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Beware of the Everyday Expert

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Have you noticed that everyone around you now seems to be an expert at something? How your boss gives you unsolicited career advice, based on his own (self-proclaimed) stellar career? Or how your annoying colleague emails you stock tips after reading the morning news headlines?

Welcome to the age of the Everyday Expert. In the past, if you were a career adviser, relationship counselor, strategic business consultant, or financial planner, you had to spend years acquiring specialist skills or knowledge in a particular field to be recognized as an expert. But with the rise of social media, the path to expertise -- or more correctly, perceived expertise -- has shortened dramatically.

Facebook and other social media platforms have ushered in an age of hyper-sharing, making knowledge more accessible than ever. More than 30 billion pieces of content are now shared every month on Facebook alone, amongst a community of 800 million members. It's also easier than ever to publish your own content using today's remarkably simple blogging platforms or on short-form networks like Quora. Perhaps the easiest way to self-publish is through Twitter, which is now adding 11 new accounts per second, on its way to 500 million users.

This social media explosion means that more content is reaching more people than ever before. With a little online elbow grease, pretty much anyone can now read a few articles on Facebook, publish a couple of blog posts and start calling themselves an expert at something. But that doesn't necessarily mean you have to listen.

In this new world of democratized expertise, who are we supposed to believe? Or in more practical terms, how can we tell which experts are likely to be giving us wrong advice? During my adventures as an entrepreneur, strategy consultant and author, I've encountered hundreds of famous, infamous, self-proclaimed and work-in-progress experts. Based on my experience, here are the five Everyday Experts you should be wary of, regardless of what field they're in:

1. The All-Star Adviser: This expert is a breakout success in their own lives and advises you to simply follow in their footsteps. With a large dose of hindsight bias and a hint of condescension, this expert applies their own professional and personal successes to your situation, arguing that you should do what worked for them. Why wouldn't you?

Before you listen, consider whether their success was specific to their unique circumstances or more generalizable. Psychologists recognize how all-stars systematically undervalue situation-based explanations for their success.

2. The Blog Bandit: This expert spends hours each day trawling the latest business and tech news headlines, and passes off the latest management theory or stock tip as their own idea. Too afraid to adopt an original point of view, this expert prefers the comfort of conventional wisdom. Herd mentality describes how people are influenced by their peers to follow certain trends, and this sheep won't part from the pack.

Consider whether the masses are right, or whether they're missing something fundamentally important. As content proliferates online, it's much easier to amplify information and mutually reinforce ideas, right or wrong. The overall effect is often to legitimize false claims.

3. The Failed Forecaster: This expert predicts the future by extrapolating linearly from past results. Using incorrect underlying assumptions, this leads to disastrous forecasting, particularly in fast-moving innovation industries like technology.

Before you take their advice, ask yourself how closely the future will mimic the past, and how much confidence you have in prediction. A comprehensive study of 250 economic and political experts making 80,000 forecasts over 20 years suggested that, on average, they performed no better than dart-throwing monkeys.

4. The Partial Pro: This expert is compromised in a way that makes it impossible to give rigorous advice. Whether it's Goldman Sachs advising both sides of the transaction or a conflicted tech journalist, it's tough giving an expert opinion when you have a built-in bias.

To evaluate the advice, you must first understand whether the source has hidden incentives. Consider what advice they would give absent any conflicts. Aim to understand the source more comprehensively, and then make a judgment call on their advice.

5. The Deluded Directionalist: This expert confuses correlation with causation and falsely attributes movement in one variable to movement in another. Children in music programs do better at math, but does that mean you should teach your child the piano in order to boost their algebra scores? Misunderstanding cause and effect is often the root cause behind bad advice.

Consider which direction causality flows or whether it even exists. It's disarmingly simple for experts to conclude that just because one event takes place before another, it must have caused it. This may or may not be true.

Next time an expert gives you advice, see if they're listed above, and if they are, double-check what they're saying. Are there other Everyday Experts you can think of?

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