Today's interview is with inspiring individual Steve Walker. We're not even going to introduce you to him. We're just going to let him speak for himself. Read on...you'll see why... Camp Spring Creek: We enjoyed your interview on HBO’s Journey Into Dyslexia. Your story is very moving. For our readers who have not seen the documentary, could you briefly tell us about the positive learning experience you had working in the machine shop in high school?
Steve Walker: It was the only thing as a young adult that I could get a result from that was positive and also created something that had immediate, tangible purpose. I had one teacher, Joe Pasenka, and he saw me checking out from life in general and I think it was a really honorable thing he did by letting me play in that machine shop. The school was shutting the machine shop down, so you weren’t technically supposed to be there. He really let me do my thing which, as it turns out, is the correct way to think. He knew I pushed back against traditional learning, so he didn’t push instructions at me. He let me work until I came across a problem and then I’d ask a question. If you think about it, a person is much more motivated to learn when they have a need to understand.
SW: I went on an educational tour of my own recently, because I wanted to understand education. I was a little horrified by how everything was going. I felt shameful about what had happened to me as a child--being made to feel stupid, being so misunderstood--and I felt despair about how little people know about learning. There are places where great things are happening, of course, but the general system is really antiquated and needs spiffing up. So I went on this tour...I talked to some teachers who were threatened with getting fired if they used the word “dyslexia.” It was quite an eye-opener and frustrating enough that I’ve joined a number of university boards and have met with leaders of schools or superintendents and tried to have exchanges about about how we can make changes in the system.
On my end of things, I hire a lot of engineers and so I've been talking to engineering schools about what they teach. Teachers are teaching math...but you don’t do math in engineering. Computers do the math. It’s creative thinking that needs to be taught and that’s what employers like me look for. I’m trying to tell people that if you back off on the math a little, which is so automated, the engineers don’t need it and they will be fine. I don’t discourage people from learning math, of course. But we need to look at the content that we’re teaching as well as the way we teach it. It's great if you can spell correctly. But some things have pretty limited applications to a job and I’m having conversations with people, especially in engineering schools, about this. These conversations are powerful; sometimes people are blown away by my perspective. After thinking about it, they’re usually quite open. Look at the TED Talk on self-teaching. It’s about a global initiative to examine how we teach and it’s a little extreme, but it’s also very enjoyable and funny. I just like to try and challenge people’s minds a little. I don’t know all the solutions but I do know that a lot of what we’re doing right now doesn’t make sense.
CSC: You built a successful, multi-million dollar business by solving a simple problem: Certain wood stoves being sold in the United States required wood pellets for fuel. At the time, the pellets were only available overseas. From scratch, you built the machines and designed the company—starting in your own basement—that is now New England Wood Pellet, the largest manufacturer and distributor of clean, renewable wood pellet fuel in the Northeastern United States. What is it about the “dyslexic brain,” as they say, that enables you to think outside the box more effectively than others?
SW: I think there are two things. First, if you’ve had to struggle a little or if you’re dealt some challenges or if you’re not “normal," especially when you're younger, then you automatically get a different perspective and I think that perspective is extremely helpful. What seems daunting and impossible as a kid going through school, possibly turns out to be the best lesson you’re going to get.
Second, there's neurology and the physics of the brain. Dyslexics do think differently and in my own experience and research, the dyslexic mind in general is lacking in reading. Not always, but often. Some of society’s most pressing issues have been solved by dyslexic brains. There are some true, honest to goodness, neurological differences that make us better at certain things than the majority of other people. Of course, running or starting a business requires you to be the ultimate multi-tasker and synthesizer. We can do that. We have very cluttered files in our brains, which makes it very difficult to organize, but that can work out okay in the end. Think about solving crimes: It’s all these little things that seem completely irrelevant and we’re used to that. We can work with that. We’re constantly being bombarded by things that seem irrelevant so, eventually, we find things we weren’t even looking for…and solve the crime. The military is especially looking for dyslexics for this exact reason.
I know I’m a little jaded because I had such a profoundly tough time in school, so I understand that. I’m only now linking a lot of challenges in my life back to those challenges in school. Dyslexia was not commonly identified then. It was not a familiar term. Kids today aren’t alone, at least. This is where I see that places like Camp Spring Creek are just great. You can get these kids together and they all feel it, it’s a good thing. Everyone’s got their head around it and they’re working together. What you’re doing at camp is probably an exception to the rule, because so many people still get lost in the system and don’t get help. Let’s keep the pressure on people and say that our work isn’t done yet. We need more of this, we need people who really do get it.
CSC: Can you tell us your personal story of embracing dyslexia?
SW: Four or five years ago, if you had asked me if I was dyslexic I wouldn’t have gone there. It reminded me of school and I was done with that. I wasn’t going down that route and I wasn't talking about it. Later on, what changed is that there was an in-depth study by the Kauffman Foundation done on entrepreneurs. They found there was an earth-shattering number of dyslexics who succeeded as entrepreneurs. Then, they wanted to find more people to study from around the world and all kinds of professions. The Kauffman Foundation called and said, “We heard you’re dyslexic,” and I had to stop. The call had to do with my brother, who has a dyslexic child. The Kauffman Foundation was studying my nephew and they got to talking. I met the profile and they placed the call.
I agreed to the study and I got over the shame because they’d already “found me out” anyway. Besides, it was the Kauffman Foundation, which has an incredible reputation. As it turns out, it was life-altering. It led to the HBO documentary Journey Into Dyslexia and numerous speaking events. You name it. It was all very good...but quite frankly, it’d probably be more fun to hang out with you guys at Camp Spring Creek for a week.
Once I learned how screwed up our education system was, there was a lot of anger that came out of that. Anger is a great motivator, unfortunately, but steered in the right way it can do great things. I came out, I talked about it, I told the world. I realized that it was important for kids and other adults to see that and I got fan letters from both. Appropriately, there’s a huge emphasis on kids, but I also think that our whole society would do well knowing that this is in your DNA. It is what it is. You are who you are. It doesn’t go away for adults and so many of them need to hear that, too. People don’t like talking about it. It’s very, very hard. I’ve had to learn to be gentle when I’m talking to people I don’t know very well because you have to treat these things delicately.
At the end of the day, once we get our education system figured out, I don’t think the word “dyslexia” will even be necessary. It’s about recreating how people learn, but ultimately it’s no different than remembering that we’re all physically different. We’re tall, we’re short, we’re fit, we’re not. Our brains are different from one to the next to the next, too. The beauty of all of this is that there’s just so, so, so much that can be done and that’s inspiring. Places like Camp Spring Creek are what need to happen now, until someday in the future we can just make education work for everybody.