The Scout Mindset: Book Review
Why Some People See Things Clearly And Others Don't
In this newsletter, we’re all about mindset: understanding the difference between a helpful and not helpful mindset and applying the right mindset to the right situation. So the book The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef intrigued me.
This book compares the scout mindset to the soldier mindset.
The scout, as described by Galef, is constantly looking for new information, updating their map, and proving themselves wrong. While the soldier is defending their side, ignoring new information, and not seeking new information.
There are times and places for each of these mindsets (just like there is a time and place for a product mindset and other mindsets), but we need to be aware of the mindset we have so we don’t fall into common traps.
The scout mindset and the product mindset (as I’ve advocated in this newsletter) have many similarities, as we’ll discuss here, so let’s jump in to a few of the examples and key takeaways.
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As humans, we tend to see what we want to see, rationalize our beliefs and seek certainty rather than live with uncertainty.
All of this can lead us to miss the truth, though. Rather than see things how they are, we may see things how we wish they were, and try to defend them, rationalizing away evidence that doesn’t fit our beliefs and ignoring facts that cause us to doubt our preconceived notions.
This is what Galef calls the soldier mindset—defending a position rather than updating our own beliefs to better fit the world.
In her book, she argues we would be better served by adopting a scout mindset—adapting to change, dealing with uncertainty, and embracing facts and evidence as it comes.
She gives many examples of people and groups who have done this, and how we can do it as well. I’ve picked a few of my favorite to include below, and how we can apply them to our work and lives.
Thinking in Bets
We tend to be overconfident in our assessments of risk and probability. And we often think in terms of all or nothing. An event will happen or it won’t. It will rain or it won’t. We’ll be successful or we won’t. We’ll make the deadline or we won’t. And we are often overconfident, erring on the side of the positive far more often.
The ultimate outcome will be a yes or a no, one or the other, since most things are binary (they happen or don’t). But when we’re assessing the probabilities, we need to be more nuanced than that. We should calibrate our beliefs into confidence levels. How confident are you with this idea? How much would you wager? A week’s salary? A month’s?
By putting something at stake, it makes a belief more real and allows us to calibrate our confidence. We may initially feel very confident in an opinion (yes, we’ll make the deadline by Tuesday), but by making it more concrete with a level of confidence (an actual dollar amount or percentage), we can gauge exactly how confident we are. Would you wager a week’s salary that the team can deliver by Tuesday? What about a month’s?
This is critical for us as individuals, technologists and product people. How confident are we in the success of a product or feature? We may feel like it is a sure bet. We’ve done the research and have the data. And often that is what stakeholders and our businesses want to hear. But is it right? How much would you wager on that outcome? A month’s salary? A year’s?
Wouldn’t it be better (and more accurate) to give a confidence interval of 70% confidence (or some other level) given the factors you know? And confidence will increase as you release or decrease as other factors come into play. How can we do better at speaking this language and incorporating it into our processes?
There are two other books I think are excellent about this same topic. My favorite is The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova and another is Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke.
Galef also writes in her book that we shouldn’t look at errors or mistakes as massive problems, but as ongoing updates we all make.
This may be a big change to your mindset, to any of our mindsets, but it could be one of the best changes we make. Rather than mistakes being fatal or calling for major contrition, mistakes can just be part of the process that call for regular updates to our mental models.
In a study of superforecasters, Philip Tetlock found that amateurs regularly outperformed professionals. And it was because the amateurs were updating their models and forecasts far more often than the professionals. They weren’t tied to specific world views and were willing to make changes based on facts rather than the way they thought things should be.
I love this idea and want to make it more a part of my regular process. I feel like I’m constantly updating my thinking and processes in work and life, and you may see some of that in my writing, but I can certainly do more of it and do it more regularly. I’m sure each of us can.
Leaning into Confusion
Finally, Galef argues we need to lean into the confusion.
Life is never black and white, but is a million shades of gray. To be successful, we need to lean into that confusion and into the gray. We need to embrace the fact there aren’t often clear-cut answers.
In a story in the book, a London hospital of homeopathy had a much better record of treating patients for cholera than other hospitals at the time. But medical professionals at the time decided to ignore the results because they didn’t believe in homeopathic medicine and were confused by the reported results, so didn’t pursue them further. If they had, they would have learned that things like hygiene and hydration were contributing to better outcomes for patients, and could have improved outcomes for other patients, too.
If there was ever advice for product managers, leaning into confusion would be it. Often we find results that are confusing or don’t fit with our view of the world (like the idea that homeopathic medicine doesn’t work). Sometimes our observations will fit into the models we have, and other times they won’t. So we can either continue to persist with what we know, or lean into our confusion and curiosity and see where it leads.
And often, our curiosity and confusion will lead to better answers than we could have expected.
The Scout Mindset was a splendid book about what it takes to see the world as it is rather than how we’d like it to be.
The scout mindset mirrors the product mindset in so many ways—being endlessly curious, constantly updating our outlook and views with the latest information, and avoiding bias.
None of us is perfect. We can all improve how we approach our work and our lives, and this book has many tips on how to do just that. And as we improve little by little, we can see more clearly, be more rational, and embrace the truth, wherever it leads.
Other Good Links
The Road Out of Kyiv (article) - I don’t know what to say about everything that is happening in Ukraine. I tried on Twitter, but it’s such shifting ground right now. I feel for everyone over there. I have teammates who, a few days ago, I was working with daily and are now caught up in an invasion. It is insane.
When we heard that the government was handing out weapons to citizens who wanted them, we didn’t think anyone would get in line. But we’ve been told thousands of people are standing in line, old and young, to get these guns. I wonder if my neighbors can do it. Can Ukraine withstand the third largest army in the world? If you asked me Thursday, I’d think the chances were low. Now I am sure they will.
The US is at war with Russia: 4 scenarios from here (article) - Not to turn every link into Ukraine commentary, but it is obviously top of mind. There are a lot of good articles and pieces, but I’ve always been a fan of Eurasia group, even when we don’t agree. We used to speak to them regularly when I worked at a large investment bank, so I heard a lot from Ian and got to ask questions about world events and his take on things. He always was thoughtful and fair-minded in my experience, and I’ve appreciated that ever since.
So for now, at least I think we're heading towards more escalation. We'll see what that means. Of course, the danger is that the worse that gets, the more you've broken the relationship between the US, Europe and Russia in a way that is truly irreparable and in a way that implies... Remember, for the last 30 years, we've talked about a peace dividend from the Cold War, a peace dividend that we all benefited from. It's gone now. So now we're living in a world without that peace dividend. What does that mean? How much is that going to hurt us? We're about to find out.
The best books on Ukraine and Russia (article) - Sorry, not sorry? I’ve added these books to my reading list and you might find them interesting as well. I’m fascinated by history, but and admittedly ignorant of too much of the backstory right now. So I need to fix that.