Expert Advice? Why You Should Be Skeptical

Experts may not know the real causes of success. It's imperative you know how to listen to advice with a critical ear.
Innovation Evangelist, 24/7 Innovation
March 23, 2012

We are constantly bombarded by expert advice from advertisements, books, magazines, TV and the Internet. But how much of this information is actually true? From my experience, there is reason to believe that little of it is accurate. People (often unknowingly) make claims that are exaggerated or in some unfortunate cases, blatant lies.

I remember giving a presentation to a group of eager individuals who were either launching or advancing their speaking careers. During our 90-minute discussion, I provided dozens of tips and techniques for growing their business.

At the end of the evening, one attendee asked, “What is the most important tip?” I thought about this for a minute and replied, “I don’t know.”

Although this answer may sound like a cop out, it is in fact the truth. No one really knows what made them successful. More importantly, they have no idea how others can replicate their success. They may be able to look at a series of events that led to a particular outcome, but most likely the “most important tip” is something completely different than what is seen on the surface.

Several years ago, I attended a “book marketing” conference. It was led by a well-known author who sold millions (and millions) of books. His promise was to share the steps and tools that made him successful so that others could replicate and reap the same rewards. Over the years, thousands of people have tried his “formula,” and as far as I can tell, no one has come even close to his level of success. And those achieving some modicum of success mainly did so by leveraging this author’s name and network.

I am not implying that these experts are misleading or malicious. Not at all. The issue lies in our inability to find the correct correlations between cause and effect. Too many hidden factors play a major role—ones that we might never consider or notice.

Many experts use anecdotal evidence to support their conclusions: It worked for me and a few of my buddies, so it should work for you. This isn't the most sound reasoning. Maybe the expert’s 10 Steps to Financial Wealth were not the true causes of their success. Maybe success was coincidental. Without more data, it is impossible to know. If 100 people tried the same 10 steps and each got the same results, then you might be able to claim a correlation. While there may be wisdom in anecdotal evidence, you shouldn't blindly accept it as the truth.

There are many, harder to measure factors that often play a substantial role. Your attitude plays a larger part than you might think. Your Rolodex of contacts (for the younger readers, this is where the old-timers stored our addresses before computers) can be a huge factor in the equation. Being in the right place at the right time has launched many businesses, including Microsoft. Or sometimes, plain old dumb luck is the real cause.

So, how can you separate the accurate from the invalid? One way is to understand the difference between causality, correlation and coincidence.

I recall a study that claimed, “Individuals with greater wealth are happier.” Assuming that this statement is true, it is a correlation. Wealth and happiness are related. However, after reading this, some immediately jump to the conclusion that “money makes people happy.” This statement is causality suggesting that money is the cause of people’s happiness. According to this study though, this is not true. The research indicated that money did not make people happier. Happy people attracted more wealth into their lives. Money is correlated to happiness but is not the cause of happiness.

Beyond causality, correlation and coincidence, there is another factor: conditions. Just because something works for one company does not necessarily mean it will work for yours, even if there truly is a cause and effect relationship. It is important to understand all of the various conditions in which success is cultivated. Although many organizations believe in modeling best practices, I have found that in the vast majority of cases, replicating what other organizations are doing can be counter-productive. What works for Apple will probably not work for you. They have a different culture, different employees, different industry, different leadership, and the list goes on. And the reality is, you will never be able to replicate the exact conditions of one organization within your own organization.

Does this mean you should never listen to an expert? Of course not. There is a lot to be learned from others. But it is wise to avoid taking what an expert has to say at face value. Be skeptical.

Experts may not know the real causes of success. Understanding the difference between causality, correlation, coincidence and conditions can help you listen with a more critical ear and, in turn, make more informed decisions.

Photo credit: iStock

Innovation Evangelist, 24/7 Innovation