Beware the Everyday Expert
by Daniel Gulati
Have you noticed that these days everyone seems to be an expert at something?
Does your boss give you unsolicited professional advice based on his own (self-proclaimed) stellar career? Do your colleagues email you stock tips after reading the morning news headlines?
Welcome to the age of the Everyday Expert.
In the past, those hoping to become career advisers, relationship counsellors, strategic business consultants or financial planners needed to spend years acquiring specialised skills and knowledge in a particular field to be recognised as an expert. But with the rise of social media, the path to expertise - or perceived expertise - has shortened dramatically.
Facebook and other social media platforms have ushered in an age of hyper-sharing, making knowledge more accessible than ever before.
SOCIAL MEDIA EXPLOSION
More than 30 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook every month among a community of over 800 million members. And it's easier than ever to publish your own content, using today's remarkably simple blogging platforms or short-form networks like Quora.
Perhaps the easiest way to self-publish is through Twitter, which is now adding 11 new accounts every second to its estimated 500 million users.
The social media explosion means that more content is reaching more people than ever before.
And now, almost anyone can read a few articles on Facebook, publish a couple of blog posts and start calling themselves an expert. But that doesn't necessarily mean you should listen.
In this new world of democratised expertise, who are we supposed to believe? Or in more practical terms, how can we tell which experts are likely to give us bad advice?
During my adventures as an entrepreneur, strategy consultant and author, I've encountered hundreds of famous, infamous, self-proclaimed and work-in-progress experts.
BE WARY OF THEM
Based on my experience, here are the five Everyday Experts you should be wary of, regardless of their field:
THE ALL-STAR ADVISER: This expert is a breakout success, so he advises you to simply follow in his footsteps. With a large dose of hindsight bias and a hint of condescension, he applies his own professional and personal successes to your situation, arguing that you should do what worked for him. And why shouldn't you?
Before you listen, consider whether his success was specific to his unique circumstances or more generalisable. Psychologists recognise how all-stars systematically undervalue situation-based explanations for their achievements.
THE BLOG BANDIT: This expert spends hours each day trawling the latest business and technology headlines, and passes off the hottest management theory or stock tip as his own idea.
Too afraid to adopt an original point of view, he prefers the comfort of conventional wisdom. This sheep won't part from the flock.
Consider whether the masses are right, or whether they're missing something fundamental. As content proliferates online, it's much easier to amplify information and mutually reinforce ideas, whether they're right or wrong. The overall effect is that false claims are often legitimised.
THE FAILED FORECASTER: This expert tries to predict the future by extrapolating linearly from past results. But with his incorrect underlying assumptions, he often produces disastrous forecasts, particularly for fast-moving innovation industries like technology.
Before you take this expert's advice, ask yourself how closely the future is likely to mimic the past and how much confidence you have in his core theories. A comprehensive study of 250 economic and political experts making 80,000 forecasts over 20 years suggested that, on average, they performed no better than dart-throwing monkeys.
THE PARTIAL PRO: This expert is compromised in a way that makes it impossible to give rigorous advice. Whether he's a Goldman Sachs analyst advising both sides of a business transaction or a tech journalist investing in start-ups, it's tough to give an expert opinion when he has a built-in bias.
To evaluate this expert's advice, first figure out whether he has hidden incentives. If so, consider what advice he would give without these conflicts of interest. Try to understand your source as comprehensively as possible - then make a judgment call about the value of his advice.
THE DELUDED DIRECTIONALIST: This expert confuses correlation with causation and falsely attributes movement in one variable to movement in another.
Children in music programmes do better at maths, but does that mean you should teach your child the piano in order to boost his algebra scores? Misunderstanding cause and effect is often the root cause behind bad advice.
Consider which direction causality flows or whether it even exists. It's easy for experts to conclude that just because one event takes place before another, the former must have caused the latter. But this isn't necessarily the case.
The next time a purported expert gives you advice, see if he's one of the experts listed above. If so, think twice before following his recommendations. © 2012 Harvard Business School Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate