Experts are Forged, Not Born

Everyone’s an expert — just listen and they’ll tell you. The thing about anyone in a position of authority is that, out of self preservation and general marketing sense, they tend to focus on their big wins to demonstrate why people should listen to them. But this presentation lacks context. Nobody wakes up one day and knows everything, and even if they did their advice would be less valuable because they didn’t earn it, and so they didn’t own it. It’s their mistakes and missteps, the very things most are reluctant to talk about, that make the difference.

James Altucher touched on this concept in one of his recent newsletter pieces. He asked, “Who would you rather take dating advice from, me or Brad Pitt?” He acknowledged that at first glance most would choose Brad Pitt, because after all clearly he would have no trouble getting dates. But, as James pointed out, that’s exactly why he probably wouldn’t have very good advice. His celebrity status (and having been named one of the sexiest men alive in various magazines) does a lot of the heavy lifting for him, so he doesn’t face the same challenges that the average guy would.

Everywhere Brad Pitt goes people know who he is, so he’s rarely the anonymous guy in a bar that has to impress a girl with a good ice breaker and carry that conversation into something meaningful. On the flip side, someone who’s been rejected a hundred times but has eventually succeeded can tell you all about the things that really work and what to avoid because they’ve lived it.

I think this is important for anyone we take advice from. What they know or have accomplished is a given — how they got there is just as important. Maybe even more important. People who own their blunders as a path to success have little to hide. Those that spend their time trying to be seen only in the most ideal way will probably focus more on playing the part of an expert rather than being one.

3 Responses to Experts are Forged, Not Born

  1. Matthew Parent August 12, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

    The general idea here is related to survivorship bias. Basically when seeking advice we typically only ask the survivors. This is true when it comes down to business advice, safety advice, and I’m sure a multitude of other areas. Someone successful in business probably isn’t aware of the wrong choices they didn’t make, and as such can’t really stop you from making those same mistakes (or the wrong choices didn’t matter for them for some reason).

    A famous example of this comes form World War II. We were losing a lot of bombers and wanted to add additional armor without adding too much weight. As such we had to be selective in where the additional armor was placed. A general initially had intended to add the armor to the places frequently riddled with bullet holes when planes returned. The error in his thinking was pointed out by a mathematician. The general was looking at the survivors, so those bullet holes were in survivable areas. You really want to armor the places that never had bullet holes when planes returned since that indicated the plane was unable to survive that damage.

    • Brian Watkins August 12, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

      Wow, nice example. The idea of learning more from your mistakes than your victories is well-supported there. If the planes had been successful in spite of the poor armor decisions it may have led them to believe those were good decisions or, at the least, be unsure of what difference it made. As unfortunate as failure can be, it does seem to have a way of making decisions clearer. We want someone who has succeeded by enduring the lessons rather than someone who has succeeded by accident, as their luck will rarely relate to someone else’s.

      Thanks for sharing that. Definitely something to ponder as I consider this topic further.


  1. Leaders are Forged, Part 2 | Hallmarks of Leadership - August 15, 2014

    […] blogged recently on leadership and becoming an expert by overcoming failure, and the concept has stuck with me for a week or so. I’d touched on the concept of how the […]

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