Andreas Souvaliotis’s memoir, Misfit, could be called Revenge of the Weird Guy.
It is the story of a Greek boy, with undiagnosed autism, who was a math genius, a musical prodigy and a socially awkward misfit. Young Andreas was not one of the cool kids. And he suffered because of it.
As an adult immigrant to Canada, Souvaliotis tried to hide his self-described “weirdness.” The Toronto entrepreneur and author saw that “weirdness” as springing from being autistic, gay and an immigrant. These were barriers to success, he thought. After all, his own father had told him he would rather his son was dead than a “faggot.”
But once Souvaliotis accepted and “harnessed” his differences, he found the success he always wanted and was able to add a fourth defining characteristic to his resume: Changemaker, a term used to describe him in a foreward to Misfit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In the business world, Souvaliotis is best known as the inventor of what is billed as the world’s first eco-rewards program, Green Rewards, and later as the brains behind the Carrot Rewards health and wellness app, in which participants receive rewards in such programs as Aeroplan, Scene or Petro-Points for making healthy lifestyle choices. Souvaliotis remains the chief executive officer of Carrot Rewards and is in the midst of expanding the operation to the United Kingdom.
Beyond the business world, Souvaliotis is a popular public speaker and activist with the 6 Degrees program, which fosters understanding and connections across the globe and is part of the Institute of Canadian Citizenship founded by former governor general Adrienne Clarkson.
Expect Souvaliotis to talk up 6 Degrees when he appears Monday at Library and Archives Canada to plug Misfit. All royalties from the book will be donated to 6 Degrees.
Misfit first surfaced five years ago. It was much slimmer then and was self-published. Without a major publicity campaign, the book sold more than 10,000 copies. That makes it a bestseller in this country.
A few years later, Random House approached Souvaliotis, he says, offering to publish a longer version of the book. It just came off the presses this month under the Doubleday imprint.
In Misfit, we meet young Andreas in Greece, where his father worked for Air Canada. The boy was academically gifted but he lacked many social skills. He didn’t fit in.
“My inadequate and abnormal social skills made me a remarkably unfiltered and unedited keener, front row, hand up in the air all the time, eager to impress, but also scared of all the teasing I was sure to get from the cool kids.”
Souvaliotis was in his 40s before he realized his social awkwardness was a sign of autism. He only sought and received an actual medical diagnosis a year ago at age 54. By then, he realized his autism offered some advantages.
“Some of my autistic traits undoubtedly contributed to my intensely entrepreneurial style and attitude, my unquashable hunger to always build or disrupt and my pure intellect,” he writes in Misfit. “But the flip side of all that was so often painful, debilitating and alienating. I could never fake anything. Joe (his life partner) always jokes about my uncontrollably disrespectful body language when I am onstage with other speakers who are boring me; I suffer in chaotic or disorganized situations; I really struggle to read faces; and I miss so many more social cues than the overage person.”
Souvaliotis was able to exploit some aspects of his autism to further his business career. Being gay also helped in certain situations where organizations were embracing diversity. Once afraid of being labeled an immigrant, Souvaliotis now speaks unaccented English.
He wants Misfit to inspire young people to realize that some of the “weird” aspects of their personality could be positive forces in their lives.
“I was raised believing that I needed to change in order to fit into the world but I didn’t really grow up until I realized that the opposite was true: The world needed me to help change it a little bit.”
Souvaliotis was asked to comment on the current controversy in Ontario over funding for autistic students. He declined to wade into the politics but said he is glad people feel so strongly about the issue they are debating it so passionately. That is a sign of progress, he says.
In town: Andreas Souvaliotis, author of Misfit (Doubleday Canada), will be at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St., Monday, March 18, at 7 p.m. More information: writersfestival.org.