Many people know that Richard Branson has talked about dyslexia being an advantage. He struggled in school, almost failing out at age 13. He was very near-sighted and someone only thought to suggest he get his eyes tested after a few terms not seeing the board. He was beaten once or twice a week at prep school for poor school work.
At age 13, he transferred into a large public school. He was at the bottom of his class and unable to do sports because of a knee injury. He sought refuge in a library and became friends with a sophisticated and well read boy whose parents knew journalists and writers (his mother was a playwright). He thought about becoming a journalist and then surprised many when he won a writing prize at the school. After winning the prize, his English began to improve. He soared to third out of twenty-one, but was at the bottom of of Math, Physics, and Chemistry.
“He tries hard but has very great difficulty in understanding even the simplest mathematical process and in retaining any new topic covered.”
One Easter, Richard decided he wanted to make some money. He and a friend planted 400 tree seeds with the hope that he would make 800 pounds if they grew to at least 4 feet by the Christmas after next. The following summer, he returned to the field and found to his dismay that all the trees had been eaten by rabbits.
Perhaps in a quest for revenge, he and his friend returned to shoot the rabbits, ultimately selling them to a butcher for a few shillings. Another scheme with the same friend involved breeding budgies, but this plan was foiled when his parents got tired of taking care of the birds while he was away at school, so all of them were let go. In these early forays as an entrepreneur, he did make an interesting discovery about math: “I found it was only when I was using real numbers to solve real problems that math made any sense to me.”
A huge step forward came when Richard was 16 and an idea lodged in his head about creating an alternative magazine at his school. He wanted it to institute a lot of changes he felt were needed at the school, such as an end to corporal punishment, the policy of fagging (younger students act as slaves to older ones), compulsory chapel, games, and Latin. His project quickly hatched to beyond his school and then the idea of making money and having sponsors took hold. Because his voice had already changed he found he sounded pretty credible on the phone and with some phone savvy ended up securing $8000 in advertising before a single issue was even published. Ultimately, his magazine wasn’t a huge money maker, but it opened up the possibility of his next business, which was a record shop which was very successful – and then opened the way for him to build a recording studio.
Richard’s mother was an airline stewardess and his father was a barrister. Richard often credits his mother with his greatest inspiration, but it’s clear that both were committed to his success and surprisingly resilient when he faced many academic setbacks at school and decided to start working full-time at 16.
Mom was a Role Model.
“I’m often flabbergasted by the amount of time some people waste dwelling on their past failures, rather than directing that energy into new projects. My mother always taught me never to look back in regret, but to immediately move on to the next thing.
Our family budget was fairly tight when I was growing up, and I was always fascinated by her money-making projects, which were often craft-based, like building and selling wooden tissue boxes and wastepaper bins. If an item didn’t sell, she tried something else.”
Learn to Survive – Fast.
“There is a rather well-known story about Mum stopping the car on the way home from a shopping trip and telling me to find my own way home – about three miles through the countryside, and I was somewhere around five years old. She was punishing me for causing mischief in the back seat, but she was also teaching me a larger lesson about overcoming my disabling shyness and learning to ask others for directions.”
Put Others First.
“There was always a focus on teamwork in our home – working in the garden, helping to prepare meals, cleaning up. I have two younger sisters, Lindi and Vanessa, and Mum always kept the three of us working hard. It certainly instilled a very healthy work ethic in me, as many of my staff would point out!”
I could speak to my parents as if they were my closest friends.
“I noticed that a good many of my friends stopped confiding in their parents, but I never felt embarrassed by or rebellious against mine. They always encouraged me to go ahead and do whatever I wanted to do, and if they did not always praise my projects, they never expressed less than sympathy and support. The last thing my father wanted to do was to spend his weekends building a cage for my budgerigars, but he never told me. My mother was extremely keen to help me with The Student and wrote articles, gave me pocket money that she could scarcely spare, and thought of people whom I should approach. Once when I told her that I wanted to get in touch with David Frost, she spent weeks asking all her friends whether they knew anyone who knew anyone who knew David Frost.”
These last words may be the ones that impressed me most about how Richard’s parents supported him in his early years. They weren’t helicopter parents in the common sense of the word in terms of fighting his battles for him, but they did take an active role in trying to help him get his foothold in the world so that he could build a successful life for himself. Over the years, we have met many such parents. Here’s to you. You make a difference in so many ways and make the world better as a result.