The longer I’m in the business of giving people advice, the more I worry about losing perspective. It seems there are so many people that we call experts who speak to us as if we’re fools. We’re attracted to confidence and want to have faith, but we are all easily distracted by superficials and forget to question the fundamentals.
Here’s a list of ways to test if an expert is worthy of your respect:
- 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 something and actually doing it. And the longer its been since they’ve done it, whether it’s running a marathon or starting a successful business, the easier it will seem to be to them. Of course, just because an expert hasn’t done it themselves doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it just means they might need to ease up on the confidence they have in their own advice.
- Ask “How do you know what you know?” Phrases like “studies say”, “I have seen”, “the leading theory is” are all possibly bogus phrases. They demand someone ask: What study? Where did you see this? Who says it’s the leading theory? Don’t even let an expert’s assumptions float past you. A true expert will encourage you to ask questions and challenge what they say. The word guru itself means “someone who dispels darkness and ignorance” and anyone who uses that label should welcome the light your questions bring.
- 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. In any field there are always smart and respected experts who disagree on important subjects. A true expert will be well versed in the alternative arguments and comfortable exploring them with you.
- 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 and have never challenged themselves (despite the challenges they’re telling you to take) sufficiently to fail. But if they’ve failed and never talk about it, they project an unreal image of what is to be a human being. 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 to avoid so you don’t go too far:
When we’re looking for BS and find some we’re prone to going too far. Just because an expert has exaggerated their experience, or overstated the value of their advice doesn’t mean they have nothing of value to offer.
- 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. (there’s a list of mistakes from the 1st edition of The Myths of Innovation in the 2nd, and all books should do this).
- Use an expert as your negative stepping stone. This is what a heckler tries to do. They want to steal thunder and use someone else’s platform as a launching point for their own. 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, 9-5-14, and 3-31-16 with minor edits]