So Called Experts, that is
My latest gripe is about something I, like any professional who has any interaction with the internet, encounter almost daily. And I simply cannot conjure up the figurative numbness needed to avoid cringing when I encounter it. I’m talking about self proclaimed “experts”, or to be a bit more jargon-y, “thought leaders.”
You know the type.
They spend more of their time shamelessly self-promoting on LinkedIn. They do so with posts that separate sentences into different paragraphs. This forces you to click “show more” when you’re actually in the mood to self-flagellate by willingly subjecting yourself to their drivel. You must be if you do click, since moving on is so much easier.
Alongside their mundane titles are miniscule descriptions separated into imaginary superlatives. These are equal parts indulgent, fantastical, and arbitrary, generally speaking. For instance, it might read something like “53X President’s Club Winner| Cryptocurrency Mogul | Forbes 33 1/2 Under 33 1/2 | (insert cookie cutter job title here) Ninja”.
Becoming an “Expert” is too easy
If you want to really understand just how easy it is to fake expertise, borrow, don’t buy, a copy of “The 4-Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferriss.
I bought this book for about $10 and still felt bad about it. I learned I too can get swept up in the deluge of pretend expertise on the internet and in the real world.
You’ll find in this book a method of dubious ethics, at best, of becoming an expert. Or, at least, fooling most people into thinking you’re an expert. Start on page 167. The step by step blueprint begins on page 170 and contains a few steps to becoming recognized as an expert including:
1) Join two or three related trade organizations with official sounding names.
2) Read the top three selling books on your topic.
3) Give one free seminar at the closest well known university (because they just invite anyone to speak at seminars after all *sarcasm)
4) Offer to write one or two articles for trade magazines (Again, because they’ll just let anyone do it *sarcasm)
5) Join ProfNet
I don’t know how effective this method is, but the fact that someone can publish this pretentious drivel and call it wisdom should tell you everything you need to know about the quality of expertise on topics people commonly seek information for on the interwebs, like IT and cyber security trends, general business, and even, gasp, entrepreneurship.
As a Wantrepreneur, How I Really Feel About “Experts”
I want to pause my rambling for a moment. I need to point out that I am absolutely NOT anti-expertise, anti-education, anti-science, or anything analogous. Quite the opposite. I am very pro-all of those things. So much so in fact, and that’s why I find myself disturbed by people who proclaim themselves experts. It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t validate their imaginary expertise with endorsements from the echo chamber they shout so loudly into.
Actual experts, like scientists, doctors etc, whose work is empirically validated and subjected to the rigors of the peer-review process, are, in my opinion, the most praise-worthy members of society.
It’s their work that betters us as a society and species. Yet so often we take a passionately anti-science and education stance when discoveries don’t conform to our biases and preconceptions. We so willingly support faux-experts because they saturate the spaces we dwell in with banal “thought leadership”.
Modern society, at least in the United States, is due for a reckoning because of its strident anti-intellectualism, and I can’t help but think the abundance of pretend-experts, who are inundating us with bullshit, are leading us to reject actual expertise by causing within us a sort of general fatigue with expertise.
We, the consumer of these bite sized nuggets of fortune cookie quality wisdom have a role to play in this tragicomedy as well. Basically, we say “thank you, may I have another” every time someone gets up on their soapbox. There’s nothing brilliant or insightful about repeating “trust the process”, especially if you can’t explain what that even means. But in the comments section of the social media posts such trite unoriginality appears in are comments like “amen”, “I agree” and “that’s so insightful!”
Really? What’s insightful about that? What did you glean from that you didn’t already know?
If You’re Really Convinced These “Experts” are Everywhere, Why Can’t You Act Like One?
You can’t be anything other than an agreeable bobblehead if your knee jerk response to simple platitudes is equally as bereft of thought. Subsequently, you’ll only ever get more of the same tired bullshit from the “thought leaders”. You’re justinspiring them to inundate the world with more cliches. An endless feedback loop of hackneyed wisdom, validation, hackneyed wisdom is created from this. It makes the world more and more stupid by the day.
This is how echo chambers are created. We slavishly devote ourselves to lapping up whatever we already know to be true. We do crave knowledge and opportunities to learn. But by buying in to the first general, and generally useless, truisms we encounter, we ironically don’t learn anything.
Confidence goes hand-in-hand with conviction. When the LinkedIn experts say something with enough conviction and project that confidence, it can cause us to doubt the doubts we may have about what they’re saying. This, combined with our fear of being exposed as wrong, or being cast out of the tribe for daring to have a different view, is a sort of mental brow-beating that enforces conformity. That conformity is a defense mechanism against what we may fear most, pariah status. Humans are social creatures after all.
It’s Been Happening Longer Than You Think
Right now I’m reading a book called The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis, author of such well known books as The Big Short, Moneyball, and The Blind Side, among several others.
The first chapter talks about the career of Daryl Morey, including his time as general manager of the Houston Rockets. Morey went from obscure to infamous in basketball circles for helping turn the Rockets around as a franchise. He made them perennial contenders during his tenure by eschewing conventional wisdom around basketball talent scouting and evaluation. It had been entirely based on feelings and intuition until Morey decided on using data.
This seems pretty sensible in hindsight, but of course, challenging conventional wisdom tends to inspire backlash. Some strong, though anecdotal, evidence of my earlier contentions about how mainstream thought does not like to be challenged came from Hall of Fame player and TV analyst Charles Barkley, who had a strong reaction to Morey’s approach saying “…I’m not worried about Daryl Morey. He’s one of those idiots who believes in analytics…I’ve always believed analytics was crap…Listen, I wouldn’t know Daryl Morey if he walked in this room right now…The NBA is about talent. All these guys who run these organizations who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common: They’re a bunch of guys who ain’t never played the game, and they never got the girls in high school and they just want to get in the game.”
Morey learned earlier on in his life that the experts were largely making things up. It was a requirement to be sure of what you were saying at all times. He learned that after being turned down for an interview at McKinsey, a well known consulting company, because he had the audacity to hedge against the claims he was making by admitting he could be wrong.
What Do Experts Want, and What Do People Want From Them?
The experts wanted only unwavering certainty, which, when you think about it, no sane person should ever really have. Humans are fallible, and usually, a lot more stupid than they realize. They expected other experts to have the unwavering certainty in their expertise they had. There’s almost always as much, if not more, we don’t know about something than we do. Clearly, pretentious people masquerading as experts has been going on since long before LinkedIn.
That’s not to say the sensible thing to do is to outright reject everything you hear from the so-called experts. Or anyone else for that matter. That requires as little critical thought as simply taking something at face value. Shouting “fake news” at every publication that says something contrary to your own views is as senseless as simply accepting it as truth on its face.
Even Descartes’ Cartesian Doubt, which I mentioned previously, didn’t mean rejecting things outright. It’s about doubting them to the point you could break them down into components that could not be broken down any further, so you can start building your way to the truth.
But, it seems like the folks understood something crucial about business. You have to project a sort of infallibility. Their customers wanted the consultants they paid so much for to absolve them of doubt. This is why online experts have such hubristic conviction. They know it sells, even if they know it’s irrational.
What Should You Do When You Encounter These Experts?
Rather, the smart thing to do is to carefully examine the claim and come to a conclusion based on thoughtful analysis. And no, you probably haven’t done that if you’re responding to a comment a few seconds after reading it.
To summarize this point a bit more succinctly, if you do agree with what a LinkedIn expert says about something, be prepared to explain why it’s insightful, or why it’s wrong if it is, or what parts are right and what parts are wrong.
Critical thinking isn’t enough on its own to turn vapid pseudo-wisdom into intellectual stimulating and useful dialogue. Courage, Peter Thiel’s favorite quality in employees and entrepreneurs, is what’s also required.
When you have thought through what someone is saying and concluded it’s wrong, tell them, and tell them why. Don’t be afraid to be wrong yourself, because if you are, then you’ve learned something and become better for it.
And don’t be afraid to be ostracized for independent thought. If someone threatens to not include you in a group because you dared to challenge them, you don’t want to be a part of that group, especially if they can’t provide an effective counterargument to the objections you raised. It might be a very dangerous group, one that wants to part you from your money in exchange for a worthless product, or wants to serve you cyanide laced Kool-Aid.
It’s Not Just the “Experts” Misusing the Virtual Soapbox Either
Usually, the situation isn’t as dramatic as a doomsday cult scenario and you’re not in danger of being forced to commit suicide, though some of the things people say online is are so cringeworthy, the thought is almost appealing.
One guy I saw post in a social media platform I’m on said “my biggest flaw, I care too much about people”, without being asked, of course. I mean, talk about desperately searching for an ego boost. Reading that took two seconds of my life I’ll never get back.
I also read a post from a “life coach” about horoscopes that segued into a empty spiel about goals and such for 2021. You know, what everyone else tends to spew about this time of year with so many words that convey little, if any, real meaning.
Last, But Not Least, What do these Experts Have to Do With Entrepreneurialism?
Well, this is certainly one of my most negative posts. Up until now, I’ve only spoken about all that’s wrong with this picture, so I’ll pivot towards what lessons can be gleaned from all this as a way of not only finding a silver lining, but making my diatribe useful for entrepreneurs.
The first lesson has to do with the power of self promotion. As much as I disdain how many self professed experts and thought leaders go about promoting themselves, I respect the drive to self promote. I’m here doing it myself, so I can’t criticize wanting to promote one’s “personal brand” as dehumanizing a concept it is. I just don’t like people either explicitly or tacitly applying the label of expert to themselves when it isn’t warranted.
Brand promotion, both the sentient and non-sentient kind, is a big part of entrepreneurialism. Boldly promoting yourself will help you reach your intended audience, a crucial step in achieving entrepreneurial success. There’s something else admirable about people so courageous to perform this self promotion. It’s just that, it’s courageous. This is something I’ve pointed out here and in other posts is perhaps the most crucial quality for an entrepreneur to have. At least, according to Peter Thiel. Make no mistake, these social media experts are entrepreneurs, of a sort at least. What I’m saying is, the audacity of LinkedIn experts is worth emulating.
The second lesson to learn piggybacks off of the first. While you are trying to promote your brand(s), you will have a lot of noise to try and separate yourself from.
The internet and social media have given everyone a platform, which is useful for anyone trying to promote brand awareness. This is true for both you the aspiring entrepreneur, and anyone else. Marketing, sales, and other parts of an entrepreneur’s business are more empowered than ever. But like anything else, the reach technology has given us has its drawbacks. Everyone else being so empowered is one of them.
So, for the final lesson. You must be more careful than ever about the advice and wisdom you find on the internet, particularly social media. Most of it is of dubious quality.
Whatever you find that resonates with you, or seems pertinent or useful in any way, verify it against other sources. Multiple times. Don’t just read something that appears insightful and believe it as god’s honest truth. I know this seems like an obvious refrain. But in the moment, when we encounter social media pontification, this notion isn’t always present in our minds. So reminders like this one can help make it more present more often.
You’ll also have to trial and error a lot of what you learn and discover the hard way they are in fact, bullshit. Even when you have verified that multiple credible sources have all agreed upon it. Such is one of the pitfalls of entrepreneurship I’m afraid.
Call to Action
Let’s all clean up the content on the internet, our biggest source of news, information, and so much more. We can do this by not failing to question both the motivation and wisdom behind predictable posts like “Just a reminder, be kind” and contribute more in turn than “thanks, we could always use the reminder”. Because feeling good after such an exchange isn’t a good thing. Rather, we should feel bad about the fact that we might need such reminders in the first place.
Like always, you know what to do. Leave a comment, argue with me, or amplify the echo of my irreverent opinions down the chamber.