- Michael Thompson
“If your kids were older, who would you want them reading?”
I had a conversation with a group of friends here in Spain this past weekend. After we were done crying over our burgers about how sensational, dramatic, and polarizing the online world has become, we decided that this question best cut through the noise—not only for our kid’s futures, but also our own.
My two boys are young. They’ve still got some time before we need to buy noise-canceling headphones and have the talk regarding who’s worth tuning in to and those to potentially mute.
But regardless, taking the time to think about who we should listen to and learn from for advice — aka the teachers we choose to surround ourselves with — may be the most pressing question of our times.
Advice is being thrown at us from all directions.
When my kids are of age to go online when they’re 73, hopefully, advice, information, and opinions will be better filtered.
Until then, below are the three types of experts that exist in the world today along with two other initial thoughts I consider when trying to determine whose online advice is worth the time.
1. They’ve done what you want to do
I’m starting with the basics for the simple reason basics are important. It’s easy to play coach with someone else’s life. This is especially true online. If you don’t have any skin in the game, it’s easy to talk big.
But before buying into what someone writes or advises, learn their back story if it’s not abundantly clear from the start.
You’d hopefully never take advice from a stranger who told you how to live your life without first learning how they live theirs. You’d want specifics. Before even considering following their lead, you’d want to know their experience doing what you want to do.
There are some caveats and we’ll get into those below. But in general, if the person giving advice around a topic consistently says “you need to” over “I did” without stating their expertise or “why” for sharing the advice, tread carefully.
Always keep in mind, however, the world is full of successful people and not all of them were meant to be your teacher.
Doing something for yourself and breaking things down and adapting the steps for other people to reach their own goals are two very different skill sets.
2. They have a track record as a solid teacher
Some people are great at what they do. Others are good or even average at what they do but they seriously excel when coaching or teaching.
What’s the reputation of the advice-giver?
Do they have any credentials and testimonials?
How have they helped other people move from A to B?
A few years back I asked a successful writer for help on an article. Without even looking at it, he said it’d be easier if he just did it himself. This was a glaring sign that he’s not the teacher for me.
If you have to dig to find someone’s teaching experience or come up empty-handed, be careful how much weight you give to their words.
This doesn’t mean you can’t share your learnings and experience. If you aren’t there yet, own the role of the student to share what you’re learning before positioning yourself too early as the go-to expert.
When done right, the curious-learner type can be just as, if not more attractive than the seasoned pro.
People love those who fight to learn more about what they don’t yet know.
3. They’ve devoted considerable time to your area of interest
Someone who has reached a certain level of success doing what you want to do is the first kind of expert.
Someone who may not have been as successful as the first type but has a reputation as a great teacher is the second.
The third and final type is those who have devoted considerable time researching your area of interest.
Think of PhDs, researchers, professors, lecturers, or even mega self-taught fans of the subject.
These people may not be as flashy or charismatic as some of their online counterparts, but it’s clear they’ve dug into the details and have drawn their own unique conclusions.
According to Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner, a big part of his and Warren’s time is spent finding the people who look the part, but are not competent, and then immediately removing them from their system.
In short, they don’t want to be surrounded by any charlatans whatsoever.
This serves as a good reminder to appreciate style, but prioritize substance.
4. Their circumstances are not too far off from your own
How relatable to your own life is that of the advice-giver?
Do you share similar circumstances?
For me, if I’m looking for advice around a general topic like productivity, as someone who is married with kids, I veer towards advice from people who are also married and have kids.
Either that or single moms, as they know how to get stuff done.
The reason: they know what it’s like to work with little people at their feet which is a situation that most people without kids can’t easily relate to.
Our circumstances are similar.
Our priorities are closer in line.
The more I can see myself in the person giving advice the more I connect with them and want to learn from them.
5. They keep drama to a minimum
If someone needs to yell to get your attention, the odds are high that what they want to say is based primarily on their own agenda.
Clickbait. Massive titles. Taking polarizing positions. Whenever I see any variations of the above, no matter how enticing, I don’t click.
I know persuasion is all about hitting people’s emotional triggers. Choosing that route may win more eyes. But like my friend Kevin Ervin Kelley, AIA so eloquently said, “The best marketing makes marketing obsolete.”
Titles are massively important in writing. But be careful of someone who consistently uses lots of glitter.
“How to make better decisions,” from a trusted source trumps, “Be a bulletproof decision-maker and live a kick-ass life” any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
The latter feels sales-y and makes me wonder if they’re leading with power because they lack substance.
Again, this is personal and it’s not personal.
I prefer quiet.
So I just wrote advice on who to listen to for advice. I get the irony. I’m also very into this subject as more and more people lean into their microphones. I’d love to know your thought process for who not only wins your attention but keeps it.
For me, if they tick any of the three types of experts boxes listed above, are not far off from my own path, and keep the drama to a minimum, my ears open for consideration.
Show what you’ve learned and why you believe what you believe and act as you act.
Demonstrate how you’ve come to these conclusions.
Drop the power position and share your story first instead.
In fact, for my kids, that will be the first question I’ll recommend they ask themselves — “What’s the person’s story?”