draining my piggy bank right now.
Dave: 46:21 Yeah, and I’m gonna be bankrupt by the end of this. And I said, “How long does this usually take?” And they said, “Well, you know, we’ll need 30 minutes or an hour, but it’s a really short clip. We’ll just have you read it a bunch of times.” And I said, “Well, in school when I was asked to read with my eyes, I got extended time.” That was an accommodation.
Alan: 46:40 Oh, great.
Dave: 46:40 So I said, “You’re gonna have to call your families. I’m really sorry. You’re gonna be late for dinner tonight, because I get extended time.” And so, these poor people, I’m sure they were just wishing that they could get home. And it took us about twice as long as your average guest.
Alan: 46:56 See, but that’s so important that you know that it takes longer. And you don’t beat yourself up because you take longer; you know in advance. And it’s just built into the budget.
Dave: 47:06 It just occurred to me, I’ve always wanted to tell this story and I’ve never told anyone this story.
Alan: 47:13 About reading the page?
Dave: 47:15 Yeah. I thought about it. I was like, “I really wish we had been recording the conversation that we were having about this, as opposed to the …” You can go to the Author’s Corner and listen to me read this thing I ultimately got, but you don’t hear the story about how it got done. Which I think is so fundamental. I’m so glad we had a chance finally to put this in posterity, set the record straight.
Alan: 47:33 So you gave yourself some self-esteem, you got extra time. Anything else you did to make it-
Dave: 47:39 I had to advocate for what I needed.
Alan: 47:40 You advocated, yeah, that’s so important.
Dave: 47:42 Which goes all the way back to how are we successful as people? This is what we do when we have a problem. You always have to make a self-esteem withdrawal. When you hit a challenge, that’s the first thing that gets hit. That’s why Eye to Eye’s curriculum is a social-emotional learning curriculum, because we’re imbuing self-esteem in kids.
Dave: 47:58 So you take that self-esteem, you know how you learn. I say it again and again, because it’s what I think I’ve learned about the human condition. You ask for what you need and then you can get it done. And if you can withdraw the shame … Shame is such a powerful emotion. And the fact that we put shame on kids, young kids, just because they learn slightly differently, and then we wonder how it turns out that they drop out of school … It’s like, “Well, you’ve been telling them that they weren’t smart, and usually they pick one of two other options. They either become the bad kid or the dumb kid. Those are the two options.” And so we can change that.
Alan: 48:33 Okay. Let’s get really practical. A parent suspects that their kid is dyslexic, maybe combined with ADHD. What should they do? When they become aware that this is a possibility, what should they do? Maybe first of all, how do they recognize it, and then what do they do?
Dave: 49:00 The first thing I’ll say, and for parents who don’t necessarily know, maybe are listening to this and the first time even hearing these words, these are not scary words. And the school system, if you advocate for your kid to get tested, the school system is required to ultimately provide that testing. And I remember the schools were asking my family to test me, and my parents were scared to have me tested because they were worried about what those labels might mean. So there’s nothing scary about the labels; it is worth getting tested.
Dave: 49:31 Nothing’s gonna happen. The world is not going to explode, right? So you start by getting those labels. Immediately thereafter, I’ve also found families don’t wanna talk to their kids about it. Talk to your kids about it, especially if there’s nothing scary about it. It’s a huge community. It’s 1 in 5 people. So you can start in the conversation just the way we began, “Hey, guess what? You just got your hand stamped in a really cool crew. Let me show you some of the people that …”
Dave: 49:58 And I think it’s important that it’s every level. So if your kids are big fans of Bella Thorne or Henry Winkler or whoever it might be, every stratosphere of life has our people. And it might be your nextdoor neighbor. As I’ve come to learn as I’ve been interviewing for my second book, I’ve met police officers, I’ve met … Marcus and I were at dinner recently after getting this really cool award from GQ. And we were sitting at dinner, we have this award on the table, celebrating. And the chef came out and said, “Oh, what’s this?” And we explained, “Oh, we’re part of the dyslexic people.” He said, “I’m dyslexic!” And the dinner was free; it was great.
Dave: 50:48 So telling your kids that there are lots of people like them is step two. So identify there’s a community. And then step three is actually putting kids on the journey to find out how to own their learning. And whether that be going to the school and saying, “We need an Eye to Eye chapter in our community.” We also have speakers that you can ask us to bring into the school. Again, you can download the app. You need to get informed.
Dave: 51:16 For parents I’d also recommend there’s a really wonderful website that Eye to Eye, among 14 other organizations, helped create called “Understood.” It’s understood.org, and it’s a resource just for parents to get informed. So the kids need to get informed, the parents need to get informed. And then it’s an exciting journey, like really exciting, to help kids at a young age feel that this is gonna be the world opening to them. There’s nothing better than that.
Alan: 51:40 I know. I have a granddaughter who’s very dyslexic, and her mom made sure that she was in a school where she learned to advocate for herself and knows exactly what are her strong points and what she has to work around, and couldn’t be more cheerful about it. She’s happy with her life, and when you talk to her you know you’re talking to a very confident person.
Dave: 52:10 And it’s just part of her identity.
Alan: 52:12 Yeah. It’s part of what her life is, how she approaches life. She works around the problems that I don’t have. I have other problems. And I think those of us who don’t have dyslexia and other differences in learning, we have to realize that … For me, speaking for myself, I have a fuzziness sometimes that comes over my thinking. I don’t know what causes it, but I recognize it now. And probably my brain is working on something else or something like that.
Alan: 52:57 And then it clears up and I’ve managed to get things done I didn’t know I could get done.
Dave: 53:04 It’s about the end result, right?
Alan: 53:05 Yeah.
Dave: 53:07 Again, back to the interview that I was listening to with your M*A*S*H friends, I didn’t know the story about how you used to write … What was the story, Alan? You used to write parts of your lines-
Alan: 53:16 Oh, I would put the script on what was supposed to be the patient I was operating on. Because I didn’t know … The doctor talk was totally foreign to me, parts of the body and that kind of thing. So instead of saying it wrong take after take, I just read it off the patient.
Dave: 53:35 So here’s what I love about this story. You had two options. Your job was to perform the script, right? That was your job. Either you could go to medical school … It might take a while, become fully trained in doctor lingo, or this is a really easy accommodation. Just these psychogenic polydipsia, or whatever the crazy doctor word, right?
Alan: 54:03 Right.
Dave: 54:03 You write it down, you say it right, and you do your job really, really well. And there was no shame in that.
Alan: 54:10 That’s right. You have to accommodate what the problem … You gotta recognize the problem and say, “That’s just what I gotta work around.”
Dave: 54:18 When I went to HarperCollins, I got five offers from different publishers. And the reason I chose HarperCollins is they kept … All these other publishers were telling me about the things they were gonna help me do. And I went to HarperCollins, I said, “I don’t need help with storytelling.” My grandfather was a barber. If you ever spent time in barber shops, you learn that you know how a tell a story. You don’t exist in old-school barber shops unless you know how to tell a story.
Dave: 54:40 I needed people to spell-check and grammar. And HarperCollins committed to giving me twice as many people as probably anybody in the history of all their book contracts. And I said, “Okay, y’all are my people.”
Alan: 54:52 Now, how did you learn … We just have a minute or so left. I’m getting waved at from the control room. We’re having such a good conversation, it’s taking longer than it should. But how did you learn to tell a story? Because you process thoughts in different sequences, right? Isn’t part of dyslexia the way you process a series of thoughts? That doesn’t work so well if you’re telling a story. How did you learn to tell a story?
Dave: My grandfather was a barber. If you ever spent time in barber shops, you learn that you know how a tell a story. You don’t exist in old-school barber shops unless you know how to tell a story.
Dave: 55:20 I think like anything, trial and error, and listening to really good storytellers.
Alan: 55:28 And you analyzed it?
Dave: 55:30 Yeah. I should say, and maybe it’s even more true for people who are outside the box, our job … It’s not fair, but our job when you are in a minority is to learn how to tell your story across difference. And so, part of it is I jokingly say, and it’s partly true, that because I was in this barber shop, this little kid watching all these older men tell stories I had to learn in order to keep up, that’s partly how I learned.
Dave: 56:00 I also recognized that if I was gonna go into a school … because I was only in the special school for kids with learning disabilities for a short time. If I was gonna go into a school and get my teachers on my side, I needed to learn how to tell my story. And it couldn’t be accusational, it couldn’t be in an angry way; it had to be with love. Because I knew that those teachers did love me. They did want to teach me. So that’s how I learned to tell my story.
Alan: 56:26 That’s so great. We usually wrap up our shows with seven quick questions, which you probably have heard before. Do you mind answering the questions?
Dave: 56:35 Fire away.
Alan: 56:36 I think we’ll have fun. What do you wish you really understood?
Dave: 56:43 What do I wish I really understood? How can we make the human experience one about love and understanding?
Alan: 56:58 What do you wish other people understood about you?
Dave: 57:05 That I am fallible and have plenty of flaws. And the journey that I’ve been on has been one that is supported by many.
Alan: 57:17 What’s the strangest question anyone’s ever asked you?
Dave: 57:21 I remember being asked once, why do I feel so much? I remember thinking that was so strange.
Alan: 57:30 They asked you why you felt-
Dave: 57:31 Why do I feel so much? And I thought to myself, “I don’t think you feel enough!”
Alan: 57:36 That’s why.
Dave: 57:38 Yeah.
Alan: 57:40 How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Dave: 57:43 I have a strategy I’ve been using for a long time that I think works. It requires you to … If this person has good vision, put one finger up in the air and then say, “I’m gonna need five minutes,” and it’s gonna need to come up soon.
Alan: 58:00 Yeah, actually say that.
Dave: 58:01 Yeah. You can also walk away if you no longer care, but I’m assuming that you do wanna continue to conversation.
Alan: 58:07 Yeah. Okay. Is there anyone for whom you just can’t feel empathy?
Dave: 58:12 I know in my life there are many times that I’m not proud of where I did not feel empathy. But I know my job is to make sure that I always, no matter what, attempt to feel empathy for those that I perhaps don’t fully understand.
Alan: 58:28 How do you like to deliver bad news: in person, on the phone, or by carrier pigeon?
Dave: 58:35 It has to be in person. It has to be.
Alan: 58:38 Whether you like it or not.
Dave: 58:39 Whether you like it or not.
Alan: 58:42 What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Dave: 58:47 I think if we stop listening to each other. I think that’s the deal-breaker for me.
Alan: 58:55 Well, I’ve sure enjoyed listening to you. It’s been great. Thanks so much, Dave.
Dave: 59:00 This was great fun.
Alan: 59:01 Great. Good luck with your work.
Dave: 59:02 Thanks, Alan.
Alan: 59:03 Thank you.
CREDITS

This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

My thanks the sponsors of this episode. All the income from the ads you hear go to the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Just by listening to this podcast, you’re contributing to the better communication of science. So, thank you.

For more information about the Alda Center, please visit AldaCenter.org

Dave Flink’s latest book, Thinking Differently, is an incredible resource for parents who are starting on the journey of having a kid who learns differently. He’s organization, Eye to Eye, has also created a free app, called Eye to Eye Empower, which is for students to have a fun learning adventure about what is right with their different thinking brains. The app is available now through the iTunes Store.
You can find out more about David and the many resources provided by Eye to Eye by going to the Eye to Eye website at eyetoeyenational.org – and, for parents and educators, you can find information on this web site about how to invite Eye to Eye to your local school community.

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

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Thanks for listening. Bye bye!