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How an Advisor With Dyslexia Uses His Strengths to Help Clients

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Having dyslexia clearly presents challenges. But here’s a dyslexic financial advisor who plays to his strengths — qualities and abilities with which dyslexia has in fact equipped him.

In an interview, Daren Blonski, 39, tells ThinkAdvisor how he works with a clientele of “millionaires next door.”

And he also discusses what FAs need to know about neurodiversity — the range of differences in how the brain functions. Dyslexia is one of those differences, and 1 in 10 people have it.

The certified financial planner, co-founder of Sonoma Wealth Advisors, an RIA, argues that “to be successful with a dyslexic mind, you have to work outside the system because the system isn’t designed for your brain.”

After founding a few companies in the leadership development field, in 2011 Blonski began a career in financial services as an Edward Jones advisor in California. Five years later he left to form Enso Wealth Management, which rose to $1.2 billion in assets under management. This fall, he and financial advisor Chris Sipes launched Sonoma Wealth.

The firm receives about 40 leads a month as part of the Dave Ramsey SmartVestor referral program. Blonski’s AUM alone is $105 million.

Though he struggled with reading in school, during college he found “tools and methods to work around [his] way of learning,” he explains. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in organizational studies from the University of California, Davis, and a master’s in psychology and organizational development from Sonoma State University.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed the California born-and-bred advisor, on the phone from his office in Sonoma. Noting that dyslexia is genetic, he said that two of his and his wife’s three children are dyslexic and that the youngest, 4 years old, appears to have dyslexia too.

Off-hours Blonski, participating in marathons and mud runs, is an impressive athlete: As he writes on his website: “If there is a race to be run, a weight to be lifted, a mountain to be climbed, [he] is all in.”

Here are excerpts from our interview:

What differentiates your practice?

We like to refer to our clients as the everyday millionaires living next door. Blue collar isn’t quite the right term, but they’re people who work really hard and save for a good retirement. They’re looking for support and advice as they transition into it.

You have a Master of Arts in psychology. Does that help you as an advisor?

Yes. Nowadays [advisory] is more about the relationship people have with their money than which investments [to choose]. It’s about how you’re going to make better decisions with your money, and that’s all based on behavioral psychology.

But what do you think about the increasing use of technology in providing financial advice?

Technology is far superior than the human mind in selecting investments. But it’s a mistake to remove the human element from the client relationship because you [need to] understand people and why they make the decisions they make. Computers and AI haven’t yet figured out how to do that.

You were diagnosed with dyslexia when you were in school. As an FA, what challenges does that present?

In order to be successful with a dyslexic mind, you have to work outside the system because the system isn’t designed for your brain, which works a little bit differently from that of the normative population. A lot of people think dyslexia is only about mixing up words and letters. But dyslexia can mean a lot of challenges around word decoding, oral fluency, spelling [etc.].

What is your particular form of dyslexia?

Listening to the oral word is easier for me than reading it on a piece of paper. When I read words on a page, my brain has to slow down.

Financial advisors need to read and absorb a great deal of information. How do you accomplish that?  

Every week I listen to three to four books on Audible and to two or three podcasts. If the books are highly technical or if I have to read a huge technical paper and don’t have an Audible solution, I may look at the abstract and the conclusion of the paper [only].

Just how does hearing the text help you?

I listen at two-and-a-half to three times normal reading speed because over time, you can train your brain to speed up the way it processes information.

What about reading prospectuses, analysts’ reports and the like?

I haven’t found technology that helps with those. So I read them [visually]. It’s a slower process; [therefore] I’m selective in what I read and zero in on what matters most.

Has having dyslexia given you any strengths?

I’m very quick when it comes to imagery, spatial movement, looking for patterns in data that other people might not see.

As an advisor, you need to communicate complex information so that clients can make better financial decisions. How do you do that?

One way: I’m really good at drawing and writing upside-down. So I sit with clients on the other side of the table and draw pictures of what I’m trying to communicate to them. I can always tell within seconds if they’re more of an auditory learner or a visual learner.

And how does that guide you?

If they’re an auditory learner, I’m going to focus on the speaking part of [my explanation]; if they’re a visual learner, I’ll draw more for them.

What else do advisors need to know about neurodiversity — the range of differences in human brain function? This is an employment issue relating to diversity and inclusion.

Neurodiversity is about understanding that there are different ways brains are wired and that people learn differently. Whenever we say that a group in the population is broken, we’ve missed the value that that human can bring to the community. It’s about finding what a person’s strength is, how we celebrate it and bringing more of it to the workplace. A lot of brilliant people are dyslexic. Einstein had dyslexia.

Does neurodiversity include autism?

That’s a part of it. I have a couple of clients who I think are on the autism spectrum. One is an attorney, who is probably the most brilliant human I’ve ever met. And I have a distant relative who’s on the spectrum. If you tell him your birthday, he’ll calculate in his head the day of the week you were born. If you’re trying to understand the [securities] markets, that’s the brain you want looking at a data set to find a pattern that might give you an edge in your investment strategy.

Do you have clients that are dyslexic?

One is a director at a college, who helps people with dyslexia and [various] disabilities integrate into the college.

Away from work, what do you like to do for diversion?

I’m an athletic guy. I just finished a mud run. I did the Boston Marathon last April. My next challenge is doing an ultra [marathon] — 30, 50, 100 miles.

What’s a mud run?

The most recent one [I did] was 8 miles with 24 obstacles. You jump in this pit of mud, climb up a muddy wall and a ladder while water is being poured on your head. Two years ago I did one that was 40 miles over 30 hours; and you’d stop every 10 miles to do a challenge, like carry a 160-pound block. It’s just stupid fun!

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