10 ways to tell true experts from pretenders

I’m getting pretty sick of people who try things once and then become experts, ready to tell you how to do what they did. The internet is full of these pretenders.

I have a bookshelf full of books of advice for authors, most of which are not worth the 25 minutes it would take to read them. They’re pretenders.

Expert or not?

But how can you tell if someone is an actual expert?

Ask the right questions.

Here are ten questions to ask before hiring a purported expert.

  1. How many times have they done the task that they’re supposed to be an expert in? If you’ve done something once, your experience is lacking. If you’ve done it three or four times, you haven’t really seen every way this task can go. A true expert has completed the task at least five times. And 20 would be better.
  2. Have they succeeded? Don’t take advice from people who’ve never successfully completed what they’re trying to teach. Ask about their successes. Unless there are several, they’re a pretender.
  3. Have they failed? People who have only succeeded don’t know how to correct for failure — or they haven’t tried what they’re doing in challenging real-world conditions. Experts will share their failures and what they learned from them. An unwillingness to talk about failure is a good sign that you’re dealing with a pretender.
  4. How diverse is their experience? Experts have done what they’re expert in under varied conditions. They’ve written books in three months or three years, with coauthors and without. They’ve done public speaking in front of three CEOs and 1,000 people in an auditorium. They’ve done landscape design for a secluded cottage and a 15-acre mansion. If all you know is how to do the same thing the same way over and over, your expertise is too limited.
  5. Can they teach? Not all good tennis players are good tennis coaches. The coaches aren’t just good — they’re good at seeing what other people are doing and what they need to learn. A purely intuitive expert isn’t an expert worth consulting with; they need to know how to help others with far less skill than they have.
  6. Have they helped others to succeed? Experts can point to their successes with others: that’s proof that they can teach their skill in a way that matters. They should have a high rate of success, too. “Here are my two star students” is far less impressive than “Every single person I work with is a reference, you can contact any of them.”
  7. Do they charge? Experts get paid for their expertise — and the greater the expertise, the higher the rate. Getting paid takes a track record of success and reflects actual demand. People who work for free aren’t experts, they’re wannabes.
  8. Do they have a system? An expert typically has a systematic way to approach the problem. These are the five steps. Here are the three main things you need to learn. Your challenge is likely either A, B, or C. Experts break down their knowledge systematically, not chaotically.
  9. Can they answer questions? If an expert insists on a rigid path to success, their knowledge is brittle. Questions should stimulate and engage them, not flummox them. They should be able to flex their teaching to address a client’s individual needs.
  10. Are there boundaries to their expertise? A book expert is not helpful if you’re making a documentary. An architect who designs houses probably isn’t who you need to design a factory. Asked for help with areas outside their expertise, an actual expert will say “No,” not “Sure, I can do that, too.”

Actual experts find it thrilling to help people learn and get better. Pretenders find it more exciting to talk about themselves. So find an empathetic expert, not a narcissistic blowhard. Don’t waste your time and money on pretenders.

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  1. Josh and mitchjoel1,
    Each of you has taught me more today than I’ll learn all week. Many thanks.
    My favorite line from Josh’s post is “How diverse is their experience?”
    My favorite line from mitchjoel’s post is “I love Thinkers who make money because their ideas get implemented/work and not because they simply said something on social media.”

  2. He’s a world-leading business guru (and other gushy phrases). To your list I would add:
    * What does an online search throw up? In my case, a lot of links to the person’s own websites (multiple) and very little else.
    * Does your “expert’s” name come up on other websites/is he cited by other people in the field? My chap appeared to be world-leading in his own world and no one else’s.

  3. Preach, Josh. Also, just because something turned out well for someone once doesn’t mean the person made good decisions. Luck plays a big factor. (See Annie Duke…) That’s why I look for research when reading!