Smashing the stereotype: How dyslexia helped guide me to my dream career

Before my diagnosis, I always thought dyslexia just meant having difficulties with reading, writing and spelling. I never knew that it was linked to an entirely different way of thinking. Here’s how I was being secretly guided to a career full of dyslexic strengths.

Although my grades at school were never terrible, I always knew something wasn’t quite right, but I could never put my finger on what it was. I worked harder and longer hours than my friends, only to see them achieve more than me. I avoided essay subjects, always choosing practical and coursework-based subjects like chemistry, physics, art and technology – even biology was too much writing for me!

This is where I found that I loved both chemistry and art, and knew that I wanted my future career to somehow involve both. I found it fascinating to learn about how and why things work, while continuing to be creative, making art with the same materials. In my head the two were always linked.

It was my chemistry teacher who was the first to tell me about art conservation. I was amazed – it was like the forensics you see on crime shows, but here it involved piecing together information about artworks. It just clicked – that’s exactly what I wanted to do. Conservation combined the two things I was good at and passionate about.

Harriet shown at work lining documents with 2% klucel-g in propan-2-ol in a fume cupboard.
Harriet lining documents with 2% klucel-g in propan-2-ol in a fume cupboard

After under-performing in my A-levels, I didn’t get into my first-choice university. I was gutted and couldn’t see it as anything other than a failure. I still had no diagnosis for dyslexia and I directed this frustration inward. Instead, I ended up going to a less traditionally academic university, which was more applied and industry focused. Looking back, this turned out to be a far better outcome for me and the way I learn. I took courses in pigments, dyes and fibres, colour chemistry and material science that I knew would prepare me for a career in art conservation.

I still struggled with exams, pulling all-nighters, putting university work ahead of my mental health, and the strain of not knowing why information just wasn’t clicking with me meant I developed anxiety.

I would start answering a question only to realise that it wasn’t what it asked. I didn’t know at the time that help or extra time for this sort of thing was available. Words didn’t move around for me. Instead, the glaring white page lit up behind the characters and I lost focus easily.

At the age of 24, a year into my MA Conservation of Fine-Art Works of Art on Paper, I finally got an answer: I was dyslexic. I could problem solve with ease, see the bigger picture and describe theories and concepts in chemistry through real-life scenarios. I could connect the dots in such a way that I knew that, by studying chemistry, I could help protect cultural heritage.

These things were not in spite of my dyslexia – this is how my dyslexia helped shape and guide me even when I had no name for it. It guided me away from things that I wasn’t good at and instead pushed me to a career that I could thrive in. While it was difficult not knowing that I needed educational support from an early age, I also didn’t have to grow up labelled under a stereotype.

I have mixed feelings about the lack of support I received but my understanding is that dyslexia, like so many elements of neurodiversity, is hugely different for every individual. By sharing where dyslexia has helped me, I hope to break down the stigma that dyslexics cannot reach their full potential.

Ultimately, the support I have received since my diagnosis has made an infinite difference in my own confidence, mental health and understanding of my ability. This support is crucial; dyslexia is a disability under the Equalities Act and should always be supported as such.

Dyslexia is now increasingly described as a superpower – when I meet a fellow dyslexic person, I feel that we can bounce ideas for hours on end, and I feel lucky to see the world as I do.

2 comments

  1. Barbara Creed says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Both my son and daughter were diagnosed as dyslexic at school and struggled academically at times, but both went to university and found their true paths in the end – my son is a design engineer and my daughter is an art psychotherapist!

  2. Kirsten Strachan says:

    I have a very similar story to you, I was diagnosed at University and also am a conservator at a national Museum in the UK.
    I like you see it as not a negative but very much a “superpower”. I completely identify with the different way of thinking and problem solving skills, that adds value to everything, work and life.

    my confidence sometimes lets me down in writing articles and blogs, but I have so much passion for what I do and can talk for hours on the subject. Being able to communicate verbally really translates to others who are hearing your story, and passion. It just takes an institution to mentor the superpowers and value them to make them benefit all, and that is really the skill is having people understand how to think outside the box and think big, having mentors and managers that can key into and develop this with you is a a huge ask sometimes, not everyone thinks the same way you do!!! Education of managers is key, and sometimes you need to “learn to manage your manager”
    Thank you for sharing your story.

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