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Jack White, Obstacles, and the Gift of Dyslexia

Updated: Mar 21


If you've watched a pro football game, or the Grammys, or listened to the radio in the last 20 years, chances are you've heard something by Jack White. White is the musician and songwriter who gave us both the rousing halftime anthem "Seven Nation Army," and the gentle back-to-school ditty "We Are Going to Be Friends" (among others). He's the singer and guitar player of The White Stripes and The Dead Weather, the drummer for The Raconteurs, and a successful solo artist. He's also the owner of a successful record label, an upholstering business (?!?), and the very first Superman comic. Sure, he's a genius, but there are plenty of geniuses out there, and most of them can't pony up 1.5 million dollars for a comic book. Whatever he's doing works.


It Might Get Loud is a music documentary featuring three iconic guitar players: Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2), and White. All three are masters of their craft, but White has gone so far beyond being a guitar player (and the only one I've seen live in a small theater before he got huge) so it was White's contribution I paid special attention to. Because he's so phenomenally successful, in so many ways... and because his first band, The White Stripes, was so bare bones it practically wasn't a band.


When my cooler-than-me friend took me to see them back in 2012, I knew it was a duo, and I expected to see a dude and an awesome girl drummer, which was fine by me. The world needs more girl drummers, if you ask me. But that was not what we got. The White Stripes were a duo, yes, but duos are nothing new. What was really surprising was that the drummer... kind of couldn't play the drums. It wasn't that she was bad – she could keep tempo, which is the most important thing – but she wasn't really "playing the drums." It was more like she was banging on them, the way a little kid would bang on a pot and a pan in the kitchen: boom-ta-boom-ta-boom-ta. There was no pretension of "feel" or finesse whatsoever.


The rudimentary drumming was not for lack of a skilled drummer; it was clearly intentional. But why? Why wouldn't Jack White + Awesome Drummer = More awesome band?


It wasn't until I saw It Might Get Loud that it began to make sense. White seeks out obstacles. He creates them. And he does it because it forces him to solve problems. In the film, he talks about how he chose an unskilled drummer as his bandmate because it created an obstacle. How could he create full-on rock music without full-on rock percussion? Could it be done successfully? Turns out it could. And now the fruits of that obstacle are chanted by thousands of sports fans, banged out by marching bands, and crooned to worried children before the first day of school.


Without a worthy obstacle, you run the risk of being normal. You might be fine, but will you be great? No. Because the presence of an obstacle forces you to explore beyond the conventional, the accepted, the "normal" to solve your problem. Only when you have an obstacle can you forge a new path.


Children (and adults) with dyslexia and AD/HD don't have to create obstacles – they have them built right in. They often can't do things the normal way, or if they can, it's awful: slow, frustrating, and difficult. Without awareness and help, they may cope with their learning differences by acting out, withdrawing, or escaping into video games or substance abuse. These may, in fact, be strategies that you or someone you love are using at this very moment. Because nothing else seems to work, and seriously, it's just not fair. Why should you have been given this obstacle, when everyone else gets to do normal school stuff with relative ease? But understand this: you can't have success without an obstacle. Only when you have to solve a problem can you find a new answer.

Here's how Jack White describes how one obstacle shaped him:


"You absorb so much from whatever your environment is, as an artist, and you learn to take from it what can help you create. Many people in the neighborhood liked hip-hop and house music, and I couldn’t play that. You can’t perform that on guitar or drums, which was what I was playing, at the time. But, I got so much from mariachi bands that were constantly playing in the neighborhood, and even Tejano music or Banda music that was playing, all around. I absorbed all those melodies and I love those rhythms. Eventually, we finally got to use it on the last White Stripes record, in “Conquest.”


This hasn't been verified by Mr. White himself, but I'm guessing that when he was a kid, he wanted to fit in and be cool, just like anyone else. Rap and house music were cool, but he couldn't play that music. That was an obstacle. Not, to be honest, the biggest obstacle in the world, but it was a limitation he had to contend with, and ultimately, that limitation is part of what made him remarkable. There are plenty of rappers and DJs out there, but only one Jack White. His use of obstacles is the key to his success; they fuel his creativity and force him to come up with new solutions.


Overcoming the obstacle of dyslexia isn't simply a matter of breaking the alphabetic code, or increasing fluency, or even building "reading comprehension." It's about identifying and accepting a problem and using that problem as the launching pad for creativity and exploration. Limitations catalyze growth. What can you learn from your dyslexia? What solutions has AD/HD made you come up with? What conversations did your learning difference force/ allow you to have? I'm not putting a happy face on things, or sugar-coating "reality." I know how overwhelming AD/HD can be – Newsflash: I am AD/HD. And yes, it's hard. It makes day-to-day life a struggle. But it also makes me awesome.


For example, I love to cook, but it's so hard for me to actually follow recipes, or to time things properly, or to clean as I go, or to remember all the ingredients... Who can make a delicious meal out of pretty much anything? I CAN! Who can cook without a recipe? ME! Who figured out how to use ground pepitas when she forgot the cornmeal, and then created ultra-healthy and delicious crackers? I DID! A neurotypical cook wouldn't have forgotten the cornmeal. But they wouldn't have found a much cooler alternative, either.

Dyslexia Therapy isn't just about breaking the alphabetic code. It's about finding the strength to persevere when things don't come easily. It's about finding and accepting help. It's about understanding how your particular mind works and getting creative to discover what you need to succeed. You can see the treatment of dyslexia, or of any learning difference, not as a frustrating hindrance, but as the very key to your unique success. Learning differences are obstacles; there's no denying that. But they are precisely the obstacles that can lead you toward finding your true voice. Whatever kind of voice it is. It might even get loud.


[Author's note: As far as I know, Jack White is not dyslexic. Lots of geniuses are dyslexic, so it wouldn't surprise me if he were, but that's not the point.]


Pretty sure Jack White didn't play football, but all these fans are singing his song. (he gets paid every time it plays, brtw). Do you think it would have existed if he could have played hip hop and house music?





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