June 5, 2011

You Are The Expert, Sometimes

Whether retired or not, we all tend to gravitate to experts. If we want help managing our money we find a financial planner or adviser. For our health we consult not just doctors, but specialists. There are experts ready to tell you how you save your marriage or put the spark back in your love life. The magazines by the checkout counter of your favorite supermarket list easy steps to solve every sticky problem in your life. Our society worships experts. If someone is an expert, whatever he or she says must be right.

Yet, time and time again, we rely on experts and find the advice doesn’t work the way we have been told it would. Then we beat ourselves up and assume we must be incompetent because “it worked for all those other people.” Yet, the economic mess of the last few years should be proof enough that the experts can be as clueless and wrong as the rest of us.

My non-expert advice: don’t do this to yourself. Sometimes advice doesn’t work because it’s bad advice. Of the hundreds of personal development, financial planning, or retirement books I’ve read over the years more than a handful contained bad advice. The ideas and suggestions simply did not work for me in my situation. They produced zero results or even negative results. They were not just useless, but potentially harmful to my satisfying retirement.

This doesn’t mean the authors were lying. In most cases I could see a reason why the advice might have worked well for the author but wouldn’t work for me. We’re all different. What works for one person or even a group of people doesn’t always translate well to every individual. We can't out-source our life to others.

It really doesn’t matter how well schooled an expert is or what studies he has to back up his claims. Unless the author has spent time with you personally, be suspicious of any advice that comes from averaging different types of people together. Do studies on “average” people apply to someone who isn’t average? Are you average, or are you a unique human being? Do you completely fit the average mold in terms of your genetics, diet, upbringing, education, finances, family situation, residence, hobbies, etc? Probably not. No one person does. That's why it is an average. That means the step-by-step approach to solving your specific problem won't necessarily work like you hope it will work.

Unfortunately, there are lots of people who try to separate older folks from their money with investment schemes that are little more than scams. A claim of legitimacy, a fancy title, a slick brochure, a four color mailer, or a well-designed web site is all it takes to separate lots of people from their hard-earned money.

At this point, stop and consider: experts certainly know less about you than you do.  They want you to stop worrying and just do what they say, buy what they recommend, and live how they have determined is best. An expert is often self-declared. He may have no track record or experience to have earned that label. She has no idea what works best for you in your unique set of circumstances. Consider that maybe you are the best expert in figuring what is right for you.

Study yourself as an individual, and use expert advice only as a general guide for new experiments of your own. Notice what works for you and what doesn’t. Trust your senses. If the experts say one thing, but your personal experience suggests the opposite, put more faith in your own experience. Stop listening to every talking head. Start listening to yourself. That will take you much farther down the road of a satisfying retirement lifestyle.

How specifically could this apply to you? Without coming across as an expert, here are a few obvious examples to make my point:

Health care.  If any doctor said I need surgery or a course of treatment that is expensive, possibly debilitating, and risky I am going to get a second opinion. I am going to do my own research on the Internet and at the library. I am going to attempt to talk with others who have had the same medical issue. I very well might do what that first doctor suggested. But, not just on his say-so.

Finances. My financial adviser suggests I purchase something, sell something, or consider a new direction. Nothing happens until I have enough time to think about it, research it, and consider other options. It is my money and future at risk, not his.

Blogging. There are thousands of bloggers ready to tell me and sell me something so I can be a "successful" blogger. They have a plan to add 10,000 new readers in a month, or 20,000 Twitter followers by tomorrow. All I have to do is buy their book or sign up for an on-line course, and I'll be the next big thing. Or, maybe it is better for me to continue the way I have been: slow, steady growth with plenty of missteps and mistakes. Only I can decide what I want this blog to be and how to get there.

What decisions have you made and steps you have taken that were counter to "the experts?" Do you have examples of some piece of advice you followed that turned out to be all wrong for you? What is keeping us from trusting more of our own sense of what is right and wrong for us?

Thanks to fellow blogger, Steve Palvina for the inspiration for this post from an article of his 6 years ago.

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  1. Sage advice! I'd add one more point. Be as suspicious of your own advice as you would be about any other expert.

  2. Ralph,

    Excellent point. We can be just as wrong as anyone else. So, take your time before making an important decision and look at all input and ideas, including your own. Thanks, Ralph.

  3. Your words ring true. When I give out advice as an expert I usually add...." I'm only your Doctor. I only know a small part of the picture. You have to take my advice and add it in to all the other factors in your personal equation."
    On the other hand, I do hope people realize that no one person can be an expert in every field. I DO think I know a heck of a lot more about some things than my patients do, based on 35 years of schooling, learning and experience.
    However, when I take my car to my (earned) trusted mechanic, I consider HIM to be the expert. It does not belittle my self worth to admit it. Some people get very insulted when a true expert ( and there are many) renders an opinion.
    We are all equal in the eyes of the law and the eyes of the lord, but darn it, my computer tech is a lot more "equal" when it comes to setting up a computer network.
    So...use common sense, evaluate all advice, but sometimes, you have to give in and extend some trust.
    Dr. Keith

  4. Dr. Keith,

    You state your case well. What all of us need is to be cautious of blind faith in anyone or anything, ourselves included. Gather info, verify to the best of your ability, then make a decision.

    I would never try to fix my car myself. But if a garage I've never used before says I need $1,000 worth of repairs, I am very likely to go to another shop and compare recommendations before OKing the repair. Once a repair shop has proven to my satisfaction that they are fixing only what needs fixing, then, I trust them from that point forward.

    And yes, there are times and situations where trust must be extended. I appreciate your comment. I think you have done a nice job of helping to clarify the point of the post and refining its conclusions.

  5. Bob, You really hit the nail on the head with everything you've said in this article, especially, "...experts certainly know less about you than you do." I had to really laugh at your example of the blog world. So true! Thanks for this clarity and encouragement.

  6. Hi Sandra,

    The blogging world is full those claiming to know the shortcut to instant success. It doesn't work that way. Anything worth doing and anything that lasts takes time and effort.

    I used to read all the suggestions, but decided to just follow my own path. So far, so good.

  7. This is a great article. For so much of my life I looked outside myself for guidance. I didn't trust my own opinion about much of anything. Gradually, I realized that when I went against my instincts, I almost always made a mistake. I started listening to myself. Not without questioning myself as well, as your first commenter observed.

    You use some great examples. A few years ago, a financial consultant advised me to sell some property I own. It was a big decision, so I did get second and even third opinions. All agreed. But I was very uncomfortable with the idea of selling for several reasons. I kept it and it turned out to be the right decision.

    That is one example of several I can think of where I went "against" what the experts were telling me and was later glad I did. It might not always turn out like that, of course, but I like taking the responsibility for my own well being.

    Thanks for a great article.

  8. Good morning, Galen..

    Thank you for the words of support. I'm glad you feel the post is on target.

    I had a financial adviser get me involved in something that I didn't really understand. It turned out to be bogus and it cost me several thousand dollars. Never again.

    My wife has struggled for years with various illnesses and problems. Virtually every doctor she saw tried to solve the problem with just pills, but never uncovering the causes. Eventually they had her up to 15 pills a day at age 50. The side effects weren't good.

    She kept asking questions, getting copies of all her reports and doing her own analysis. She finally concluded there was a likely cause for several of the problems. After getting a test for that problem and finding out she was right, her pill count fell to 3 and her symptoms were much better controlled without massive side effects.

    There are times when you simply have to take control and trust yourself.