Donald Trump

Donald Trump Cannot Read? The Profound Dangers of a Fixed Mindset

This past fall, I bought copies of Carol Dweck’s Mindset for two of our new Learners.[1] Each of them, who spent most of their school-aged years in traditional schooling environments, demonstrated proclivities for what Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.” This mindset was holding them back from taking risks that would allow them to grow intellectually and emotionally. Specifically, they would avoid engaging in learning experiences they did not feel they already had mastery over, they would shut down the moment someone else realized they did not understand something, and they would place immense value on whether others thought they were smart, popular, or attractive.

Dweck states that a fixed mindset is a fundamental belief that qualities, traits, and talents are largely unchangeable. That they are inherent, or inborn. The opposite of a fixed mindset is a "growth mindset" which is a belief in the ability to change and cultivate qualities, traits, and talents through deliberate effort and experience. And while people are not completely fixed or growth mindset oriented in every facet of life, some people tend to stand out as one or the other significantly more often than the rest. As I revisited Mindset for the benefit of our two Learners, I could not help but notice that then presidential candidate Donald Trump was a perfect fixed mindset case study.[2] 

The mindset of a king

In 2015, Trump himself laid out a compelling argument for his fixed mindset orientation in an interview with Michael D’Antonio of the Los Angeles Times.[3] “I’m a big believer in natural ability,” Trump said. The belief in natural ability is a cornerstone of fixed mindset thinking, and it also defies what we know about human development. He later added, “the most important thing is an innate ability.” In Trump’s eyes, innate ability, which one cannot control, is more important than what one has significant control over such as effort, education, and experience. It was once accepted that the best people to rule nations were royalty, the people who were preordained to lead. Befittingly, the LA Times piece was titled, “Donald Trump believes he was born to be king.”

As the campaign season wore on, Trump became notorious for attacking those who questioned him, no matter who they were or how insignificant their opinion was. Trump would go on public campaigns attacking and attributing negative characteristics to the members of the news media, politicians, and celebrities who dared to critique him. Rarely did he address their arguments; he just attacked. But he also made time to attack random Twitter users who had little to no audience, calling them losers, dumb, and failures. While politicians are not necessarily known for their incredibly thick skin, the ability of people to (often gleefully) so easily get on the nerves of the future leader of the free world was remarkable. It was as if he could not possibly stand being critiqued.

Growth mindset oriented people are more willing to hear critiques; they seek them out. They more often value diversity and feel more comfortable populating their teams with contrarians who will challenge their positions. Growth mindset people facilitate and improve communications within their teams, as they see everyone, including those they disagree with, being a part of their learning process. Fixed mindset people, on the other hand, tend to surround themselves with yes men who will always agree with them. They view critiques of their beliefs or actions as attacks on their ability, competence, and intellect. And unlike growth mindset people who will try to understand the critiques of outsiders, fixed mindset people immediately label those outsiders as the enemy who must be dealt with swiftly.

We did not have to wait until the campaign season shined a light on some of Trump’s more impertinent social behaviors to find evidence of a fixed mindset—the evidence was there all along. As much as Trump talked about The Art of the Deal, it seemed much of his financial success came after deals were made by way of broken contracts and non-payments to contractors for services received.[4] He has also demonstrated an eagerness to threaten lawsuits against people who upset him or get in his way, and a willingness to follow through on many of those threats.[5] Additionally, he has been accused of assaulting women multiple times, and has been caught on audio joking about assaulting women.[6]

While all of these actions should be seen as troublesome, unsavory, or unethical on a one-off basis, that Trump keeps revisiting them is what screams fixed mindset. As Jamie Loftus writes, “Throughout [Trump’s] life, there are examples of his making the same mistakes, ignoring criticism, being threatened by others, and not accepting the challenge of self-examination.”[7] In other words, he does not learn from experience because he does not see any value in the introspection that growth minded people use to try to improve their behavior or performance. 

Fake it ‘til you make it           

A fixed mindset does not necessarily preclude one from success, riches, positions of influence, or fame, as Trump rising to the most powerful political position in the world shows. Already having power and privilege, as Trump did growing up, can certainly help one overcome shortcomings they are unwilling to address. What a fixed mindset does, however, is limit opportunities for success, place successes on a weak foundation that can be exposed at a later date, and it can lead fixed mindset people to engage in dangerously self-defeating behaviors.[8] By virtue of Trump being a billionaire and president of the United States, let’s accept that he has had his share of successes. But now he is in the precarious position of taking on more complex challenges without the support systems that he has benefited from and grown used to.

People have often built their successes on false foundations. Success is everything in our society and it is dictated by the perception of others: getting into Harvard or Stanford, working for the right consulting or law firm, buying the right house in the right neighborhood, getting your children into Harvard or Stanford. My list starts and ends with school for a reason. School is where society is best conditioned to focus on attaining arbitrary measures of success and avoiding failure at all costs. Schools drive this lesson home early and often with gold stars, report cards, and class rankings. By the time students arrive in high school, they know that their success requires them to be perfect in class; there will be no time for experimenting and growth because a perfect GPA does not allow for it. This is why so many students cheat, and why so few students are genuinely excited to learn.

Apropos of the previous point, there is a persistent rumor that highlights how Trump the fixed mindset president may have built a false foundation and positioned himself for an inglorious downfall in a way that a growth mindset president would likely avoid. Can Trump read? David Pakman recently produced a 12-minute video laying out compelling evidence that Trump may not be able to read, and has since followed up with another video really pushing the issue.[9] 

Trump not being able to read, or only being able to read at a fourth grade level, raises some serious concerns about his ability to serve as president. And not for the reasons that everyone else might suggest. Yes, reading sharpens mental acuity and provides one with the factual knowledge necessary to engage in higher order thinking.[10] And yes, not being able to read may increase the chances of someone signing off on orders they do not understand, such as when Trump appointed Steve Bannon to a seat on the National Security Council.[11] But people can still be great leaders even if they are not great readers. As an explanation for Trump’s apparent difficulty reading, Kristine Moore suggests that Trump may have dyslexia or Irlen Syndrome.[12] The ranks of the most successful entrepreneurs, artists, and scientists are littered with dyslexics and people with other learning disabilities. And Winston Churchill, who had Irlen Syndrome, became a great reader, writer, and leader. But the difference between Trump and Churchill is that the former is fixed mindset oriented, and the latter was growth mindset oriented.

Because Trump places so much value on inherent abilities and talents, he does not see the need to focus on developing them. And because Trump places so much value on what others think of him, he does not want anyone to recognize that he is flawed in any way. And he likely views his inability to read as a glaring flaw that he cannot psychologically afford being exposed to the wider public. Or he convinces himself that he is too important to waste his time reading.[13] In order to overcome this deficit, Trump goes out of his way to beat his chest about how smart, intelligent, and educated he is.[14] He loves to boast about his attendance at the Wharton School, and about the education pedigrees of those in his family.[15] He wants to believe, and wants you to believe, that degrees, even those earned by family members, are a better measure of his intellectual capabilities and curiosity than the ability to read is. But he cannot afford for you to believe that he cannot read. So he fakes it.

The danger of insecurity 

Insecurity in oneself is a natural outcropping of a fixed mindset, whether or not the fixed mindset people realize it. Trump comes across as excessively confident in his ability to produce great outcomes in whatever endeavors he chooses to engage in. For example, he constantly reminds people that he will “make America great again,” and that only he can make America great again, despite having never served in public office before. But because he is so resistant to learn from his mistakes, or admit that he is not talented in every possible way, he fails to benefit from the tremendous growth that is available to a man with his power and privilege. This leaves him quite insecure, in spite of his seeming confidence. This is visibly apparent when he tries to read in front of others, or discusses the topic of reading.[16]

The danger of insecurity lies in the potential response to insecurity. We have already highlighted how Trump responds to criticism; he evades and attacks. He evades by denial and attempts to change the subject. Historically, he has attacked through threats, lawsuits, and public beratings. However, now he has the tools of the presidency at his disposal. And for someone who feels it is more important to fake being able to read than actually learning how to read, this is worrisome. How does someone who is not fully capable of being president on day one, as nobody is, fake competence? Trump gave us insight into how he may try in his first ten days in office. Trump’s appeal to many of his supporters was that he would make America great again, whereas Obama was a failure and Clinton could only offer them more failures. In his eagerness to prove himself superior to Obama, who he called the worst president in history, he allowed his staff to convince him to approve a risky military operation in Yemen by suggesting that Obama would never be so bold.[17] That raid was a disaster, leaving both an 8-year-old child and a Navy SEAL dead.

Trump’s inability to handle criticism coupled with the stresses of being president is likely to take a tremendous toll on him. Given Trump’s fixed mindset, as people continue to question Trump’s actions and positions, and as he fixates on their opinions through social media and cable news, his attempts to convince people of his competence and intelligence may become more and more desperate. He has already publicly questioned the integrity of the judges who presided over lawsuits against him and who blocked his executive orders, and he has threatened to destroy the career of a Texas politician who opposes asset forfeiture.[18] Would he be willing to direct federal agencies to go after political enemies? Would he be willing to punish corporations that do not show allegiance to his administration or refuse to do business with any of the Trump organizations? Would he be willing to engage in trade wars with countries that do not fall in line? Would he be willing to escalate international disagreements into military conflicts for the sake of rallying the American people around his presidency? 

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.
~ Hermann Göring

Trump’s fixed mindset orientation is a significant barrier to his growth. Such a mindset has left him unwilling to learn from his mistakes, and unable or unwilling to read. There is no such thing as an average person, much less someone who excels in all aspects of life.[19] Many people have weaknesses, and many people have overcome challenges, just as people with dyslexia or Irlen Syndrome can and do lead remarkable lives.[20] But in order to do so, they have to be willing to seek out the resources and tools that will help them thrive, and they need to recognize that learning differences or disorders, or one’s station in life, are not badges of shame. This is a hurdle Trump cannot get over. But as dangerous as his fixed mindset is to his growth, it is far more dangerous to society.


Graphic: From Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

1.     Carol Dweck, Mindset

2.     I am not unique in noticing Trump’s fixed mindset. “The Mindset That Leads People to Be Dangerously Overconfident,” Harvard Business Review; “Trump and Hillary Show Totally Opposite Success Mind-sets,” New York Magazine; “This Election Comes Down to Who Has the Better Mindset,” Inverse

3.     Donald Trump believes he was born to be king,” Los Angeles Times

4.     Hundreds allege Donald Trump doesn’t pay his bills,” USA Today

5.     Trump's 3,500 lawsuits unprecedented for a presidential nominee,” USA Today; “The ~20 Times Trump Has Threatened To Sue Someone During This Campaign,” FiveThirtyEight 

6.     An Exhaustive List of the Allegations Women Have Made Against Donald Trump,” New York Magazine

7.     This Election Comes Down to Who Has the Better Mindset,” Inverse

8.     In Mindset, Dweck highlights the ignominious fall from grace of multiple individuals, including Lee Iacocca, Al Dunlap, Kenneth Lay, and Jeffrey Skilling. She could have easily provided profiles of politicians whose fixed mindsets led to their downfall, as well.  

9.     Uh-Oh: Does Donald Trump Know How to Read?,” The David Pakman Show; “WOW: Trump Fails Basic Literacy Test,” The David Pakman Show

10.  Schools Focus on Teaching Shallow Knowledge, But Fail,” Abrome

11.  Trump and Staff Rethink Tactics After Stumbles”, New York Times

12.  Can Donald Trump Read Beyond a Fourth Grade Level? [Opinion]”, The Inquisitr News

13.  Donald Trump doesn’t read much. Being president probably wouldn’t change that,” The Washington Post

14.  Donald Trump's myths about himself,” Chicago Tribune; “'I'm, like, a really smart person': Donald Trump exults in outsider status,” The Guardian

15.  Trump’s repeated references to his attendance at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which he transferred to after two years at Fordham University, are well documented. For examples, see the sources in the prior note and in the article, “Trump flaunts Wharton degree, but his college years remain a mystery,” The Daily Pennsylvanian. Trump has also been documented focusing on the intelligence of family members to suggest that he is intellectually gifted, particularly a well-respected uncle who taught at MIT. “Donald Trump’s Nuclear Uncle,” The New Yorker

16.  WOW: Trump Fails Basic Literacy Test,” The David Pakman Show

17.  Donald Trump's staff get him to agree to policies by saying ‘Obama wouldn't have done it’,” The Independent

18.  Trump Says Judge’s Mexican Heritage Presents ‘Absolute Conflict,’” Wall Street Journal; “Trump lashes out at ‘so-called judge’ who temporarily blocked travel ban,” The Washington Post; “Donald Trump Threatens to ‘Destroy’ Texas Senator,” The Daily Beast

19.  Any System Designed Around the Average Person is Doomed to Fail,” Abrome

20.  Richard Branson has dyslexia, Temple Grandin is autistic, Mark Zuckerberg had social anxiety. The list of people who have overcome hurdles in their lives to achieve extraordinary levels of success is far too long to list out. 


Election 2016: Democracy and Education

It is Election Day 2016, and as I look around at Abrome, I recognize that the people in our community who will be most impacted by this election are the ones who are too young to vote. Our Learning Coaches (the adults) each voted early, although I would be willing to bet that none of them did so enthusiastically. No matter what your political affiliation or orientation, I think most of us can agree that the 2016 election has brought out the worst in many, and that it highlights some glaring flaws in the American political system.

First and foremost, the political system is not democratic by any means. As I previously alluded to, not everyone has a say in who is elected. Children, high numbers of the infirm or mentally disabled, many homeless, most incarcerated felons, many ex-felons, residents of US territories, and foreign nationals are locked out of the process, even though they most often feel the brunt of public policy decisions.

Among those who can vote, the process is still not truly democratic. Voter turnout issues aside, a vote in New Hampshire carries more weight than a vote in Wisconsin, which carries more weight than a vote in California. This is a function of the Electoral College, and clearly violates the notion of “one person, one vote.” And even if all votes were equal, those who directly and heavily contribute to candidates have an outsized influence on the policy positions that those candidates take once in office.

Add on top of the undemocratic nature of these elections from the people’s perspective, the two-party system that has a tight grip on the electoral process makes the notion of democracy in politics a laughable one. The parties are semi-private organizations that cater to a tiny number of powerful constituencies that are out of step with the majority of Americans, but the overwhelming majority of voters believe that they must fall in line behind one of the main party candidates on Election Day.

So what does this have to do with education? Considering that schools are a key tool used to prepare young people for engagement in society, a considerable amount. Unfortunately, the roles current students are being trained to hold in society are not nearly as idealistic as we have been led to believe. Fundamental to the purpose of schooling was a sorting function to create different classes of people, most of which were to serve at the convenience of those who controlled society. While the makeup of the people who control society has evolved, and while there is a greater possibility for mobility from the lowest classes to the controlling classes today than when the schools were created, from a functional perspective modern day schools further entrench disparities instead of serving as a great equalizer. And as noted before, inequality is incompatible with true democracy.

There is a nation-wide collection of “Democratic Schools” that argues that by creating democratic settings in the schoolhouse, where every child has as much of a say as every adult, that we can create a democratic society where the people take control of the political machine. Although we love Democratic Schools, we disagree with this hypothesis.

Democracy is not a silver bullet solution to our problems, as any black man in East Texas or any homeless man in the streets of San Francisco might be able to attest to. Democracy in its worst form allows for the minority to be abused by the majority. It is essential that an enlightened society respect the rights of all people, in spite of biases and privilege. While we agree that there is tremendous value to be gained by giving young people as much of a voice as adults in schools—promoting democracy in education does not solve the problems of the status quo, and in many ways it serves as a distraction.

So how can education get us to a better future? Three powerful ways it can move us there are (1) by promoting empathy within the populace, (2) by creating an informed, thoughtful populace that is not easily moved by false promises or dogmatic rhetoric, and (3) by allowing all members of society to believe they can improve the human condition.

First, many of the problems of our political system revolve around a fear or hatred of the other. These manifest themselves most powerfully in an anti- stance against entire communities such as black people, immigrants, Muslims, Jewish people, people with mental illness, the homeless, drug users, and people who identify as LGBTQ, among others. Politicians recognize this fear and often times play on it, promising policies that will directly harm these groups so that the bulk of voters can feel safer in the status quo.

An Emancipated Learning environment that embraces diversity of people, ages, and ideologies would directly undermine the divisions that require a lack of empathy to sustain. When people are introduced to those they are told to be scared of, they quickly recognize that we are all far more alike than we are different. Diversity brings tremendous value to our lives in terms of enrichment, creativity, and connection. The age diversity component of empathy building cannot be emphasized enough. In most schools we segregate children by age, taking away a critical opportunity for them to develop empathy by way of caring for those who are younger than them.

Second, our current political system requires a largely uniformed or apathetic populace. This may sound pessimistic, but it is easily affirmed by looking at what politicians promise and what their donors advocate, and comparing them with the decisions politicians make once in office. While society is much better off now than it was a century ago, there are still large swaths of the American populace that are marginalized or oppressed by the political and private institutions that most accept as necessary. An informed populace that also has empathy for marginalized and oppressed communities would not tolerate the current structure of society.

An Emancipated Learning environment, free of a status quo promoting standardized curriculum, and free of hierarchical structures that demand subservience, allows Learners to seek truth in their world. It allows them to question narratives that are presented to them, and to have the courage to seek out alternative explanations, or novel solutions. These people are far less likely to be moved by empty promises or exaggerated threats.

Third, our political system is tailored to appeal to the belief that we cannot improve the world around us. We are left to look for saviors who will come in and manipulate the political institutions to organize society in a way that benefits us, most often at the expense of others. It is not a system that encourages people to try to create a better society for themselves. It tells people that a vote every several years is how one performs their civic duty, while suggesting that how they spend the rest of their lives is irrelevant (except when politicians decide to alter their daily behavior for the benefit of others). 

An Emancipated Learning environment would reject the notion that our value can be captured in a vote. Instead, it would remind us that we can all lead remarkable lives—lives in which we have a positive impact on the communities around us. It allows us to realize that we can be happy, healthy, and serve others so that we can all be better off. And these people are the ones who do not need to rely on the established institutions that have left them virtually powerless.

On Election Day 2016, our Learners are unable to vote on the person who is going to have an outsized impact on their lives over the next decade, for better or worse. But far more importantly, they are in an educational environment that allows them to recognize that they can transcend the limitations of electoral politics. These Learners know that they can purposefully and directly improve the human condition.


Photo: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nominees (Wikipedia)