Learning from What Vince Flynn Learned

April 29, 2010

Many recognize St. Paul native Vince Flynn as the creator of Mitch Rapp, protagonist in 11 bestselling, page-turning thrillers. How many know that, while words have been his ticket to success, they have also been his nemesis?

Flynn was an average student at best because his brain played tricks on him. He sees the word “dab” where most readers see the word “bad.” By grade three, specialists attributed his atypical brain functioning to dyslexia, a lifelong condition he shares with as many as one in five. Dyslexic readers grapple with sequencing, spelling, and rhyming.

For Flynn, reading aloud was anguishing because he could not get the words in the right sequence. The prospect of having to do so in front of classmates sent him into a cold sweat. Math presented similar challenges. He understood concepts, but mixed up numbers. Moreover, his handwriting was illegible and his spelling horrific. On written tests, his brain abandoned him. Given an oral exam, however, he could recite World War II as if he had lived it.

As a schoolchild, Flynn could not foresee how his dyslexia would plague him as an adult. Yet, he intuitively knew he needed a survival plan. He attended a class called SLBP (Slow Learning Behavior Problems). For an hour a day, he learned to skip indecipherable words and to read for content. He used his innate Irish charm to schmooze his teachers, for if he failed his classes he could not play sports or advance to the next grade. Sports offered an escape from the embarrassment he suffered over his peculiar reading style. By developing his own playbook, he dodged the despair that grips many struggling students.

The plan began to fail him, though, after he graduated from St. Thomas Academy. As a student at the University of St. Thomas, he faced exacting expectations. A theology professor gave him an “F” on a paper and expressed doubts about his potential to graduate. Humiliated when his secret unraveled before unsuspecting friends, he could no longer hide from his hardship.

How did one so tortured by words become a prolific writer of intricate plots? He did so by creating a new game plan, inspired by an unexpected source. He learned that basketball star Al McGuire had overcome his dyslexia after college by revisiting the fundamentals of reading and writing, and he decided to follow suit. Driven by his father’s lessons that laziness is the greatest sin and quitters never win, he immersed himself in his mission, even taking a calligraphy class to improve his handwriting. He selected a literary genre that interested him and read daily. He discovered Robert Ludlum, Dick Francis, and Leon Uris and became addicted to the very thing he had hated.

In his 20s, he decided to write a book. After five years and more than 60 rejection letters, he self-published “Term Limits.” Shortly thereafter, he landed both an agent and a publisher. Now in his 40s, he writes a new book each year and reads 40 or so others while doing so.

As a successful writer, Flynn has an interesting perspective on his dyslexia. While some characterize it as a learning disability, he now considers it a gift. He prides himself on having “amazing situational awareness” and great instincts. He anticipates situations and predicts dialogue – valuable skills for one who creates complex plots and clever lines. He sees patterns where others see chaos. Like many creative people with dyslexia, he reconciled his marketable talent with a condition that still makes his palms sweat.

While he feels no shame about his dyslexia, he harbors wounds from days past when he stammered in front of classmates when forced to read aloud. He is empathetic toward students who share his struggle and mindful of how hard it can be to acknowledge the challenge and address it. Regretful he was not forewarned that school would only get harder if he did not face reality, Flynn makes a point of telling students just that. As a member of the board of Twin Cities-based Groves Academy, he shares his story with students and encourages them to face their fears.

He also encourages students to find their gifts, for he believes everyone has one, whether it is sports, stamp collecting, music, or art. When kids know they are good at one thing, it is not as discouraging to be bad at another. He found self worth and identity by being a decent athlete. The writing followed.

Flynn’s story feels familiar, for dyslexia and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have many similarities. Diagnosed with ASD, my son Jack struggles with words and numbers. A voracious reader, he, too, skips over words as he sails through books. Although he struggles to write a paper, he can give a detailed oral report on mythology. Three years ago, he enrolled in a residential school in New Hampshire that, like Groves Academy, features small classes and individualized instruction. Initially anxiety ridden and socially isolated, he did minimal schoolwork and mastered the art of avoidance. He attributed his performance to what he calls his “PSE” (poor self-esteem).

Today, Jack is a changed guy. He is replacing his PSE with confidence and maturity. He is more engaged in academics and extracurricular activities. How did this happen? In an environment that stresses acceptance of differences, he began to apply his atypical brain more creatively after his art teacher discovered his passion for painting and penchant for poetry.

Vince Flynn’s achievements are a testament to his tenacity and determination to be a partner with, not a victim of, his dyslexia. The notion that we all harbor latent talents may be vexing for some who are single-minded about fixing deficits, but is borne out by my son’s experience. While few of us expect to be renowned authors, athletes, mathematicians, or musicians, we can take a page from Flynn’s book – and a lesson from two successful schools — and strive to both face challenges and cultivate strengths.