How much of what we get from people who call themselves “experts” is truly helpful? We seem to be in a societal groove that assumes “somebody else knows what I should do here better than I do.” Is that so? Is that even realistic to assume is possible?
Last week I did a session for a group of life coaches that billed me as an expert (with my concurrence) on non-financial retirement issues. I did not feel good about that session. I’ve been trying to figure out why ever since. What I am discovering is a surprise–and a relief. I do not want to play the “expert” role. I do not like being an expert. I like helping. Those two things are different.
There’s an old joke that defines expert is the combination of “ex”–a has-been–and “spurt”–a drip under pressure. Not very flattering. And probably true more often not. Why, as a society, do we value “experts” so highly?
The amount of information now available for any significant decision makes it impossible to have a complete grasp of exactly what’s needed and how to go about making the right things happen single-handedly. Finding someone to help sort the situation out–so you working with the best information–and to help identify what needs to be done–decisions, actions, etc.–is a major plus. That kind of expert is a treasure. Sometimes you pay those people; sometimes they are family members or friends.
Too often these days though, “experts” jump up to offer services before you even ask. These “expert” practices are designed more to make them money than to give you help. These are the experts you don’t need.
But how do you winnow out the people offering themselves as “experts” who–well intentioned and personally committed as they might be–really aren’t useful to you in what you’re trying to do?
I keep dancing back and forth on this dilemma. I don’t like the idea of being an expert. So that devalues the role for me significantly. But I also know I need help from people better versed in what I am ignorant about but need to get on with. Right now, my experts include a plumber, an HVAC guy, the folks who will install carpet next week, my accountant, and my financial advisor. In a few weeks, that list will also include my sons and brothers–who are far better than I am at getting large pieces of furniture from where I am now to where I am going to live then. These are practical experts. No problem using them and paying them as the situation dictates. (Sometimes that’s money; sometimes it’s “Thank you!”)
But every day I am bombarded with people who want to show me how to grow my business, create a better social media presence, lose weight, etc. These people approach me–which is the first red flag. If I don’t know I need the help, using it–even if I do get it once I sign the contract–isn’t likely.
Some other red flags:
Does working with this person help? I’ve spent money on people who didn’t have a clue about what I was trying to do or what the details of my project were–even after I provided information on both. These people offer the same cookie-cutter solution for any problem a client describes. If the solution is already laid out in a glossy brochure, it’s probably not the solution you need (unless you’re looking for a product rather than an effective problem-solving process).
Is working with this person about YOU? The “expert” who goes on and on about what she or he knows isn’t valuable no matter how much he knows and how much he charges. The focus needs to be on your problem or project, not on how wonderful the expert is. If you find yourself mesmerized by “war stories” about previous clients and wanting to be them, get outta there!
Is this something someone else could even know how to approach? Very often, we turn to experts when what we really need is to turn inward and learn our own truth. Having some well-paid third party tell you to lose weight or ditch the unsupportive significant other or buy a house is so much easier than accepting that reality yourself. But that other person’s opinion doesn’t get you very far in terms of staying motivated. A good expert in that kind of context gets you off the dime so that you start to do what needs to be done yourself.
Being an expert is not a good gig. It’s too easy to get caught up in “being the expert” which dilutes your ability to help solve the current problem well. So please don’t seek me as an expert. I can tell you what I see from my perspective in terms of what you’re trying to do. I can help you find the right information in my area of expertise. I can explain concepts that you don’t understand and offer insights that I’ve gained from working on the same kind of problem with other people. But I don’t want to offer you a canned solution or to have you rely on me to make your decision. You need to do that. Period.