The Benefit of the Doubt

In his Akimbo podcast, Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

In this podcast, Seth discusses the notions of doubt and trust. Who gets the benefit of the doubt and why do they get it?

Being doubtful about someone we do not know well is human nature. It became clear to human beings early on that if we double-cross someone today, they are more likely to doubt us tomorrow. As a result, we developed bias toward good behavior to the people that we have intimate contact.

If someone is in our close circle, we do not charge them interest because we know we will get repaid. On the other hand, we do not feel the same courtesy for people who are outside our circle. We charge outsiders interest to mitigate the risk of non-paying. We have many doubts about people we do not know, so the rules were different for outsiders.

Doubt also led to the creation of money as a trading instrument. Money makes it easier to enforce and to trade debt. Debt and doubt go together next to each other.

Doubting the outsider is one way of thinking. We can also extend a benefit of doubt to someone we do not know well. The experience of Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer of Witchsy have taught us a lot about our culture in extending the benefit of doubt.

The problem is that great idea, hard work important connection, and forward motion is not dependent on things like race, accents, gender, or nationality. When we gravitate toward celebrities and other culturally-induced figures while leaving behind all the people who could contribute something, we are corroding our culture.

So, we look for a shortcut to judge because we are afraid and because we do not want to do the wrong thing. These shortcuts, while giving someone a pass, can also suppress opportunities for some people who deserve them. Some people were born on the 95-yard line of the 100-yard football field, and scoring a touchdown is nothing compared to somebody who had to overcome so much inequity of their whole life.

We need to recognize there are skilled, trustworthy, and hard-working people who may not look or talk like we do. We also need to be aware of our tendency to save time and effort by simply engaging with somebody who reminds us of someone we have picked before. This idea of the benefit of the doubt costs us time and money, and it also corrodes who we are because we often make bad choices about whom to give this benefit.

As we learned from the story of Billy Beane in Moneyball, there’s a huge economic and cultural incentive to find people who deserve the benefit of the doubt but have not gotten it. Because they are underutilized, they are more available to work with us and more likely to show up to support us for what we need to move forward.

What we are all finding is that excellence does not care what the person we are engaging with looks like, talks like, or even acts like. Excellence belongs to the people who have chosen to put effort into making it with the soft skills. Those are the attributes of honesty, integrity, effort, humor, creativity, and so on that we seek from people.

As we rewire our culture for a new age, one job is to figure out how to undo all those signals that were backward or non-relevant. By doing that, we can finally start giving the benefit of the doubt to the people who are doing the work to earn it.