I used to be an expert.
My copy had boosted clients’ sales 400% and higher. One bloke made $30,000 in 3 days. Another began closing 80% of business within 5 days of getting a lead. “At last!” I announced. “Oh God, finally I’m an expert.”
I spent 5 blissful years living as an expert; living as an idiot.
Then I came on Medium and couldn’t get 100 claps. Some expert! With my tail between my legs, I went back to being a student. But I like it here. I think I’ll stay.
You see a lot of talk on Planet-Guru nowadays about experts…lots of followers desperate to be anointed. Guru provides the wisdom they crave.
“You don’t have to know everything to be an expert,” Guru preaches. “You only have to know more than your readers.”
Really? Do you?
Only I’ve noticed a funny thing happens when you study. The more you learn about a subject, the more you realise you know nothing at all. Have you noticed?
Knowledge sends you down a rabbit-hole of ignorance and inquiry. It twists and turns in every direction. Once you reach page 300 of your 10th book, you have a heap of ideas conflicting with page 1 of your first.
You notice more and more gaps in your expertise. You can sense it.
Guru says not to worry.
Guru calls it ‘Impostor Syndrome.’
But it’s not impostor syndrome. It’s your gut telling you that you don’t know enough. You like your gut. You’ve always trusted your gut.
Your gut is an expert.
I don’t want to come across as overly negative. By all means, share your experiences. Sell your wares. Use your knowledge to serve people and charge them money. But take great caution when calling yourself an expert.
There are 3 reasons it could easily backfire:
- You will feel compelled to be consistent:
When you become an expert, you’re drawing a line under your knowledge. You’re not necessarily saying, ‘I know everything,’ but you are saying,‘everything I know is true.’
This is an instantaneous weakness which does not burden students.
In his excellent book Influence, Robert Cialdini talks about the natural human desire to be consistent. Once somebody has stated something they believe to be true, they will continue to behave in a way which reinforces their belief.
The need for consistency can leave you clinging to ideas which are not helpful — or over-simplifying problems, trying to solve them with an inflexible set of rules you hold sacred.
During my early copywriting years I read every book I could find. I’d quite possibly read more advertising books than many advertising executives.
I even worked with 2 of the authors. One of them sent me a signed copy of his book. ‘I look forward to working with you, Alex,’ it read. ‘You obviously have a lot of talent.’
But I wasn’t just talented.
I was also an expert.
I’d decided (way too early) what was right and what was wrong.
All my rules and dogma made me inflexible. I screwed up. I let him down. I let myself down. I let the person who recommended me down.
During a long car-ride, he suggested reevaluating our agreement. I took half the money. Never saw him again. And that has always bothered me. I liked him. I wish I’d given a better account of myself.
Yes, I was young — 22 or 23 — but it’s one of those embarrassing memories which keeps returning out-the-blue.
A few months ago I remembered it in the shower and groaned.
“Are you okay?” my wife called.
“Fine,” I said. But the noise was completely involuntary.
This incident happened years ago, and I still hate that it happened.
2. You have drawn a target on your back:
Long ago in Ancient Greece, Socrates used to play a game.
He found he could expose anybody claiming to be an expert. Moreover, using a specific line of questioning, he could lead them to admit they knew nothing.
“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.” — Socrates
He would begin assuming total ignorance, with a view to building his own knowledge from the ‘expert’s’ teachings.
“What is courage?” Socrates asked an Athenian General.
“Courage is a form of endurance.”
“Is this a good thing?”
“Because endurance leads men to carry on where others would stop.”
“Are there cases in battle where it’s better to retreat?”
“So if courage is a good thing, but endurance can be a bad thing, how do the two match up?”
Socrates found he could lead experts into dead-ends where their dogged beliefs conflicted. You might assume, as I did, that being secure in your position as an expert means knowing more than everyone else.
Actually, you are also vulnerable to people who know nothing at all.
3. You will never study again:
You might carry on reading.
You might take courses and meet other experts.
But you will be engaging with these experiences in a different way. Rather than seek the truth, you’ll be seeking to validate what you already believe to be true. Your mind opens and closes depending on which insights reinforce what you ‘know.’
On Facebook, I recently shared a series of tips I’d discovered from almost 10 years writing direct response copy. I called them ‘rules,’ but they weren’t. I told people they could pick and choose what works for them.
Unfortunately, one lady took serious issue.
She spent the entire day trolling me, picking at my ideas and seeking out spelling/grammar mistakes which might question my credibility.
“Having worked as a journalist, with the opportunity to reach many thousands of readers, I disagree with you, Alex,” she said.
She was being unnecessarily snide. And I found it rather bizarre. I mean, if I was new to copywriting (from a journalism background), I’d be interested to hear what a direct response copywriter has to say. Alas, she still wasn’t finished.
2 days later, she came back again — said my rule on the active voice was something she learnt in 6th grade.
I didn’t respond. I never do.
She was an expert.
Who am I to argue?
Anyway, that’s all fine and dandy. At least that’s just marketing bollocks. Who gives a damn?
It’s when the experts infect political opinion I see serious cause for concern.
Left-wing or right-wing, makes no difference. Show me somebody who lives on either extreme, and I’ll show you somebody who does not know what they’re talking about. Worse, they cannot accept it, because their expert position has turned the gaps in their understanding invisible.
They are experts. They have nothing new to learn.
Don’t be an expert. Be a student.
A student knows nothing, so they’re able to learn something.