When the Voice of Experience is Not Enough

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In the process of starting a business, building a career, or some other large, audacious goal, you could do worse than to tap into the voices of experience around you. And yet even if you listen to the collected wisdom of your elders, their sage advice may fail to produce results. Here’s how “the experts” can steer you wrong.

What a luxury it is to not have to learn everything from square one! Walk through any modern bookstore, and you’ll see vast sections of books dedicated to “how to” topics ranging from business management to finding the perfect mate. “How to” material abounds on the Internet. There are even dedicated web sites like eHow.com that collect this information into handy checklists and videos. The Khan Academy will tell you, step-by-step, how to do almost any kind of math problem from basic arithmetic to advanced calculus. And as great as these resources are, there are times when the collective wisdom will let you down, not in the sense that you can’t find the answer to your question, but that the accepted answers turn out to be wrong. Conventional wisdom, accepted uncritically, leads to conventional error more often than we’d like to admit.

Professional baseball teams spend millions on their players each season, and building a roster may contribute as much to a team’s success or failure as any other factor. Fans will cheer or rue an organization’s draft picks for seasons to come. And there are few careers with less job security than the general manager of a major league team. The fear of being replaced over a “bad” draft pick drives general managers — the supposed experts — into rigidly conventional thinking. It’s just too expensive to experiment or try out new ideas. As a result, baseball is (or was) ruled by a fairly arcane set of statistics that described each player, such as RBI (Runs Batted In) or “Slugging Average,” which certainly had something to do with a player’s ability, but no one really asked whether these stats were the best way to evaluate a team or its chances of winning games. That all changed with Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics as documented in the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Beane developed his own statistical system from first principles based on what matters most: scoring runs and preventing the other team from scoring runs. Beane’s system was controversial and led to some unorthodox picks, but he called into question many aspects of the sport that had not been examined for decades.

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Up-and-coming therapists wishing to build a client base run into some of the same difficulties regarding conventional wisdom. Senior therapists obtain much of their business from person-to-person referrals due to years of prior practice. There’s no way for newcomers to emulate this advantage right away, and the subtle interaction between clients and potential clients will always remain a mystery. Seasoned counselors built their business in a time before the Internet permeated every aspect of our lives, and have little experience reaching clients on the Web. Very few experienced helping professionals built their practices in an economic environment as hostile as we’ve seen since 2008. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen that doing all the traditional “right” things can produce deeply discouraging results.

Consider the following factors before deciding to ignore the old pros. First, and most importantly, is the conventional wisdom failing you? There’s no need to reinvent the wheel as long as the wheel is doing what you need it to do. Second, are all the experts saying the same thing? When there’s no controversy, there’s no opportunity to sample different results. Popular opinion can become entrenched when it produces mediocre results and no-one is searching for anything better. Finally, watch out when conventional wisdom was formed under very different conditions. Often, times change, yet our approach remains the same and no-one notices the disconnect.

When the voice of experience speaks, it still pays to listen, but don’t forget all the traps that await the old pros. Observing how current conditions differ from the historical picture, noting when everybody is going the same way, and looking for new places to apply objective analysis can turn you from an apprentice at the feet of the masters into the next generation’s revolutionary thinker.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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