We’re in the age of gurus and experts. Create a platform large enough and you have a built-in calling card that screams listen to me, I know what I’m talking about. Not only are we inundated with gurus, the way in which we consume, learn, and understand has shifted.

Until recently, there had always been a filter; A book publisher that determined whether or not your ideas deserved attention, or a magazine editor deciding whether or not to publish what you wrote, or a radio or TV producer determined whether you deserved a voice. There were gatekeepers.

In today’s world where anyone can start a podcast, a youtube channel, or even write a book, anyone can build a platform and share information.

In many ways, this free market information network has raised the bar. My first book, The Science of Running, would not have found its way into the hands of thousands of coaches in its current format, which focuses exclusively on runners training at a very high level. It would be hypocritical of me to condemn such a free and open information network, and I firmly believe that the openness has enhanced our collective understanding more than it has hindered.

But with its benefits come drawbacks that we need to be aware of. Problems arise when we, as consumers of information, start following a guru and see them as experts of everything. The man or woman who has all of the answers. Whether it be in investing, sleep, nutrition, exercise, emotional well being, or even the latest fad, cryptocurrencies. We’ve all listened to the podcast host who provides the answers to all of this and more. We have our one-stop shop for knowledge on just about everything in the world.


The Expert of Everything Syndrome

Whoever the expert is you follow, whether it is on social media or through a podcast, the more we follow them, the more we tend to utilize that individual as a filter of information quality. If they say that this latest diet or exercise phenomenon works, then our likelihood of believing the claim increases exponentially. We skip the skeptic phase, as we’ve entrusted our chosen experts as a source of quality information tells us that it is so.

We’ve handed over our ability to think, to discern, to question, to the expert.

In many ways our favorite guru has become a trusted friend whose opinion we value. After all, we not only hear them, but see their thoughts daily on Twitter, and maybe even catch a glimpse of their personal life on snapchat or Instagram. In today’s society, we feel like we know our guru’s to a much greater degree than at any time in history. The wall that once separated us has slowly disintegrated.

I know first hand what it’s like to turn over the filtering mechanism to someone else. As I listen to a variety of podcasts on my daily commute, I find myself initially accepting new or controversial ideas because X, Y, or Z proclaimed them so, and I implicitly trust this person whose voice I hear daily. It’s as if my mind is on acceptance autopilot mode as I make my way down the road to my destination.

It’s only when they step into my domain, exercise, that I’m shocked out of this trance.

It could be one of many things. A hatred of aerobic exercise or running, a misunderstanding of high-intensity interval training, a belief in Crossfit Endurance as the best way to run a marathon or a belief in crazy biomechanics.

“Wait a minute, that’s wrong!” My brain shouts as it sends up a flare that the information I’m allowing to infiltrate my mind goes against everything I know.

And that’s where I get to a conundrum, which I’m not sure, how to solve. If he or she is so wrong on exercise or endurance training, how can I trust this person’s judgment on motivation, investing, sleep, nutrition, or god forbid, cryptocurrency? If they could get it so glaringly wrong on one, maybe they are wrong on all of these other topics which I know little about?

In stewing over this conundrum, I don’t believe the solution is to condemn the guru for espousing mistaken ideas in one domain. We shouldn’t throw away his or her entire knowledge base. I don’t say “So and So is wrong on exercise, therefore everything he says must be wrong!” Instead, when I hear wrong ideas on exercise, it tells relays an important piece of information: the individual didn’t perform a deep dive. They are relying on a superficial understanding. They know just enough to be dangerous, but not enough to guide.

A Deep Dive vs. Superficial Understanding

In figuring out what a superficial or deep dive is, I fall back on something Tom Tellez once told me about understanding biomechanics. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Just go read. Read everything. At first, it won’t make sense. But if you keep reading, you’ll make it the other side where one day you’ll read the first paragraph of an article and know whether the author knows what they are talking about or not.” In other words, I needed to obtain a deep enough understanding before I could even begin to evaluate what was right or wrong.

A superficial understanding, on the other hand, is when you start to feel as if you understand. You’ve deluded yourself into thinking you have it figured out because the clouds have parted just enough that you understand it. It feels like you have knowledge.

A superficial understanding occurs when we know one side of the story. We’ve spent time listening, reading, and exploring the subject from one perspective. We’ve read one author’s view on how to run or the science of diet. We may even have a deep understanding of that person’s model. Often, we mistake that as a deep understanding for the topic as a whole. The reality is we have a superficial understanding of the topic, masquerading as a deep understanding. We only know about one model, one side of the argument, one opinion.

The key to a deep dive lies in Tellez’s advice to “read everything.” Take the time to understand the complexities of the subject, the arguments, and nuance in the field. For example, when we wrote Peak Performance, we knew that the willpower and power pose science had two sides to the debate. We dove deep on both sections, talked to experts, read all of the research and left both in. Why? For two simple reasons, the effects of each were not in dispute. We know that mental and cognitive fatigue occurs and we know that “power posing” increases the feeling of power, among other things. The mechanism behind each, whether we get changes in hormones, for example, was up for debate. In a book about translating ideas to practical performance, our deep dive gave us confidence that while the science was unsettled on the details, the larger principles (i.e. do things to make yourself feel good before a performance and watch out for cognitively demanding activities before a performance) held true.

So what?

Does that mean that we shouldn’t use experts or gurus to act as filters for quality information? Of course not. These individuals are providing a valuable service in giving away information that wasn’t available even a decade ago. I commend all of those who freely share their opinions and knowledge.

What it means is that we should stop and ask whether the person we are listening to has performed a deep dive on the subject. We need to recognize that just because they are the person behind a platform that we can’t hand over our evaluative abilities to this person fully.

And I realize, as someone with a platform, I’m often guilty of many of the behaviors I’ve described so far. We are all human and I am in no way immune to either the information giving or receiving side of the coin. I’d ask that you treat what I say or do, in the same way, that I treat those I receive information from.

It’s not that I’m skeptical of everyone who provides quality information on Twitter or podcasts. It’s that when these experts I show a lack of understanding in my field, it serves as a simple reminder.

We are all humans and no one has all of the answers.

Steve Magness is a coach to world-class runners, as well as the author of the new book, Peak Performance. He can be found on twitter @stevemagness

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    1. Michael I. on February 13, 2018 at 5:39 am

      This is an extremely interesting topic that actually bothered me for quite a time now – and I can’t do anything about it. I’m not on fb, twitter, insta, snap or anything but I’ve really enjoyed your contribution and the knowledge you’ve been sharing here. I have actually been reading this blog since 2011, and now I would like to make a recommendation. In Denmark (which is my home country), H.C. Andersen is a compulsory part in elementary school and Søren Kirkegaard is a compulsory part in High School. They are both well known outside of Denmark, so English translations are available. But be careful if you choose to take a deep dive here :). I know people who started with this more than 30 years ago and they are not yet finished. As a teenager back then I did not quite understand the importance in full, but I do now… to some extent. Together with ancient greek ancient history you will get what I call “some answers”. I took another direction in life, so I only have a tiny fragment of knowledge in this area, but I know enough to say that these authors and their work will benefit the most people. Don’t underestimate it, and listet below is just to start up with:

      Søren Kirkegaard: The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air (Three Godly Discourses)
      H.C. Andersen: 14 famous fairy tales

      Best/Michael I.

    2. Mathieu on February 13, 2018 at 9:08 am

      I’ll have to be skeptical at your articles from now on then 😉 Very good read as always, thanks.

    3. Blake on February 13, 2018 at 2:35 pm

      You are definitely an expert on running, Steve, but are you really qualified to render an opinion on cryptocurrencies? 😉

    4. Brian Reddy on April 18, 2018 at 8:14 am

      Really enjoyed this article.

      “If they could get it so glaringly wrong on one, maybe they are wrong on all of these other topics which I know little about?”

      “In other words, I needed to obtain a deep enough understanding before I could even begin to evaluate what was right or wrong.”

      I’ve had this experience many times myself. In an entire book, there might be one, virtually completely unrelated, throwaway line about exercise, “It’s like how you should always do intervals instead of steady state,” where now you’re wondering about every other sentence of the book.

      One of the tough aspects is the more confident you sound about the topic, the more people believe you. Because, naturally, most don’t have the required knowledge to know the nuance of the topic, so we default to whoever sounds like they know it best. I listened to Michael Lewis talk about this, in regard to Daniel Kahneman’s work. He actually interviewed Obama about it. Something to the effect of “Everything I do is inherently probabilistic, but if I speak like that, nobody would vote for me.” I feel the same way with clients sometimes!

      (I saw you have Thinking, Fast and Slow on your recommended list. If you haven’t already, you might enjoy The Undoing Project for more about Kahneman and Tversky.)

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