Most of us have personal problems we hide from our business associates. In fact, most of us have been hiding problems since we were kids. Often, though, these guarded secrets provide a hidden stash of strength at the workplace.
My problems started at tap dance lessons. As an eight-year-old, I didn't know what to do when the teacher said, “Turn left,” but I pretended to know what I was doing. The teacher said to my mom, “Penelope's always a beat behind.”
In high school, I was in advanced English, advanced history, and advanced French. I waited until no one was looking to slip into my remedial math class. My teacher told me, “When you grow up, don't go into business.”
In college, I took a car trip from Chicago to Detroit and went up the wrong side of Lake Michigan. It's a big lake. And Michigan's a big state. So I shocked even myself when I missed the state completely and ended up in Wisconsin. It was around that time that I realized I was dyslexic.
Once I understood my problem, I was able to keep track of recurring problem situations and find ways to avoid them: For example, I became an ace with Excel so I didn't have to do math in my head. And I quit tap dance and took up swing dancing because the lack of structure in swing means that turning the wrong direction looks creative, not brain-dead.
Contrary to many predictions, I flourished in corporate America. Today I don't worry that the dyslexia will hold me back professionally. Now the dyslexia is just sort of interesting to me. I like watching how my brain works, and I like having a better understanding of why I did what I did when I was younger.
But I hide the dyslexia when it comes up at work. It's easy: Frequently someone says, “The bathroom is at the end of the hall on the right,” and then the person sees me turn left. The person doesn't say, “What the hell is wrong with you?” The person just says, “No, turn right.” And I know what to do. It never occurs to anyone that an adult doesn't know her left and right. So dyslexia is a secret I can keep.
In the perfect world, we would all list our secret disabilities on our resumes. These are the pieces of our lives that make us able to overcome adversity at work. Mental illness, physical limitations, family disasters, these are also secrets people keep from co-workers. Of course, if you bring this stuff up in interviews the hiring manager will think you are insanely needy (or just insane) and you won't get the job.
But keep an active stock of your secret difficulties, because these are what make you strong. In the face of these secrets, a screaming client, incompetent boss, or plummeting stock price all seem manageable.
Admittedly, dyslexia is not as earth shattering a secret as it could be; today dyslexia is fashionable among businesspeople and was the cover story of a recent issue of Fortune magazine. Heck, John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, is dyslexic. Everyone should be so lucky to have a brain so similar to his.
But as CEO secrets start to slip out, take a look at your own secrets. Recognize them for what they are: Huge difficulties that you have overcome to get where you are. And maybe, one day, we will add them to our resumes — in the education section.