On Choosing Expert Help

Best Practices

Doctors disagree on when to prescribe medication. Sleep experts disagree on whether you should take naps. Time-management experts disagree on whether you should schedule all of your time. Therapists disagree on whether you should trace issues back to childhood incidents.

As part of improving your life, you may decide to seek expert advice. How do you decide which expert to hire or read or follow? The short answer is: you need to trust your own judgment. This sounds paradoxical. Aren’t you the novice who doesn’t know anything? How can you judge the expert?

You can and should judge the expert. Whether it’s the author of a book, the teacher of a class, a possible life coach or therapist, or a medical doctor, your firsthand judgment is absolutely crucial.

Why you’re the best judge

First, it is not true that you are a total novice who is ignorant. The fact that you concluded you need expert advice puts you in an elite category of people. You have reflected on your situation and found a gap in knowledge, skill, or values, and you are working to fill it. You are, by definition, more active mentally than the average person. Moreover, you actually know your situation better than anyone else could. This is what makes you the best possible judge of whether a person’s advice fits your situation.

So, for example, suppose you need help with time management. There are thousands of books on time management. Each one is a little different. For example, I’ve recommended four books on time management over the years:

In my recommendations, I aim to explain when each book might be useful to you. At a given time, you need one and not the other. For example, Laura Stack’s book is not helpful for setting up a system, but is very helpful for motivating you to make a few changes.

Experts can provide tactics to experiment with. They can conceptualize the problems more clearly. They can point out solutions you hadn’t thought of. They can identify causal consequences of your current or proposed action that motivate you to change course. But ultimately, no one expert will have everything you need.

No one’s rules work 100%. If you understand a system of rules (principles, really), then you can adapt them to your life. If you don’t, other people’s rules create havoc.

This is why every piece of advice needs to be assessed in the context of your values, your priorities, and your life. What are your current circumstances? What is your top goal? How can this advice help you now?

The expert to choose is the one who speaks to your circumstances.

Can the expert communicate advice so that you understand it for yourself?

Second, even if there were a wise person who really did understand your situation better than you, it is of no use if he can’t communicate his knowledge to you. Whatever expert you choose, pick someone who connects with you where you are now. You need to understand your issue in terms you can understand in your present context.

Long ago, before I understood this fully, I had trouble with repetitive stress in my hands. I reported pain in my wrists and numbness in my upper arms to my doctor. She pricked my bicep with a pin and verified that I could feel it. She told me it wasn’t numb and prescribed physical therapy that made the problem worse.

After one physical-therapy session, I switched doctors. My new doctor had me fill out a sheet showing all pain, tingling, and numbness in my body. Tingling! Aha! That’s what I felt in my upper arms, not numbness. I didn’t know the right word. His physical-therapy recommendations remedied the problem without drugs or surgery.

The test is, when you skim a book or interview a candidate, you should get some aha’s. If you’re given an exercise, you should see the predicted results. You need evidence to conclude that the expert understands your situation clearly and will make useful suggestions.

You are absolutely the best judge of that. The fact you get aha’s and help is the best indicator this person will be a good resource.

As another example, let’s just imagine an insightful therapist who can see through your defenses very easily, and can identify the source of self-doubt or other self-defeating beliefs at the root of them. It doesn’t matter if the therapist has analyzed the situation correctly, if he can’t help you move step by step to seeing the issue yourself in a firsthanded way. Only you can untangle your own mistakes and take action to reprogram your values. If you aren’t motivated to take the necessary action, it doesn’t matter how true the analysis is. The advice is no good.

Understanding for yourself is important. The alternative is following the advice on the basis of authority. Are you tempted to say, “So and so said such and such, and I know he’s the expert, so I guess I have to follow that advice”? I hope not! That approach is a total cognitive and motivational disaster. Just to name a few problems: The advice will seem arbitrary, so you’ll have to pressure yourself to follow it, shutting out objections. This shutting out will also reduce your access to other relevant information. You’re literally ruining your own ability to judge accurately while also reinforcing the idea you can’t trust your own judgment. Following someone else’s advice without understanding it is a prescription for making the situation worse.

Incidentally, one of my best pieces of advice (if I do say so myself) is that you experiment with new tactics rather than adopt them. Experiment, following the instructions carefully, with the idea of finding out how the tactic can help you. If I suggest thinking on paper to clear overload, does it actually help? If not, why not? This is an example of adjusting the advice so that you can judge it for yourself.

As Ayn Rand says, “You can’t do better than your own mind.” You need to take advice that you can integrate with what you know now. That’s how you advance from where you are. And you are the best judge of that.

Does the expert share your values?

Finally, your judgment about the honesty and intentions of the expert is essential. You want to take advice from someone who has the same standards you have.

For example, I once read a bestselling book titled The 4-Hour Workweek. It had some practical advice, but the author was on the premise of cutting corners and appealing to the masses to get rich quick, as opposed to developing a valuable product. Any of his advice that seemed plausible was suspect on the face of it. I couldn’t trust him to evaluate his methods by the same standards I would use.

If respect for independent thinking is one of your values, I have a piece of advice. If you ever interview a coach or therapist who acts as if he knows better than you do how to live your life, run away as fast as you can.

Therapists and coaches can give you emotional support with a clarifying perspective and a different point of view, which is hugely helpful. But if they try to tell you what you should think or do, they have stopped being an advocate. You want an advocate who is committed to your making your own independent decisions.

This last is particularly important to me as a coach. I know I can get on a rant, where I think I know exactly what would help someone. But I encourage people to push back when it doesn’t add up for them. And when they push back, the problem is always either I misunderstood their situation or I didn’t explain my point of view so they could understand it. We can always find something they do understand that they believe will be helpful as their next steps.

No one knows your situation better than you. You are the best judge of any expert advice.

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