The Rise And Fall Of Thought Leaders, Gurus And Experts

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Define “success.” This could get ugly.

Recently, someone I would define as “successful” posted a warning about how many experts, gurus and “entrepreneurs” they have met over the years who are flat broke. This person did not share this as a criticism, but as a warning: Be careful whom you trust. They went on to discuss (and in the comments it was heavily debated) how someone’s digital platform is rarely anything like their every day life (or, as I like to say: my Facebook profile is the person that I want the world to think that I am), how a lot of the advice given is often not applied and implemented to these “experts” own businesses, and how all of this should act as a sobering reality, warning and caution.

Who? Who are we talking about here? 

My guess is that the vast majority of people you find on a “Top 100” list of digital marketers, online influencers, etc… are far from a place anyone would truly define as “successful.” The problem, of course, is that defining “success” is not easy. It’s not absolute. My definition of “success” is not yours. Success is a spectrum. What encompasses my definition of “success” may have no place in yours. All fair.

With that, here are some thoughts of how you could measure the success of an individual. Your mileage may vary, as Seth Godin likes to say… 

    1. Platform is not reality. Friends, followers, likes, shares and more can be bought and sold. Even if an individual did not pay to amplify their digital platform, don’t confuse how many people they are connected to with an ability to run a successful business, and provide relevant and actionable information. Behind the scenes, I know countless “influencers” with hundreds of thousands of followers who haven’t failed more times than they have succeeded, but rather have never succeeded in anything else but growing their own platform. Avinash Kaushik (Google‘s digital marketing evangelist and the author of Web Analytics – An Hour A Day and Web Analytics 2.0) calls this “vanity metrics.” Don’t fall for vanity metrics.
    2. Advice is not application. There is a ton of advice online (including this piece). Some of it is good. Some of it is fine. Some of it is wrong. The reader’s job is to sort through it all, filter it and make a decision if it’s practical to their own life. Someone dispensing life advice about intermittent fasting, micro-dosing hallucinogens, remote working from anywhere in the world, while working a full-time job, while developing a side-hustle from 9 pm to 3 am might make wise sense, but dig a little deeper. If this advice is coming from someone in their late thirties – with no spouse, no kids, who never held a job with a company for more that five years, and has little-to-no financial responsibilities, plus has a ton of white privilege (not to mention that they won the genetic, gender and geographic lottery) – you may want to separate the advice from the individual and question if the application of the information is true (and universal). During the growth of social media in the early 2000s, there were a ton of experts brandsplaining what corporations should do. Ironically, these people had never truly worked for a brand or applied their advice in the real world to test whether or not it works (or is reasonable).
    3. Content is not experience. A piece of content that goes viral is not experience. A Facebook page with tons of likes over countless years is also not experience. That’s just a lot of content and advice. Experience is something that happens and is acquired over time. Not by producing content and sharing it, but by doing the work. And not just work. The hard work. The hard work of working on something – over many years – that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Did this individual truly build something that added financial success to their clients. Did they stick with a job and really dig in, or do they hop from job to job just looking for the next better job title or salary bump. Are they building something for anyone but themselves? How many years has this individual been successful for others… not themselves? Did they build the business to the point where another entity saw the value and bought it (not as a fire sale, but at a premium)?
    4. Honesty and integrity is not success. Many “influencers” will use “honesty” and “integrity” as a stopgap when pushed to define why they are successful (or have very little to show in the real world). Honesty and integrity is a value, it is not an indicator of success. Don’t confuse the two. I know a ton of decent people still striving for success who are filled with honesty and integrity. Honesty and integrity are not key factors in being successful. We know plenty of people who have neither of those values, and who millions of people would define as successful (as sad as that may be).  
    5. Hobby is not success. Following your passion is fun. Following your passion will make you happy. Following your passion will make you much better at the things that you are passionate about. Following your passion is not a measure of success. Being great at your passions and doing it full-time without any serious financial gain is not successful, that’s called a “hobby” (and there’s nothing wrong with spending time at the things that you love!). Money is a factor here. Jeff Goins once wisely said that, “making money is not keeping money.” This is true. If you can turn your hobby into a profitable business that the number one player in your industry would consider a valuable asset to buy, that’s probably a more practical way to define success. Many so-called experts and gurus are clouding the marketplace with their non-financially powered hobbies. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, unless they’re professing that you too can make money this way (when they, in fact, are not).
    6. A testimony is not a reference. It’s too easy to do a quick search or social media scan, and see nothing but compliments about individuals. How smart they are. How what they published is so incredible. How they crushed it on stage at an event. Social testimonials act as a powerful tool in social proofing, but they are not indicators of true success. Speak to the actual clients. Not just the good clients, but speak to the clients when things did not work out. References are not testimonials. Do your research, and check out just how good these individuals are at their trade – not just the self-promotion of their trade.
    7. Bragging is not success. This is a tough one. From the humblebrag to blatant self-promotion, it’s hard to get heard. Social media is a strange beast. If we don’t toot our own horn, it’s unlikely that someone else will. Still, when you look at the people you most consider successful, how often are they bragging or inflating their own tires. Consider the “experts” who like to point to comments, where someone calls them “brilliant,” and then shares it with a comment like “humbled to be called brilliant.” Again, its nice to share accolades, especially when they are unsolicited, but be reflective of these posts that are nothing more than clouded pieces of self-promotion with no true substance or value to the consumer… other than a continuous process to position the content creator as a credible source.

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

Back in December, I had a conversation with David C. Baker on my podcast (yeah, uch, I realize what I just did right here!). He published a book titled, The Business of Expertise, that has its own take on how we become an expert and monetize it. It is a different take. David has some controversial thoughts. A lot of the pushback that David received from our chat, came from his thinking of how expertise does equal monetary wealth. It’s an interesting perspective. And, it could be argued, that true expertise in business does ultimately lead to wealth. Is money the only metric? Probably not, but in business, money is one of the key leading indicators of how we keep score. 

What do you think? Can a business expert also be someone who is flat broke?