I have a healthy suspicion of anyone who tries
to oversimplify complicated aspects of life and business.
A few of these self-claimed experts are less
than qualified to advise anyone but prosper thanks to a common need for answers
and solutions and a thriving “self-help” industry that attracts more hustlers
than an easy card game.
Late night in Los Angeles, I found myself in a
copy shop waiting to collect something and while I stood in line, the two men
in front of me caught my attention.
One was a young man in his early twenties
wearing a cheap but relatively new suit with old shoes.
He was focused, hanging on every word spoken by the
other, older man who was in his forties or fifties.
The older guy wore an old but expensive leather
jacket over a dark Italian shirt tucked into pants and I could smell the
remains of a hundred cigarettes on his clothes.
He was a shark in shallow waters, a sleezebag
and I marked him immediately as a grifter.
While he talked, his eyes watched the door as he
complained about this and that to his young apprentice and I soon found myself
wondering what his angle was.
A pool hustler? A snake oil salesman? Perhaps a jam auction barker or pitchman.
In a way, I was correct on all three counts.
The Life Coach
While collecting my own printing, I managed to
pilfer one of the brochures Mr. Leather Jacket was examining and as I left, I
heard him berating the kid behind the counter for a discount.
This was an unpleasant human being who oozed
‘ugly’ from every pore of his leathery skin and yet I was baffled by the
younger guy who seemed completely entranced with every word the old hustler
In my car, I retrieved the brochure and all
Old Hustler was a “life coach” and his brochures
were advertising speaking events with promises of answers to all of life’s
Photographs of Old Hustler in action showed an
almost entirely different human being: Smiling, charming, interacting with
people seemingly delighted with his advice.
It was a facade, carefully constructed to
conceal the complaining, unhappy grifter I had watched in the print shop.
For a moment, I considered attending one of his
seminars out of curiosity but decided against it as I’d already felt quite
uncomfortable in his presence, though I felt a little concern for his young
follower who was clearly buying every word that came out of Old Hustler’s
Maybe he was having a bad day, but I’ve seen
this type of dual personality before and while I may have misjudged him, I’d
happily bet I was on the money.
The Answers Industry
Old Hustler was an extreme example who came off
like a background extra for a mob movie but I’ve met several other grifters
working the same scam without being quite so obvious.
Keynote speakers, life coaches, authors of
self-help books and even preachers fall into two clear categories: Genuine
experts and fakers with a little bit of shared ground in-between.
People need answers to difficult questions and
are drawn to people who claim to have easy answers to complex problems.
From diet gurus to security experts there’s
someone to tell you that their formula is the solution and their books, videos
and annual subscriptions are sold to millions of people promising money, health
or peace of mind in return for cold, hard cash.
And it’s not always a scam.
Some information is extremely valuable, even
essential, but the means in which that information is packaged, portioned out
and sold has become all too familiar.
Many of us have spent hundreds of dollars on
glossy materials and video discs only to learn that everything being taught can
be found in a small book for less than 10 bucks.
Presenting With Confidence
The real problem isn’t inflated prices or
gratuitous packaging, it’s the ease in which some people can rebrand themselves
as an expert in order to fleece and fool the unwary with buzzwords and PowerPoint
presentations while saying almost nothing of substance.
Like the curious con man I encountered in that
Californian print store, it’s all about creating an image that people will buy
(literally) then feeding them a diet of platitudes and made-up stories to
satisfy their curiosity.
But it offers nothing positive in terms of real
advice or potential for change.
Confidence really does work in this arena and
I’ve watched real experts with less charisma be overshadowed by more gifted
speakers who somehow manage to say almost nothing for an entire hour in front
of an enthralled audience.
The more amorphous the topic, the greater the
chance for deception since these Walter Mitty types can easily say almost
anything without challenge unless a real expert happens to be on stage at the
same time but even then it can be impossible to tie them down.
I’ve been on panels where fellow speakers range
from legendary insiders to verbose pretenders who simply flap their gums until
the audience applauds but it’s almost impossible to challenge them since they
don’t say anything of actual substance!
It’s both frustrating and disappointing because
the audience is constantly drawn to easy confidence rather than inconvenient or
It’s like a building contractor who gives an
honest appraisal and a fair estimate for difficult jobs but is constantly
losing out to cowboy builders who claim every job will be easy then do a
terrible job for twice as much time and money.
People are drawn to this kind of confidence yet
constantly deceived by it.
Shit From Shinola
As I learned years ago, “In the land of the
blind, one eye is king.”
Meaning that in any walk of life where I feel
uncertain or in need of direction, it’s a lot easier for me fall for a line of
When interested in any topic, I tend to read
about people and compare them to others in the field and I use my inbuilt grift
sense to decide whether or not I smell something “off” about what I’m reading
This can be a negative since being so suspicious
all the time means I can miss out on positive experiences or opportunities but
in this case, I’ll take that risk.
Learn to recognize a well packaged, highly
polished turd compared to less flashy, more human speakers, writers or experts
who don’t feel they need the pizzazz since they have better information, advice
In truth, these speakers are wrong and quickly
overshadowed by more attractive competitors despite their lack of real
Find trusted organizations that provide access
to proven sources of information or solutions.
I’ve been involved with one such organization
for several years and I speak for their events, provide online consultations
and write regularly for their members and my fellow speakers tend to be highly
focused experts on a spectrum of expertise relating to human behavior and
What this group provides is a curated selection
of speakers and experts while other, much larger events allow a free-for-all
where almost anyone can speak on any topic.
So apply a healthy dose of skepticism to any
unknown source of information, not least if it applies to health or wellbeing.
Consider how many grifters have made millions as
diet gurus or by advocating questionable lifestyle choices.
One such con artist finally ended up in jail but
I have no doubt he’ll have another scam running as soon as he gets out and
(sadly) a million more people buy his books and follow his dubious advice.