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As a child with dyslexia, Frank Imperiale always had to think 10 steps ahead to account for his reading challenges and anxiety. Today, thinking ahead is a skill that’s served him well in his career as a production manager for live events. His impressive list of credits includes the NYC Marathon, comedy shows, concerts, and more.
Get Frank’s advice on how to turn your learning and thinking differences into strengths. And hear what Whoopi Goldberg, who also has dyslexia, once shared with Frank backstage.
Listen in. Then:
Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences. My name is Eleni Matheou, and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host.
Frank Imperiale is a production manager for live events. His credits include the New York City Marathon, comedy shows, political debates, and concerts with stars like Whoopi Goldberg and T-Pain. He's an expert in audio-visual technology, and he has dyslexia. Welcome to the show, Frank.
Frank: Thanks for having me.
Eleni: So as part of your work on live events, you're an expert in audio and sound. So was sound always your thing, or do you have a story of what you were into as a kid and where it all began?
Frank: Yeah, it's kind of funny. I was the little toddler running around the theater because your teacher didn't have a babysitter. My dad, he used to do kind of high school dramas and that situation. And I was just always around theater sound and lighting, and it was something to keep me busy. And instead of me just sitting there or playing games, I was like, how does that work? And that's how my mind kind of works a lot, is I just want to know how things work and why. So I started getting involved with it and I stuck with it.
Eleni: So Frank, I would love for you to describe how dyslexia shows up for you.
Frank: My version of dyslexia is I definitely have issues with sounding out names. Words and spelling are just not my forte at all. And then a big problem is when I read, I just get line convergence. So I can read the same line five times and not realize it until I'm like, wait, did I read this? And it happens constantly. And still to this day it does. And you know, I learned tricks. I put a piece of paper under it to try to keep me on track. And it works, but it's still there. And it's never going away. It's just, I know how to deal with it now.
Eleni: When I heard that you are an audio and sound person or that you've gravitated towards audio, that kind of made sense to me because I often imagine if you have dyslexia, perhaps like reading might be a challenge, so you might lean into other things. But I was wondering if that is a fair assumption to kind of think, oh yeah, like having dyslexia means that you're more into audio. Like, is that actually true for you?
Frank: I don't think so. I mean, audio? Yes, it does help. Yes. I've listened to a million books on tape. Podcasts are the same for me. Like, I'll get a lot of information from that versus reading from a book. For me, when I have to read, it's usually manuals or instructions, that kind of thing, or something that I'm really interested in. But when I was in school reading, no, no, thank you. I'm good. Cliff Notes, please. Cliff Notes helped me so much. And most of it was, I would try to find audiobook versions of everything and listen to it. So maybe subconsciously it was built in for audio. But I think it's more of just the adventure of it. I don't think I can ever do like a nine-to-five office job. It's just something that I'm not built for.
Eleni: Yeah. So as you said, it's more interesting because you don't really know what's going to come up day-to-day. What do you think it is about audio that makes a good fit for you?
Frank: When I was a little kid, it came easy to me. I was very good with technology, and I have that kind of brain for technology. So it fit and then it was something I did and I enjoyed. And then I moved on farther. And then in high school they found out, oh, actually this kid knows what he's doing, so great. We'll give him even more. And then when I went to college, I was like, I'm not going to go to school for theater because I know what I need to know. So I said, let me dabble in television. And I went for broadcasting, and TV added to my toolbox we would say in the communications world. It just kept adding to that toolbox of what I know, but I kind of fell back into that live event.
And maybe it's the adrenaline, maybe it's the crowd that there's kind of this feeling that you get from an audience. I kind of noticed a lot, even as a technician, it's not just being on stage, but you can just feel it from them. And it was missing in television and things like that.
Eleni: What I'm hearing is that it's more about the environment and the setting and like the thrill of live events, as opposed to like day-to-day tasks that you do around audio and visual.
Frank: Yeah. I think it's just like, there's an end product. There's something you can see, and every time it's different, but you're doing the same thing. You're moving levers, you're tweaking knobs, you're adjusting volume. That kind of thing. To me, that's the boring part. The fun part in the stuff that I do is it's organizing and managing and making sure that we complete our goals and get across the line. So that way we can have that performance.
Eleni: I want to talk a little bit about like how dyslexia shows up for you at work. Have any challenges come up in the work that you do, or is it more so that you've found a role where you're not really impacted day to day by the challenges associated with dyslexia.
Frank: I don't know. I feel like now I've grown to be able to compensate in a lot of areas. Like there's still the sending of the emails and reading it like five times and reading it out loud. And is this the right word and googling that to make sure that it's perfect and right, because I'm always thinking that it's going to be wrong. So that's a big problem. But otherwise I feel like because I have dyslexia and because I've figured out ways to compensate, maybe, it's those skills that I bring to the table that a lot of other people can't: the multitasking and the thinking, the thinking way ahead to avoid potential problems. It just happens now.
Eleni: What is it about dyslexia that makes you good at thinking ahead?
Frank: It came from when I was in school. I had a whole bunch of anxiety. I mean, sick every day before I go to school, because I didn't know what was going to happen. And the big thing was trying to control that feeling and making sure that I could figure out what was going to happen and anticipating that. So I think, OK, well, what are we doing in class? What could happen? Is there a potential chance for like a pop quiz? Well, what would be on that quiz? How can I study for that? And all that would process for every class. And then depending on how the day was going, it would change. And I would just think constantly about what's going to happen next in English class when you're sitting in class and we have to all read in class. Dreadful, dreadful experience.
And I would be constantly monitoring and calculating. All right, well, this person's reading this paragraph. There's five people in front of me and then you count down and then of course you have the one kid that decides they want to read too. And then all of a sudden that changes and you have to reevaluate. And then it would be like, OK, one, can I say, "Hey, I got to go to the bathroom." So they skip over me. That's another opportunity to do that. So it was always that process of calculating. And I think it's more now that I do it and I don't even realize I do it.
Eleni: Where you're anticipating?
Frank: That I just anticipate all the problems, even like the smallest thing possible. And it's the same thing. Like people laugh at me when I'm at work, because I always say, oh, hang on, I got it in my car. And they're like, why do you have all this stuff in your car? Like, why do you have extra tools and all of this and timeline and whatever it is. And I got it in my car because I don't want to be unprepared and I don't want to be stopped.
Eleni: You said that you always had to feel really prepared when you went to school. It sounds like there was a little bit of anxiety that showed up. In what ways did that anxiety show up for you day to day?
Frank: School was horrible until probably about my junior year. But before that, I would literally throw up every morning to the point where I would even make sure that I had something in case I was on the bus and I got sick. It wasn't carsick. It was purely anxiety because I didn't know what was going to happen that day.
Eleni: Wow. That's so intense.
Frank: It was. And it sometimes comes up now, too, surprisingly, that it's still at work. Sometimes I'll get that same feeling.
Eleni: It's really interesting to hear how two things that maybe you wouldn't necessarily associate as being related — I wouldn't necessarily think, oh, because you have dyslexia you're really good at thinking ahead and planning. But I can see now, like after you've explained it, how those two things can relate to each other.
Frank: Yeah, it was the only way that I figured out how to survive. And that was a big thing. My mom was really a big fan of figuring out what works for you. Yes, it's a learning difference and it's true: I learn differently. So I needed to figure out the way that I was going to fit in to what I was given. And the anticipation was the only way I could figure it out.
Eleni: I've heard a lot through interviews I've done with people. it actually becomes easier when you focus your energy on your strengths and maybe the things that you can change as opposed to either dwelling on challenges or like things that can't change, or like maybe accepting that there are certain things where you can't fit into that box. And that's actually OK.
Frank: Oh, absolutely. My motto is "I'm not doing brain surgery." And that is what I tell everyone. I mean, I deal with clients and they think that it's the end of the world if something doesn't happen or if a cue's late or something like that. And I literally say one, no one's probably going to know. Because they don't know the show or they don't know the performance. And two, it's OK. You can't sweat the small stuff. You can't dwell on the past. And I think that's part of my anticipation. I can't dwell on the past because I got to keep going. Like, I don't have time to complain about, oh, we should have, or we could have. There's just no time for it. You've got to keep going and keep moving forward.
Eleni: It's interesting that you bring up the audience won't necessarily be able to pick up on if there's a mistake a lot of the time. I often will attend concerts and events and you know, I'll be blown away by the light effects, especially if it's coordinated with sound. I'm like, how do they do that? Can you give us like a peek into how the magic happens?
Frank: Honestly, how it works a lot of the times is it's just, you do the same show over and over. I ran what a lot of people term as a roadhouse. What would happen is about seven in the morning or so two tractor trailers would probably back in, and we would unload them and basically set up their sound, their lighting, their set, whatever they had for the performance. Most of the time that would bring us all the way to lunch. And we'd come back. We'd focus some lights and keep moving forward. And then we get to the showtime. And half the crew, all of my staff, which could have been anywhere from 10 to 50 people, had never seen the show, didn't know what was going on. And so they have a stage manager. And the stage manager says, OK, do that. And then we just listen to them and we're almost in a sense trained professionals that we know our operation and what we have to do. And there's some lead person that gives them the command. Now, sometimes that fails miserably and sometimes it doesn't. I can't tell you how many times you just have to fly by the seat of your pants.
Eleni: Do you have any crazy stories you can share of things that have gone wrong?
Frank: One of the funniest times was we were trying to load out a show because once the show is done, we then take everything and pack it back up and put it on the trucks. And they leave that night. So we had one show that someone had snuck around the truck and parked in the loading dock and it's on a college campus. So they just went to go party or wherever they want. And we couldn't get the stuff on the truck. So we finally devised like a ramp and we wheeled everything on this 53-foot tractor trailer over this little tiny ramp over this car. Got it all out. And then at the end of the night, we aired out all of its tires so that way it would be stuck there for the weekend. We had to get that truck packed. It had to be, I don't know, in Connecticut the next day. But it's like, yeah, it really got under our skin. So we're going to get a little bit back on them.
And then, I mean, there's been simple things, like all of a sudden, company I worked for, their truck driver got injured and they need someone to drive their truck. And next thing you know, I'm a truck driver for the day. And I think that's why I do like the line of work I'm in. Because one day I'm a sound guy. One day I'm lighting guy, one day I do video. And the other day I'm a truck driver.
Eleni: Well, it sounds like you wear many hats. But you're also in a managerial role at these live events, right?
Frank: I mean, the management role is a little different and weird because I'm not a manager that is very hands off. I'm always like, no, I'm part of the team, I'm going to help you where I can. And when I have to step away, I have to step away because I have to do something. But yet also I'm not your typical manager again, because I just can't do one thing.
And I'm also a big fan of teaching. So if I see someone doing the wrong thing, I'm not going to say no, you're doing the wrong thing. This is how I want you to do it. I explain to them why. And a lot of people start learning my process of my mind. They understand. They're like, well, why does it matter that we run the cable this way or that way? It's still getting point A to point B. Like, yes, but when you're loading out, it's going to be much easier if it goes this way, if it goes around this one piece that I know is going to be a problem. And they're like, why are you thinking about the load-out? And I was like, you always think about the load-out, because you want to get home. You want to get out of there. So again, it comes into that mind of anticipation and already solving those problems before anyone thinks of it.
Eleni: Yeah. I see how that's related. So, I was told you see a lot of celebrities backstage and you once met Whoopi Goldberg, who also has dyslexia. Can you tell us that story?
Frank: Whoopi was awesome. I mean, Whoopi literally, when we sat down, she came up to the stage and we were sitting and we were like, oh, you probably have about 15 minutes before we start. And she sat down and she just started talking to me and like, what are you doing in life? What are you this, what did that? And to the point where I was like, you have to go on stage now and she's like, they can wait. And we just continued to have a conversation. And it was, it was great. I was like, really? This is happening right now?
Eleni: Earlier, you mentioned that you do think differently. And then now you just talked about how it's also important for you to kind of communicate how you're thinking or why you're thinking that particular way and for other people to understand that. Do you think that you have like a desire to be understood and for your thinking to be understood because it's different?
Frank: I think so. I think that's a big thing. Like even the last gig I just finished was working the New York City Marathon. And we only do a small sliver of it, but that small sliver is still covering sound for 200 acres for all 30,000 people that came this year. But even that I was bouncing around doing 50 things, four sets of communication. I had two different radios, two cell phones, and everything was going off at the same time, but yet I was still also loading a truck. And people constantly ask me, I don't know how you do it. And I said, I really don't either, but I do it.
But then I do try to convey a lot of why I do things and how I do them. And I want people to understand, like, I'm not like an advocate or like, oh yeah, I'm special and I'm different. No. But it does keep rearing its head that yeah, I'm dyslexic. And you know what? That's why I'm doing what I do.
Eleni: Do people at work or colleagues and peers, do they know?
Frank: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Eleni: Do you talk about it in that way? Like, yeah, I think that that's because I'm dyslexic.
Frank: It comes up. Like in conversation, I don't shy away from it. Why should I? It's nothing to be ashamed of. Even when I was a kid, like I remember when my mom wanted me to get tested. And I was kind of like, I don't want to be the dumb kid. Oh, you're the kid in special ed. You're going to resource. But that changed when I was like in high school, because no one thought of me as the dumb kid. And they're like, wait, you have resource? And then I would try to be an advocate in that case and explain it. And I think that's where I learned, don't be ashamed that you're dyslexic. It is who you are. You can research and you can find out so many like CEOs and amazing people have dyslexia. And I think it's because they're wired that way and that's why they're successful. And that's why they have that kind of drive because they've always had to do it to survive.
Eleni: Yeah, there's like a little bit of a correlation there between dyslexia and entrepreneurship.
Frank: And what's funny is I have no interest in running my own business. I mean, I've done it. I've been there, done it, but no thank you. I'm good. For me, that's too much.
Eleni: You mentioned that when you were a kid, people would ask you why you were going to resource. And you know, you didn't really feel any shame around telling them why. Where do you think you learned that? Because it's not an easy thing. It's something that I hear people struggle with a lot, especially when they're younger.
Frank: I think that ultimately came from my mom, because my mom was a big supporter. And she said, use your resources, use that as you need. Do want to look up that or study more. That's just time for you to figure out what you need.
And I think that's a lot to do with why I am the way I am today, was during our, you know, IEP meetings and anything that was dealing with us, my mom made sure that we were at them. I was one of very few kids in my circle that I knew that actually went to their IEP meeting. Everyone else, they were like, the parents kind of hopefully went but barely. And my mom said, no, this is your educational program. Like, this is your educational plan. You should be involved, and you should know what's going on and help them make the proper decisions.
And even now, like, I'll take on a job that I'm like, oh, can I do this? I don't know. And I'll just talk myself up. Yes, Frank, you can do it. It's the same concept that you've been doing. It's the same elements. And I'll talk to myself about it. And I'll just convince myself that even if you don't think you can do it, try.
Eleni: How does that apply to work now, like, are you having those conversations? Is there anything that you ask for in a work setting?
Frank: Not really — accommodations I don't ask for. It's more of, at this point with work, I think it's partly again, because I enjoy what I do and I took that driver's seat. So I'm in a position. I don't think I could work an office job, partly probably because for me it seems very — the same job over and over every day, that kind of thing.
But it's also a lot of writing and reading if you're thinking about data processing and typing and things like that. I mean, now that I'm talking to you literally right now, I'm like, huh, maybe I haven't had an office job because of dyslexia. And I've just said, I'm staying away from it.
Eleni: And again, it's about leaning into your strengths and being aware of that. And it's OK. An office setting isn't for everyone.
Frank: Absolutely. I learned at a young age that I definitely have a mind for technology, and I understand how things work. And it definitely was a natural progression that I was going to go into some type of production or technical stuff, because it's just how my mind works.
And now with the management stuff, I know the terms, I know what the devices do. And then I just now am understanding more and more the best way to get the players to fit. And the other thing is, I keep learning. I joke about it, but I don't stay with just one company in one job. I'll stay with my main company, but I'll always do some side jobs here and there, because I'm always wanting to learn new techniques, new ways to do things, new ways to understand what might make and what I could apply to make what I do better.
Eleni: Yeah. And also it's so important to be able to reapply knowledge in like different settings. And I think that relates back to what we were talking about in terms of reapplying what you learn in school in like a work setting.
Frank: Oh yeah. And pivoting. I mean, life's such a fun journey. and it's like kind of one of those things, like, you never know what you're going to get. And it's totally true. Know what you know, and try to apply it. Pivot all the time. Just constantly. Every job I've had has been some random connection. I mean, even this interview, I met one of your producers in a different way, and that's how we're connected. And we're having this conversation. You never know where anything's going to lead.
Just be a happy human. Talk to people, enjoy life, and enjoy what you're doing. And if you're not, then go find something that you do enjoy. Because there's gotta be a job for whatever it is.
Eleni: Thank you so much for sharing your story.
Frank: Oh, thank you. It was a pleasure.
Eleni: This has been "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, tell someone about it. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/thatjob to share your thoughts and to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash that job.
Do you have a learning difference and a job you're passionate about? Email us at email@example.com. If you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job, we'd love to hear from you. As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one, to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference, and we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Andrew Lee and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Thanks again for listening.
leads user research for Understood. She helps Understood to center its work on the lived experiences and voices of people who learn and think differently.
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