What 80% of us can learn from the 20% of us with learning disabilities and mental illness

By Dwight Taylor

Most people know Pareto’s principle as the 80/20 rule. Simply put, 80% of results come from the “vital few,” or 20%. So, 80% of business comes from 20% of your customers. Or 80% of your tomato crop comes from 20% of your plants.

Just for the record, the above is not the main point. Instead, thanks to Laila, we’re attaching a modern meaning to our old ratio friend. 

First, the backstory. Laila is my daughter, a beautiful, vibrant young woman who loves seafood and traveling the world, even though she does it completely on my dime (hint, hint: time to get a job, Laila…LOL). She’s the oldest of three. A few years ago, our random, normal parent-child conversation rocked my world. Our dialogue revealed my assumptions, unconscious bias, ego, and the startling realization that not everyone’s worldview matches mine (imagine that!).

I dubbed what I learned the new 80/20 rule (I’ll explain in a moment). I’m sharing it with you because it could profoundly influence how you work with others, how you succeed and how you help others succeed. It could reframe your relationships, making them more meaningful and more enduring.

That’s just for starters.

To preface, I am an African-American man, a computer science major and father of three. I crunch numbers the way some people run marathons. I own a successful consulting practice. I’m also a licensed and ordained Elder and Prophet.

Then the pivotal conversation happened like a bright light in a pitch-black room, and I realized I wasn’t all that. Here’s how it went down.

Me: I see you’re struggling in math. Let me take a look.

Laila: (sigh) I don’t get how they arrive at this answer.

Me:  This is simple, sweetie, you read the word problem carefully, retaining each fact until the end where you assemble all of the facts to calculate the answer.

Laila: (She writes out the problem. Wrong answer. Again.) This is impossible.

Me: Laila, I just explained this to you.

Laila: But, Dad, I’m doing the best I can.

Disappointment was etched all over her young face. Worse, it was self-disappointment I caused. My impatience in that conversation was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I basically told my daughter that her best wasn’t good enough. It was a crushing, heartbreaking moment for me, triggering serious self-assessment.  Although I didn’t ask, I’m sure Laila wasn’t encouraged by the conversation.

I needed a different approach. That day, I decided I wasn’t the best person to assist Laila with her homework.

Like most of the 7 billion people on the planet, though, my real failure was to assume.

Before the encounter, I attributed Laila’s report cards to lack of effort. I assumed the up and down grades (sometimes it seemed like As and Fs were the only available letters on the grading scale) was due to her not paying attention. She needed to study more, work harder. I assumed she was on her phone too much, lacked empathy toward me (her self-appointed coach), and was overly defensive.

These assumptions, I found out later, are common misunderstandings about people with ADHD.

After the encounter, I gave her a slip of paper that read “I’m not a failure.” I asked her to tape the paper to the underside of the bunk bed above her so she could see it every morning and every night. I knew she was lacking confidence in her schoolwork and that it stemmed from something deeper. That’s about all I was sure of.

What I didn’t know was how to handle the situation.

I turned to a CEO friend of mine who produces educational material for the 20% of children with learning deficits. We sat down for lunch. I told him my daughter was not grasping core concepts and that I assumed my daughter chose the grades she earned.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

My friend explained, “Dwight, 20% of kids in every school do not learn like the 80%.  Education has been designed around the 80%. For the 20%, though, it is hell on earth.”

He then shared a story with me that turned the light on. He said, “Dwight, a teacher asks a class of students for the plural of the word leaf. One child responds with the word ‘tree.'”

My immediate response to my CEO friend was, “That’s crazy.”

He continued, “Dwight, that’s exactly how 80% of people respond to the 20% of children with learning deficits. But for that child, plural means more than one. In an effort to solve the question, in that child’s thought process, a tree is an excellent place to find more than one leaf.”

After picking my jaw up off the floor, it was clear to me that my CEO friend hit the nail on the head and unknowingly identified the issue in that conversation with Laila; I was ignorant to Laila’s learning style and learning deficits.

Laila’s performance suddenly became magnified. I began to notice gaps. Before my daughter got her first job, for instance, I was explaining how our service ministry to God meant giving a regular offering. Always making the most of teachable moments I said, “So if you make a thousand, you might want to consider 10%.” Like most parents, this conversation took place in the car driving somewhere.

She responded, “So how much is my offering?”

I could hear the whooshhh of heads spinning. My family looked at her like she was from another planet. Then they looked at me. Come on, Dad, say something. This is ridiculously easy math, their eyes begged. The engine growled a little louder. My daughter could not run the numbers in her head. Math is like breathing to me, and she could not move the decimal point one place to the left. Asking her to figure out 10% of a thousand was like asking her to recite Hamlet.

Shortly after that, I conferenced with Laila’s younger brother and sister. You do math in your head, I said with unwavering eyes, she doesn’t, so leave it alone. If you’re good at it, then just give the answer. I told them to tone down their reaction when Laila struggled with something they thought was easy.

Stamping out various family member’s exasperation became a crusade, akin to slamming the mallet down on the furry little animals popping up their heads in the wacka-mole game. “Apologize to Laila” or “you don’t understand” were often-heard phrases.

Still, I didn’t have her tested. Why? After that crushing conversation where I unintentionally struck a blow at my daughter’s confidence, I decided to wage an all-out campaign of confidence until she graduated high school. Then, I thought, if things didn’t change, we would get her tested.

If I had it to do all over again, I would do both — wage the confidence campaign and have her tested as early as possible.

Another conversation, this time more serious, happened her senior year of high school. Laila’s curfew was 10 p.m. Like most teens, this didn’t sit well. One night, she saunters into my office to state her case. Give me your best line of argumentation, I say.

“The bowling alley opens at eight so if I have to be home by 10, it doesn’t make sense for me to even go. An extended curfew solves the problem.”

“Good point. Meeting adjourned,” I respond. “Be home by 11.”

On her way home, waiting at a red light, she gets rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver.

She leaves the scene, comes home and walks into my office sobbing, saying, “Someone hit my car.”

The first words out of my mouth were edged with astonishment: “What are you doing here?”

Calling the police never entered her mind. Calling home didn’t either. Why? Big epiphany: Her mind doesn’t work that way. Instead, she thought: My daddy can help me, and I have to be home by 11. I’ve got to get home. 

Clearly, she regarded the situation differently than me, and, I’m pretty sure, differently than most people. Correction. Different than the 80%.

How could I, as her father, fault her for that?

I couldn’t.

But it didn’t mean I or she were helpless.

We put labels on things we don’t understand. 

On the heels of graduating from high school (thank you, God!) I found the leading learning disability practice in our area and sent Laila for an eight-hour behavioral assessment. She drove to the North Side of Chicago and participated in the assessment herself. It was a summer day filled with sunshine and promise that we could finally get answers.

My wife, Laila and I returned to the specialist’s office a few weeks later to go through the findings of the assessment. The very first finding was that Laila had no idea her brain worked differently than the 80%. Another light bulb moment.

Those in the 20% often don’t realize their brains work differently than the 80%, this often leads to increased misunderstandings. They may not be able to vocalize how they process information or how they learn. (So, for example, if someone talks really fast in a meeting and someone with a learning deficit is taking notes, they may get really frustrated and quit taking notes altogether. But what if, instead, they could ask the person to slow down for a win-win outcome?)

The psychologist started by asking us some of the assessment questions.

Data varies, but one study puts it as high as 55% of families having both a parent and child with ADHD. For me, past conversations were recast in a completely new light.

The psychologist told us Laila was not hyperactive. Instead, focus was her challenge; her head was like a living room with 17 TVs on at the same time, all with different shows.

“Mr. Taylor,” he said in a patient voice, “imagine you go to one of your clients and your client says to you, ‘The next time you come here, turn your ears green. Literally. Don’t paint them or color them, turn them green.’ How would that make you feel? That’s impossible, right?”

I nodded because, after all, he was right on that point.

He went on to say that every time Laila faces executive decisions, she feels as if she’s being asked to do something impossible. The assessment was profoundly beneficial. Understanding another person’s story equips you with empathy, patience and knowledge.

Unfortunately, there’s a barrier to getting this done for a lot of people and that barrier is price. The assessment cost $2,500 without counseling. If recognizing the problem is barrier No. 1, the cost of entry is barrier No. 2.

So what’s next? Here’s where you come in.

What if the 80% shouldered some responsibility? This group (of which I am a card-carrying member) oftentimes mistakenly labels the 20% without hesitation, which does nothing more than exacerbate the problem. 

Case in point: I was talking to Laila like she was not intelligent, like she was lazy and indifferent. The real problem, though, was attention deficit. When you have to make decisions and employ executive skills where those skills don’t exist, there is a gap. The world sees the gap but doesn’t always take a step back to ask why it’s there. So we label.

I labeled. Not all, but some of Laila’s teachers labeled during her grammar school and high school years. Maybe employers labeled or friends labeled. These labels come in the form of judgements: if she would “just put a little more effort in” or “just do the homework on time” or “just ask for help when she needs it” or “plan better so she wasn’t always late,” and on and on.

When I was a child, we had a saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but

WORDS will never hurt me.”  That was a cute saying for children, however, the truth is WORDS DO HURT. If we label a person, let’s make it something positive so the person doesn’t spend their life either conforming to a detrimental label or fighting a label that simply isn’t true.

The deficit, the world says, is on the 20% so the 20% should fix the problem. This isn’t exclusive to people with ADHD. People with mental disorders and learning deficiencies of all kinds get written off or marginalized or thought of as less intelligent. They get fired and ostracized and stigmatized and dismissed.

What if the 80% opened their eyes and reached out to the 20% and said: “You’re different than me and I’m different than you so let’s see how we can help each other be our best selves.”

The good news: The brain is a muscle. We can all learn to think differently about one another and ourselves.

With the assessment, my daughter’s perception of herself changed, and I changed too.

After Laila was diagnosed with ADHD, her life changed.

The psychologist gave her regimented ideas and exercises to help her organize her approach to schoolwork and conversations based on the way her mind works.

Suggestions included a day planner so she could physically write down and “see” deadlines (not on a device) and to-do lists all in one place (writing by hand trips a “reading” circuit in our brains that enhances memory. Who knew?). A backpack, which historically had served as a bottomless pit for papers, was replaced with a bag she could put file folders in, color-coded to match notebooks for each class. Floor piles became an accepted form of organizing, but tamed by rubber bands and paper clipped groups of papers. The phone had a “home” in a certain tray or pocket of her purse, much like a car’s home is the garage. She started wearing a watch.

All this helped Laila put herself in the driver’s seat.

Medication is one alternative for people with ADHD. About 62% of children ages two through 17 take medication according to the “Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.” For some, this works. But I don’t think medication is a one-and-done solution. Behavioral changes, family support, school accommodations (like longer testing sessions, oral tests) give people with ADHD a chance to take these tools all the way to adulthood.

The biggest change I saw in Laila after the diagnosis was her surge of self-confidence, the kind that comes with self-awareness. She and others with ADHD have fewer dopamine receptors in the reward center of their brain. Basically, they have to work harder not to get bored (this is why they procrastinate or are attracted to risk; it gives them a thrill).

The lessons I’ve learned have changed my life, personally and professionally. Here are my top five.

LESSON #1: Neuro-diversity is a thing.

In a culture where “different” isn’t always embraced, the 20% wired to learn differently can be criticized or dismissed. We hear about diversity when it comes to ethnicity or gender or the color of our skin, but few talk about how our brains are wired differently.

So I looked this up and found out that neuro-diversity is actually a thing. From an article entitled “How To Use ADHD To Your Advantage, According To A Psychologist” by Melody Wilding, psychologist Dr. Perpetua Neo points out, “As a psychologist and coach, I champion the concept of neuro-diversity, which means celebrating how we are different and being able to leverage these differences as our superpowers.”

Who doesn’t like having superpowers?

LESSON #2: Seek to understand more than you seek to be understood. 

The movie “Night School,” in my opinion, is a phenomenal cinematic expose on the ups and downs of people living with learning disabilities and how it impacts relationships.  (Disclaimer: this movie is inappropriate for young children.)

Understanding others creates joy, success, confidence and so many things that make life full and rich. The act of understanding costs nothing. It requires awareness, a little patience, a little time. It takes intentionality and work and some humility.

Misunderstanding easily happens when talking with people living with ADHD and other learning deficiencies. It causes the conversation to quickly spiral out of control, taking on a tone that was never intended nor helpful.

But it doesn’t have to go that way.

LESSON #3: ADHD can trigger unhealthy coping skills

I’m not a physician, but I believe some coping skills are healthy and some are not. With ADHD, I’ve seen Laila read just enough to get by, procrastinate until the midnight hour the night before a paper is due, and avoid social situations or even relationships for fear of not measuring up.

When a sibling corrects her, sometimes I hear her snappily respond “whatever.” She responds with: “I don’t need or want your advice.” Laila’s defenses are on standby. When her words don’t align — and people are picking up that the words don’t align — frustration follows.

Unhealthy coping skills are great clues for parents and coworkers to identify there’s a deeper reason behind them.

Lesson #4:   We have a huge opportunity to educate the African-American community on learning disabilities and mental illness. 

What I’m about to say is probably politically incorrect and definitely taboo. But we can’t bury it anymore. Many in in the African-American community do not openly acknowledge, talk about or recognize learning differences or mental disorders. They just don’t.

In my experience, for example, there’s always a quiet undercurrent of assumptions when a family member with a learning disability or mental disorder is in the room at a family gathering. Most are uncomfortable discussing the person or what they see as “different” in an open, healthy manner.  The stigma is often never addressed honestly with compassion and understanding.

Why?

First, a lack of education about learning disabilities and mental illness exists among many people, African-Americans included. Throughout history, when human beings don’t understand something, they are suspect of it. This begs the question: How many African-American children are written off in the classroom as unintelligent when ADHD or other learning deficits are actually the culprit? Where are the resources to help them?

Second, I was raised by a single mother of three. My amazing mom held down two jobs to take care of me, my younger sister and my older brother, who was born a normal child, but who suffered brain damage at the age of eight due to a prolonged bout of spinal meningitis.

My mother held down two jobs, including cleaning people’s houses during the day. Sometimes, the neighbors of the houses she cleaned would chase her out of their community due to racism, but she endured these challenges to provide for her children. By the time she got home, she was exhausted. Her focus and energy were expended on surviving, not exploring topics like mental illness and coping mechanisms. My mom loved my brother immensely. Unfortunately, my sister and I both shunned, ostracized, stigmatized and dismissed our older brother because he simply didn’t fit the 80% mold.

Today, my siblings and I have a loving, healthy relationship and we serve as his legal guardian. With studies showing the blackwhite wage gap widening, economic empowerment becomes another profound motivation for us to understand learning deficits and mental illness.

Lesson #5: Your Career and Business Win When You Understand How Others Are Wired 

Understanding learning deficits and mental illnesses like ADHD in the workplace is a subject all on its own. Suffice it to say that companies and employers sensitive to the reality of the 80/20 rule will thrive as vibrant workspaces. Why? At the end of the day, business is ultimately all about relationships. If relationships are at the core of every successful business, then a more informed understanding among participants is a winning strategy.

Today is a new day.

Today, Laila does not lack confidence. Not only is our family more knowledgeable, she is more self-aware. Clearly, the Greek philosopher who wrote “know thyself” was onto something. Most people know their strengths, they might know their passions, but most of us really struggle recognizing our deficits. You know that blind spot in your side mirror? We all have them. I’m excited for my daughter and proud of the young woman she has become. The journey, while not always easy, has led us to a better place.

Most of all, I am grateful. Grateful to God that He gave me a daughter not willing to give up but to fight her way through this journey of self-discovery and value; grateful that we have parental intuition to guide our children; and grateful that every day gives all of us a chance to press the redo button, learn and grow.

I was passionate to share my story because I want to make a difference in your life. I want your life to be better by understanding the lives of others through my failures and missteps.

I’ll close with this: the new 80/20 rule rewrites how we impact the world — from achieving career milestones to being thankful for a great marriage to saying the right thing in the right moment when our child is struggling.

When we step back and ask: what’s the real problem here and how can we solve it together, we use our superpowers to save the world one conversation, one act of random kindness, one positive word, one small step at a time.