When you read a book about leadership, does it matter if the author was reported to have had an affair?
One of my favourite thinkers and writers, Derek Sivers, has a great answer: “what matters is what I get out of their work, not the person who made it.”
When reading a book, evaluate the ideas, not the person. If the idea from the author has merit, then contend with that idea. Engage with it, steal it, transform it. Let him evaluate his moral problems - it’s none of your business.
Not everything is as neatly packaged into atomic units like ideas are. But even so, it is still important to ask the question.
Let’s take another example: hiring people.
What needs evaluating when we are interviewing to hire a new employee? Here are some things we might evaluate:
Does she have the skills for the job? Can she communicate clearly? Can she accept and improve from feedback? Can she admit not knowing something? Is she helpful?
And here are some things we should not even try to evaluate because they are irrelevant:
Does she agree that Joe Biden won the elections in 2020? Is she good-looking? Does she pay her taxes? Is she faithful to her partner? Where is she from?
Remember what needs evaluating here.
A person’s past is trickier, but it should not directly weigh on our evaluation either. The only exception applies when we ask ourselves and confirm that, this thing from the past? Yeah, it falls into our evaluation criteria in this context.
For example, if we somehow knew that the candidate got fired from her previous job, we can ask her about it during the interview. But should her being fired be of any immediate consequence?
No, unless her behaviour during the interview indicates that she is likely to do poorly in one of our evaluation criteria, like, say, being able to accept and improve from feedback.
To be fair to others and to yourself (with your time), always ask yourself, what needs evaluating here? Then confidently discard everything else as noise.