This past fall, I bought copies of Carol Dweck’s Mindset for two of our new Learners. 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.
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. “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. 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. Additionally, he has been accused of assaulting women multiple times, and has been caught on audio joking about assaulting women.
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.” 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. In order to overcome this deficit, Trump goes out of his way to beat his chest about how smart, intelligent, and educated he is. He loves to boast about his attendance at the Wharton School, and about the education pedigrees of those in his family. 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.
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. 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. 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. Many people have weaknesses, and many people have overcome challenges, just as people with dyslexia or Irlen Syndrome can and do lead remarkable lives. 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.
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
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.