The longer I’m a professional expert the more I worry about becoming a guru asshole. These are the people who talk as if they’re always right and never wrong. They lecture as if we are too stupid to do in a year what the guru could do in a day, even though they’ve rarely done anything they’re preaching themselves, if ever at all.
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?” A wise person will answer this 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 software 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 gurus 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 harsh 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 build your 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 with minor edits]