How to call bullshit on a guru

The longer I’m a professional expert the more I worry about becoming lost without knowing it. Many experts speak as if they’re always right and never wrong. They lecture as if we are too stupid to do in a year what they could do in a day, even though they’ve rarely done anything they’re advising us to do themselves (or haven’t in many years). We’re attracted to confidence and want to have faith, but we are all easily fooled by the superficials and forget to question the fundamentals.

Here’s a list of ways you can help ground experts in all fields and keep their egos in check with reality:

  • Ask “have you done this yourself?” Most gurus haven’t been practitioners in a long time. It’s easy to forget the difference between giving advice to do X and actually doing X.  And the longer its been since they’ve done X, the easier X will seem to be. Of course, just because a guru hasn’t done it doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it just means they might need to ease up on the arrogance, or seek out more examples.
  • Ask “How do you know what you know?” Phrases like “studies say”, “I have seen”, “the leading theory is” are all possibly bogus phrases. What study? Where did you see this? Who says it’s the leading theory? Don’t let an expert’s assumptions not sound like assumptions.
  • Ask “When is the theory you are advocating wrong?” Nothing works all the time. A smart person is aware of the limitations of any idea or practice. Ask them to explain the alternative of their position, and when they might take it.
  • Look for admissions of mistakes and failures. Someone who never admits they are wrong is dangerous. If they’re so smart, and they’ve never failed, it just means they’re a coward. But if they’ve failed and never talk about it, they project an unreal image of what is to be a human being. It’s harder to learn from aliens than humans, I think. Ask for stories of mistakes and failures, their own or others. This will force any true guru into open and honest territory where they can be of greater use to you.
  • Ask “Why do so many people fail at this?” From starting companies, to losing weight, to writing books, our most popular experts offer advice on things most people why try fail to achieve. A wise person will answer this question with some acknowledgment of how hard the thing is to do.  But there is an ego trap in this question: I once heard a famous consultant say, in response, “because not enough people follow my advice”.

Things not to do:

  • One factual error doesn’t dismiss a theory or a person. Factual errors are everywhere. Many good books contain them and it’s hard as a writer to sort through the origin of every fact. The existence of a mistake does not mean the premise of the author, or expert, is wrong and our tendency towards confirmation bias leads us to dismiss sound ideas that have simply chosen a poor source. It indicates a mistake in research, which all popular research has. Its maddening when someone finds I misquoted someone, or got a fact wrong, and assumes all  my quotes and dates are wrong. You can criticize someone’s research but still buy the premise and theory, as some facts are less important than others. Instead look  for experts who make changes to their work when they learn of mistakes and grow from it. (Just fyi, there is a list of mistakes from the 1st edition of The Myths of Innovation that were corrected in the paperback edition).
  • Use an expert as your negative stepping stone. This is the definition of a heckler. They want to steal thunder and use someone else’s platform as a launching point for their own.  This rarely works as it doesn’t earn real fans. Critiquing, especially venomous criticisms, is  easier than creating. In life you score more points for building on what people say, not tearing it town. If tearing something down is necessary to create a better theory, that’s fine, but people often forget that second part.
  • Demand instant satisfaction. Sometimes when I’m stumped, I say: “send me that question in email and I’ll blog about it, with a better answer”.  This is not a cop-out if I follow through. I may have a good answer, or know a fact, but not be able to access it in real time (the older I get, the more true this will be). The goal is the truth, not how fast  I can access it. Asking a guru to follow up on their blog about something is a totally reasonable request, and it’s one I love to hear.

What other points would you recommend to authors and experts who want to avoid becoming jerk gurus?

[Post updated 12-18-13 and 9-5-14 with minor edits]

51 Responses to “How to call bullshit on a guru”

  1. D. Simms

    I do like the first (personal experience, if in a separate field) and third (mistakes).

    Another way to tell is, “how interested is this guy in understanding my problem(s)?”. If they’re not, then they’re a hammer looking for nails, or you should just buy their book or read their blog or such. The shorter-term the gig, the more that this may not be practical. But this is also good question for consultants to ask too. First, this is one of the primary ways that consulting is fun and interesting. Second, if the client isn’t interested in this, then the engagement is a lecture (and not so much consulting) isn’t it?

    This shows up in other areas too, say in architecture, where often designers will treat users purely as lusers and discount their views (which is well on the other side of healthy the opposite problem: users designing themselves).

    Reply
  2. Scott

    I like the “how interested is this guy in my problem”.

    To be interested means they’re at least they are listening to what you have to say.

    Reply
  3. Matt Moore

    I like this Scott, I think I’m going to have to pinch it (with full attribution).

    Three additional things:
    - How do they talk about their peers? (i.e. other gurus in the same or related fields) Is it to acknowledge their ideas or just to put them down?
    - Do they ever answer a question with “I don’t know, I’ll have to think about that someone more”. If they have an answer for everything then either the questions or the answers aren’t that great.
    - D. Simms’ point about be interested is pretty gosh darn important as well. “Interested” = “Listening” + “Valuing”. Some gurus don’t listen (bad!). Other gurus listen but don’t seem to value what other people have to say (also bad!)

    I think why you call BS on a guru is also important. If it’s just to score points then that’s a bit sad (as your two “what not to do” examples indicate). It should be because you want them to be better at what they do and how hey do it.

    Reply
  4. Daisy Lowe

    As long as you keep on making blog posts like this one, I don’t think you’re in too much trouble of becoming an asshole. ;-)

    To relate my own experiences, a few years back I was caught in a company that was desperately trying everything in the agile book to rescue its failing productivity. World-renowned consultants were drawn in from far and wide, but the one common trait was that they were all, in hindsight, “guru asshole types”. Each had his/her own angle to push and each refused to acknowledge that it might not work in all situations. I knew in my gut that I was being asked to do things that flew right in the face of productivity and yet that’s what I was being asked to provide. Eventually, I quit the company.

    Around that time, I also attended a number of agile conferences (3 consecutive years of one particular conference), initially as a believer, but later as a skeptic. The final one of these was, however, the best; more of the attendees were starting to question the techniques being espoused and the claims being made. They were calling bullshit on them. The visibility of the gurus’ blinkeredness was much more apparent. And yet, at that same conference, they had easily the best keynote I’ve ever seen. It was given by Tim Lister and the sense of balance he demonstrated was a major contrast to that in other talks. I’ve got a lot of respect for him from that. Maybe one day I’ll get to check out one of your talks first-hand too.

    Anyway, keep it up. Enjoying your honesty and pragmatism.

    Reply
  5. Shel Horowitz

    Yeah, that smugness, that arrogance of never being wiling to admit wrong is extremely dangerous. Look at the mess we got into in Iraq–how much of that was because George W. was unwilling to admit that he could make mistakes? Or how many people got taken by Madoff and his ilk because they never thought to question his guru-hood.

    I’m currently revising a book I wrote in 2003, and I realize that even in that short time, plenty of things have changed. The day I stop learning and growing is the day I die (I hope). Constant learning mode is fun, if tiring. :-)

    What does amaze me is how much of the advice I’ve given out over the years, all the way back to my first marketing book in 1985, is actually still relevant. A surprising number of the basic concepts are still sound; it’s just a matter of adding more in the arsenal (e.g., blogs, Twitter, Facebook) and of tweaking the recipes for things that no longer work in the same way–but the basic idea of give-to-get that I advocated in 1985 still holds, as do the fundamentals but NOT the specifics of (for instance) how to get media publicity.

    OTOH, the way I think about copywriting now is completely different than it was in, say, 1990.

    Reply
  6. Kerry

    What gets me is when you try to talk to a consultant after a conference presentation and ask deeper questions about their experience on what they presented and all they do is try to push their business card on you without listening to you.

    Reply
  7. Drew Boyd

    My favorite question for innovation “gurus” is: “Do you know how to innovate?”

    If they say ‘yes,’ then I follow it with an even better question: “How?” That usually does the trick.

    Scott, thanks for putting the “moose on the table.”

    Reply
  8. Kirkistan

    Scott,

    I find myself recommending your blog to more and more people, so thought I would thank you for writing. Thanks for sharing your insights. I learn something from every entry, including this one. Plus–I love your lecturing style. I start next week teaching college students about writing and I covet the energy you bring to the lecture hall.

    Kirkistan

    Reply
  9. Jen Harris

    Guru’s and Experts.
    Very few exist in SM…literally a handful have the right to say they are this.
    We have a few people here in town that have been successful with their SM efforts for their business & I applaud them…but don’t tell me you are now an expert after 6 months when I have been pulling teeth for 3.5 years w/this “stuff”.
    I have NEVER called myself an expert – why? Because I have missed a four hour window here and there of being “on”.
    Cheers!
    -jen
    @jenharris09

    Reply
    • Gary Howard

      This whole thread is so enlightening. I like learning more than I like knowing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t go over too well in my job interviews!

      Reply
  10. Eric Nehrlich

    One thing that differentiates jerk gurus from humble ones is that the humble ones look for opportunities to learn from (and help) others. Even an idea that is terribly flawed in its initial presentation can contain a seed of insight, and a “good” guru helps people nurture that seed rather than being a jerk and tearing apart the idea. Plus, collaborative ideas are often better than what any individual person can discover.

    Reply
  11. James Bach

    This is a good list!

    Have you done this yourself? :-)

    One of my fondest memories as a speaker is of the guy in the front row who looked at one of my graphics, which showed a set of behaviors in increasing order of rigor, and asked me “Can’t you make an equally good case that the rigor actually DECREASES in that order?”

    And then I realized, standing there, that my definition of rigor was arbitrary and that a large part of my talk was based on my own personal aesthetics, rather than rational argument from evidence.

    It was a good lesson. I became a much better critic of my own material after that.

    Reply
  12. Scott Berkun

    James:

    Love that story.

    I can’t say I’ve routinely done this explicitly in the middle of a talk, or in an essay. I could dedicate 5 minutes of every lecture, or a paragraph of every page, to this exercise, and I admit I don’t. Now and then I’ve done it, but certainly not a regular thing. When I’ve tried it, it seems to distract away from the narrative of whatever it was I was trying to do (or people in the room wanted me to be doing). And a good Q&A session inherently includes me being challenged or stretched in some way to either redefine my arguments, or restate them in a clearer way for the people in the room.

    But I definitely do think hard about counterarguments, and claims, and what I’m saying that I don’t mean to say. Especially in my books, I work very hard at this and trying to be careful about calling bullshit on myself. I don’t always get it right, but I’m trying to at least be sure that if I get it wrong, the way that i did it is easy for someone who knows more than I to call it out, and that I do something about it.

    Reply
  13. Giles (Webconomist)

    I always like these “reality check” posts on so-called “guru’s”, the part on distance from being a practitioner is so true. I always see the “guru” crap in Social Media and it does bad for a reputation in any industry. Perhaps none more so than marketing – which has failed the public miserably.

    I’d say: Discuss your failures and what you learned and always, always keep a hand in the cookie jar of “doing” versus “talking”. And don’t be afraid to ask insights from clients and audiences – collaboration is an amazing tonic.

    Reply
  14. James Riedy

    Only speak to your own experience. Do your best to avoid labeling other people or labeling their behavior. For example: “guru asshole types”

    Your “hate” of these people is about you and not about them, stop trying to make it about them by labeling their behavior.

    I respect that you acknowledge that you could use our help, that shows some humility. Kudos. My question to you is:

    Why do you feel compelled to call “bullshit?” Is it because someone is acting like an expert and you believe that they are wrong and you are right? Sounds like you’re doing exactly what you claim to hate them for – having confidence and conviction about what you are saying.

    How fully do you believe in what you are teaching? How confident are you in it?

    Calling “bullshit” on anyone seems kind of silly to me. Everyone is always right from their perspective. If you can understand the perspective from which someone could be right, then you could actually engage with them in real dialogue instead of calling “bullshit.” Which to me sounds more like intolerance for another person’s perspective.

    I hope my perspective helps. Thanks for asking for it.

    Reply
  15. Scott Berkun

    Hi James – thanks for making this into a dialogue.

    > Why do you feel compelled to call

    Reply
  16. Amber Weinberg

    This post is interesting because I wrote something similar on my blog last week. I’ve always been annoyed by self proclaiming experts and gurus – no one is really an expert in anything because they’ll always be someone better than you. It’s the people who don’t refer to themselves as one that are really the experts.

    Reply
  17. 90MilesNorth

    The web marketing “guru” plague is in full effect, as far as my personal experience goes. Unfortunately, I think a discipline like social media marketing breeds bullshit gurus. The relentless pursuit to become popular (via a brand, client, etc) combined with a lack of “real” gurus is a dangerous combination. I honestly don’t believe any of the hype about the big names in any industry. It’s like we have this desire to anoint someone the most badass next-big-thing, regardless of whether anyone actually deserves it.

    I’m starting to wonder if the best approach isn’t a neatly served verbal evisceration…optimized for the word “asshole.”

    Reply
  18. Ian Glendinning

    I like that advice … on the positive side knowing the limitations / imperfections of your own expertise – and the “hammer” to solve every user’s problem … but particularly the things not to do.

    Factual or rhetorical, the “critical” angle is only ever destructive … so should be reserved for fundamental theory breaking errors … not point scoring, intellectual pissing contests. That is never constructive.

    Reply
  19. Glen B Alleman

    What great advice. We see this all the time in the PM consulting business.
    My first question is “you have worked a program with this advice right?”

    Reply
  20. Deena

    I hate when people just make up their entire backgrounds.

    This one woman started making a certain craft a year after I had started. She had only been doing it a few months when suddenly she was an expert with vast experience at it. She would talk about how she was getting funding and a grant for a huge workshop and school to teach this craft.

    LOL she wasn’t even that good at it.

    Her bs managed to get her a job at some art center teaching beginner classes.

    I’m in IT now and I see it all the time. I get resumes across my desk claiming all this experience and degrees and I invite them in for an interview and they can barely speak English and know nothing about the most basic skills of the job but they are claiming to be some guru or senior level.

    I was burned one time in my early management days by hiring someone who managed to ace my interview and had all the right answers and seemed quite experienced.

    They lasted 6 months and although they claimed to be outgoing, they spent 90% of the time at their desk getting someone to translate things for them. I caught them on a forum asking how to write some type of report which was a very basic skill but they didn’t seem to know how to do.

    They claimed to have a certification but I found out they didn’t.

    The real experts seldom toot their own horns and usually get overlooked because the marginal people are out branding their bs and marketing themselves as “experts”.

    Reply
  21. Glen B. Alleman

    I rarely encounter the “bull shot guru,” not because they are not there, but because our domain screens them out before they can do any harm.

    But I encountered two of them late this year. One on a program we work and one who has somehow adopted me as his student.

    Your first question – have you done this yourself? – is now my opening question. It’s being picked up by other management on the program – Finance for example, now asked this “guru” have you made this work on other programs? Programs that occurred in the past 5 years using the current DCMA/DCAA guidance? “Well no,” is the answer. “Well then be quite,” is the response, “and listen to those who have applied DCMA/DCAA program accounting practices with the current FAR guidance.

    Thanks, as always for the wonderful blog.

    Reply
  22. Milan Davidovi?

    How do you know when you’re really following what’s true and not actually in pursuit of what sells? Not that the truth doesn’t sell, but the two aren’t necessarily the same.

    Reply
  23. Kimm

    I also encourage people to remember their choices and actions are their own responsibility – don’t abdicate to so-called
    experts. Just because they’re an expert doesn’t NECESSARILY make them more right than you. They may not even know more than you do on their chosen topic. No matter how smart or how invested they might be, it’s YOUR network, YOUR project, business, job, and/or life so you owe it to yourself to understand what they’re advocating and whether and how well it applies to your situation.

    Reply
  24. Paul Higgins

    Scott,

    Working as a futurist I am always telling people that forecasting and predictions are virtually impossible and so they should listen to experts but not treat them as gurus. My advice is always “ask them to explain the underlying drivers that lead them to the position they are taking.Then you can critique their view and even if you think they are right if things change you will be able to readjust your own view”. Or “can they tell you a compelling and cogent story that has a logical consistency?”

    Cheers

    Paul

    Reply
  25. EricSB

    Heya Scott,

    I’ve been a fan of yours for a while and wanted to tell you that you’re not a jerk! In fact quite the opposite is true, you always seem to have time to talk to people that want to chat with you. This in of itself makes you accessible which is more than I can say for many many others in our indusry. I did buy two of your books at UI13 years ago and tried to follow the misakes on myths of innovation link and it gave me a 404.

    I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re doing a great job and are a long way away from beng the jerk/asshole guru you discuss in this post, trust me, I know plenty of them and you’re not one. :)

    -Eric

    See ya on Twitter. :)

    Reply
  26. iamronen

    Bullshit Guru’s feed ON you – it can be tricky to spot because you usually meet them in circumstances where they are expected to nurture you. If you feel empowered, curious, inspired, uplifted … then you have been given something. If you feel discouraged, empty, heavy … then you have been robbed.

    Also, look into her eyes and then look into your heart … if she makes you want to be like her walk away, if she makes you question yourself – stick around :)

    Finally, I would offer as a reflection this list, from my root context of Yoga, about the qualities of both student and teacher: http://iamronen.com/2009/08/student-teacher/

    Reply
  27. GTRyanA

    A good expert will be interested in explaining his premise as it pertains to the current audience he is trying to reach.

    If he’s saying the same thing every single time he writes or talks about his topic, it’s a red flag. It might be as simple as not being a very good speaker/writer, but it could also be a sign that whatever he’s talking about can’t hold up under any kind of fire.

    Reply
  28. Harry Longman

    A thought provoking blog and comments.
    Couple of things I find telling: does the speaker freely acknowledge the work of others on which he draws, or even reference his sources? A true guru would, of course.
    And does he talk about how he has tried to disprove his own theory? This is the heart of science.

    Reply
  29. Jeanne Trojan

    Thanks for this great post (yes, it took me a few years to find it…)
    Here in the Czech Republic, we are up to our eyeballs in Gurus/Experts/Ninjas (especially in Marketing and Social Media). I gave a short talk about it at WebExpo Prague last year http://vimeo.com/78118336
    I think another good bullshit filter is – do they call themselves gurus/experts/visionaries etc? If yes, it’s likely they’re full of shit :) It takes an amazing combination of ego and lack of self-awareness to give yourself this label, I think.
    I also recommend asking for real references on their work before hiring them. Too often we’re too trusting and believe what the ‘guru’ says about how knowledgeable they are.

    Reply
  30. jef

    There are gurus who do not call themselves gurus.
    There are nonconformist who think that they are just giving opinions.
    And there are ordinary persons like me who are amused by them.

    Thank you for your notes.

    Jef

    Reply
  31. James Smith

    The “How do you know?” question is my personal favorite. I am astounded at how often the question is simply ignored. That usually means they have no rational answer. In a way, that is an answer.

    Reply
  32. gary

    Great post. I meet ‘experts’ and ‘guru types’ every single day, and it never ceases to amaze me how bad some of them really are. I’m coming from a web design/ marketing background and will always be learning. Am I an expert – far from it. I have learnt to listen more and talk less and say I don’t know on a regular basis. Things change daily in the online world so experts come and go – some quicker than others.

    Cheers

    Reply
  33. Kristen Hicks

    I love your last point. I’m not a fast thinker and that’s one of several reasons I prefer email to phone – it gives me time to think through what I’m saying.

    I wouldn’t be much use on a desert island (or really any emergency situation), but in the life I live (as a writer), slow thinking works just fine.

    Reply

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  1. [...] How to call bullshit on a guru Scott Berkun is an amazing thinker about building cultures of innovation. In this piece, he helps pull the feathers off the typical guru. The ones that hate this piece are the target. There are a few “gurus” who hope you’ll try to debunk them. They’re the real keepers. Think of this as a guide to knowing which blogs to read. [...]

  2. [...] How to call bull**** on a guru While this is a great article, we in *no way* advocate actually contacting a self-proclaimed guru and saying “bull****!” Related posts:Twitter chatter: Using Web Analysis to Improve Government Tim Evans: Using Web Analysis to Improve Government Arguably one… [...]

  3. [...] How to call bullshit on a guru Scott Berkun is an amazing thinker about building cultures of innovation. In this piece, he helps pull the feathers off the typical guru. The ones that hate this piece are the target. There are a few “gurus” who hope you’ll try to debunk them. They’re the real keepers. Think of this as a guide to knowing which blogs to read. [...]

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