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The Myth Of The Expert: Why Saying “I Don’t Know” Is Better For Your Business

By April 30, 2014February 1st, 2018Marketing Insights & Strategy
The Myth Of The Expert: Why Saying "I Don't Know" Is Better For Your Business

I’m no expert.

I know more things about some things than other people but I don’t know everything.

Or nearly everything.

Or, in spite of the fact that I’m always right in an argument with Ralph, anything approximating everything.

You may wonder why someone would hire me to mange their marketing considering I’m telling the world right now that I’m not a marketing expert.

And yet I’m about to tell you why hiring an expert could be the biggest mistake you make. But more importantly I’m going to tell you why you don’t need to be an expert, either. And why, when it comes down to running a successful business, saying, “I don’t know,” can be your biggest ally.

The Coopting Of Vocabulary

Have you noticed how suddenly it seems like everyone is an entrepreneur? (A buck and a basement gets you that moniker.)

Or how titles have sprung up around imperial-sounding words like czar, mystical ones like wizard or just plain delusional ones like ninja or virtuoso?

You can add “expert” to a long list of words that perhaps meant something once but have been appropriated by business folks looking to sound a whole lot more interesting and important than they are.

These days it doesn’t take much to call oneself an expert. Just about anyone with an idea and a Barnes and Noble gift card can learn enough to deem themselves an expert and then sell you products and services based on many, many minutes – maybe even hours – practicing their chosen profession.

If you hire someone on the grounds that they’re an expert – especially if it’s a self-designated entitlement – you could be setting yourself up for disappointment and loss.

Especially when it comes to marketing. Considering that social media has existed for all of about ten seconds of human history and the entire internet for not much longer, to profess “expertise” in a constantly shifting and evolving field is either really, really egotistical or really, really deceptive.

We’ve had enough to say on that matter here. And even here.

There are better reasons to hire someone. And trust me on this one: anyone who has truly studied and practiced and learned a craft and turned it into an art will never call themselves an expert.

But more to the point, that’s a good thing.

You don’t want to hire an expert any more than you want to be one. Here’s why.

You’ll Never Set The Bar Over Your Head

It’s great to “aim high” and “expect the best”. It’s also great to know when you’re using a cliché and to get real instead.

Experts like to be know-it-alls.

Experts like to be smart and right and ahead of the curve.

Experts do not like to admit when they’re a bit over their heads.

That could be very bad for you if you hire one. Think of the web developer who yeses you to death about what he can do and how wonderful your website will be until you cough up the cash, make a few demands and then he disappears into the ether never to be heard from again (or puts you off indefinitely until you sort of give up and go away mad).

This was a lesson we discussed recently, too.

When you profess to be an expert there is an expectation associated with that. It says, “I’m that good.”

It says, “I will be, if not perfect, pretty darn close to it.”

The problem is that the “expert” doesn’t know everything but will not admit it. After all, he’s the expert. Being unsure or – gasp! – wrong is an admission of weakness.

The hardest words for a self-professed expert to utter are, “I don’t know.”

It hardly matters whether the impetus is ego or insecurity. The result is a relationship between a business and a customer that goes off the rails. Experts promise expertise, often can’t deliver on grand ideals and leave a trail of disappointment and distrust in their wake.

If you want to succeed in business then recognize that not knowing means understanding your strengths and weaknesses. It means being fair to customers. It means setting realistic expectations and not making pie-in-the-sky promises.

You Give Yourself A Chance To Grow

One of the greatest gifts that you can give yourself and your customers is not knowing.

Experts who insist that they know it all are denying themselves the ability to get better at what they do. After all, what’s to learn if you’ve been there done that and figured it all out?

Knowing your limitations opens the door to learning. And the more you learn, the better you will become at what you do. And the better you become at what you do, the closer you will get to knowing so darn much about your profession that it would never occur to you to call yourself an expert.

Sometimes life is just one great big contradiction, isn’t it?

Unless you can challenge yourself and what you think you know, there’s no way you’ll ever improve. And without that, isn’t the idea of calling yourself an expert kind of absurd?

Practice saying, “I don’t know,” and use that as your impetus for broadening your horizons, for experimenting, for studying and ultimately for delivering the best of yourself to your customers every day.

You Have A Chance To Prove Your True Worth

Next to, “Thanks for the check,” one of my favorite things to say to customers is, “I don’t know.” Followed immediately by, “But let me look into it and find the answer.”

Sometimes knowing something is not nearly as valuable as knowing how and where to find the answer.

In my industry it would be ridiculous to proclaim expertise when it comes to Facebook marketing. Facebook changes about every six-point-two seconds.


Did you hear that?

That was another Facebook change popping out.

So recently when an email subscriber reached out and asked me a specific question about business pages, I said, “I have no idea.” And then I took a look at the feature she was asking about, saw how it worked and passed that information along.

More than my expertise, my experience helped me find the answer and put it into context for her.

That’s one tiny example, but the grander point is that it’s nearly impossible to know that much about something, let alone something so changeable.

And you may know a whole lot. But when you don’t, you have an amazing opportunity to prove your value by sourcing the answers, by using your insight to make those answers meaningful for your customers and show them that you are willing and able to walk that extra mile.

You’ll Never End Up Bubblefied

Do you know what happens to a lot of experts?

They spend so much time focused on knowing a thing that they start to see everything through that lens.

Think of the social media expert who tells you that you don’t need an email list because you can simply reach your customers on social networks. Or who won’t listen to you when you say that you don’t want to use Twitter because they know better.

That’s dangerous thinking. Just because you know something doesn’t mean it’s the only thing to know.

Just as dangerous for your business, you could be knowing yourself right into obsolescence.

A colleague I worked with some time ago insisted on doing marketing in a very specific way because that’s the way he knew – he was the expert. Maybe for a little while he even was.

But there’s a good reason that I worked with him “some time ago” and that’s because he went out of business.

He knew so much that he never let go of his way of thinking and trapped himself in a bubble of his own expertise.

If that’s how you approach your business or your customers then do me a favor and say hello to Kodak on your way to the poor house.

Focus On Your Customers – Not On Your Titles

This was all a very long and roundabout way of saying that if you want to be good at what you do then stop telling people how good you are at what you do. Just do it.

Nobody expects you to know everything. And sometimes not knowing is not only a strength – because it allows you to grow and evolve – but an opportunity that you can capitalize on and use to the benefit of yourself and your customers.

So before you spend another second choosing from among mogul, maverick and maven as your next LinkedIn title, take a moment and remind yourself that experience trumps expertise and honesty beats hubris.

But the big lesson today is….



Heck if I know.

This post is part of the monthly Word Carnival series of posts. This month, our carnies talk about what it takes to be an expert – or to admit when you’re not one. This phrase from our ringleader says it all: “You’re not perfect – you can’t know everything.” Read the rest of the Word Carnival posts here for more great advice and insight from some of the smartest business owners and entrepreneurs you’ll meet.

Join the discussion 39 Comments

  • wormseye says:

    “Expert” – from the expressions ‘x’, an unknown quantity, and ‘spurt’, a drip under pressure.

  • You’ve hit the ball out of the park again with this post! We are kindred spirits on the “I don’t know but let me find the answer for you” approach. And anyone who needs to have the spotlight will find a way of getting it. I prefer the Lao Tzu approach: “let the people believe they came to that conclusion all by themselves”.

    I’ve been a (OMG do I have to use a title?) business coach/mentor/muse/consultant/cheerleader/alka-seltzer (I provide relief)/whatever your problem is I’ll help you find a solution person for over 25 years now, LONG before there was a moniker for it. When someone asks “What do you do?” I answer, “What do you need done? Because if I can’t help you, I’ll find someone who can, or some way I can.”

    It drives me nuts to see someone who’s taken a fourteen hour weekend course call themselves a business coach/guru/expert, because information and knowledge do not necessarily equate to wisdom…wisdom comes with experience. This world is full of information and knowledge, but we are wise to align with those whose experience, information and knowledge have resulted in true wisdom. Cheers! Kaarina

    • I love the word WISDOM! That is exactly the point I was trying to get at in a verbose way and completely missed using that very wise word 🙂

      I have truly never heard someone who you might actually call an expert refer to themselves as such. Real experts know enough to know that there’s a lot to know! The more you learn the more you realize what you don’t know, right?

      I also like your use of the word muse, so I will allow that one a pass considering it sounds exactly like what you do. You have a unique approach that merits a little muse and musing and music 🙂

      • Thanks @carollynnrivera:disqus , for the pass on the word ‘muse’. It’s a word that some of my clients use in a very fond way (which I so appreciate), especially when they call up and say “I need a little dose of Kaarina”. I work with people to create independence, NOT dependence upon me or my services, so I don’t want to suggest that I become a crutch or an “expert” (haha) for them. But they and I know what they mean by that, especially when they say they feel inspired, confident, energized and ready to take the next step toward the actualization of their dreams and goals. 🙂 P.S. I’m especially grateful to you for saying I have a “unique approach”, because I do. And I know that because my clients, colleagues and connections tell me that:)

        • See, you get titles and accolades and you don’t even have to give them to yourself. That’s how you know you’ve done something right! I think you have cornered the market on being the anti-expert and maybe empowering other people to be their own.

          • Ooooooh, I need an anti-expert cape, haha! You’re the “wind beneath my wings” (or cape) today my friend. Thanks so much for your very kind words: they support me to keep living my mission:)

  • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said that knowing how to find information is equally important as (and sometimes more important than) the writing. Well said, Carol Lynn!

    • Yes, I totally agree! When I used to teach, one of my biggest MOs was not teaching the kids something but asking them how they could find the answer on their own. And teaching them to do THAT instead.

  • “Say hello to Kodak on your way to the poor house.” LOL!! Oh, Carol Lynn, you have such a wonderful way with words! No kidding. Every time I read your posts, I think “I wish I could come up with lines like these!” You really know how to drive a point home. 🙂

    With all the other good stuff in your post, the notion of “proving your value to clients” glows like a neon flashing sign in my brain. The message has its own special sparkly brilliance. Isn’t that what it’s really all about?! You prove your value when you have the answers and deliver on your promises … and you prove equal value when you’re honest and admit you don’t know everything.

    From what I’ve observed, there’s a boatload of self-appointed experts online. I’ve learned (the hard way) to keep my B.S. meter fully charged. As a general rule, I steer clear of people who find the need to brag, profusely, and assign themselves titles such as “guru” or “maven”. Yuck. That type of behavior is an instant turnoff for me.

    Excellent read! 🙂

    • That’s so funny you said that, Melanie, because I debated putting that in. It sounded pretty harsh and I didn’t want to insult anyone. So I’m glad to hear it amused you 🙂

      I don’t understand all these weird titles people give themselves. Maybe the first guy who called himself a ninja accountant or something was cool but now everyone thinks that a title like that is some kind of differentiator. It only sounds dumb. And FORGET the online “experts”. Don’t get me started!!!

  • You know Carol Lynn if you ever want to give up not being an expert in marketing I think you should do stand up. Your humor is unique and always spot on. I love the zinger on wow they’ve studied for minutes, maybe even hours to become an expert. And the ending, and.. ahem to the biz part!

    On being an expert – I’ll confess to having used the term. However to me an expert can and does admit they don’t know something. Usually when I get an unexpected question it intrigues me. My common response is, “I never thought about that… let’s explore that idea some more.” I may be able to work it out on the spot, or more likely, I’ll commit to go away and come back with something. Perhaps that’s my training as an actuary. We do call ourselves experts, from a legal and regulatory point of view that is how we are categorized. However actuaries are trained to do what I outlined above. In fact our code of conduct demands we do so.

    Perhaps experience or expertise is a more accurate phrase. I have never claimed to be a wordsmith or copyeditor, so I would defer to them on the optimal term. However I think you and I agree in the underlying principles and behavior. That’s the core of it.

    • I agree, it’s not that there are no such things as experts, it’s just that the word has been co-opted by people far less than expert. It loses its meaning when you can grab a book and learn something over a cup of coffee then start hawking internet “products” and give yourself fancy titles while you do it.

      People who are truly expert know that there are things they don’t know. AND they will be honest about that. Or at least they should.

      When I start my standup routine at a local club, there will be a three Oreo minimum.

  • SandyMcD says:

    Carol Lynn you are a rare one. Love your writing and your droll approach to matters business.

    Bubblefied – fabulous description. Know a few of those and I suppose with a little bit of empathy I can see how that happens as the entrepreneurial explosion makes it harder for genuine ‘experts’ to rise above the noise.

    Not sure I’ll every look at the word expert in the same way though!

    • The internet celebrity has stolen it from the rocket scientist! And sadly, too many people think that the way to stand above the noise is to call themselves “word czars” or “marketing magicians”.

  • I love this line..If you want to succeed in business then recognize that not knowing means understanding your strengths and weaknesses….that’s powerful and so true. I feel knowing your weaknesses is all about being real and honest with self and it opens us up for growth.

    • Agreed! It’s a win for you because you know how to improve and a win for your clients because if you’re honest you will refer them to someone who has the real expertise they may need.

  • BusySuperVA says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Carol. You’ve made some great points! Honesty is always the best policy when it comes to clients.

  • Few people on this planet can write a blog post with your wit and wisdom, CL. So happy you’re part of our inner circle. (In case you were wondering, I have nothing to add to your post because you — and the other commenters — pretty much said it all.)

  • Halley Razz Gray says:

    So smart! I adore how you make being an expert a dangerous thing. Very true!

  • I had a huge problem with being “bubblefied” when I first started; I focused so much on titles that I was “THE (so and so) of (whatever platform)”. That lasted all of 5 minutes.

    Then I re-focused to look at the bigger picture, how pieces of my knowledge came together. I taught classes on how to use the individual pieces and started listening to how people were asking me about how they came together and telling me how they were using (whatever platform). When I let go of the individual pieces and became a connector, that’s when things changed.

    Ever since, I’ve looked at what the most efficient connections can be, how to not waste my clients’ time, and how to keep them focused on the right outcomes even if the niggling details get left behind.

    There’s this great episode of Scrubs where Dick Van Dyke stars as “the most beloved doctor in the hospital”. Dick’s character has Zach Braff’s character perform a procedure that Braff is uncomfortable with because it’s outdated. Patient gets injured and Dick’s character takes the blame – but later on it’s discovered that Dick’s character has no clue about modern medicine and doesn’t want to take the time to learn.

    That’s stuck with me; and I see it every day in my profession – web devs who are stuck with one kind of site development. Designers with one style. Social media “experts” pushing inefficient/inappropriate platforms because they don’t get the new ones (“everybody’s on Facebook!”)

    Thanks for this!

    Here’s the clip:

    • Yep, sounds about right (the guy who gets “stuck”). That’s why the guy I used to work with went out of business. While I think it’s ok to specialize in a thing – let’s say that thing is WordPress or Facebook or whatever – you have to be honest about the limitations of that thing and recognize when it’s not the best solution for a client. Yes, that may mean turning business away but you can always build up a partnership referral that works. It’s better for everyone in the long run!

  • Molly McCowan says:

    “[…] anyone who has truly studied and practiced and learned a craft and turned it into an art will never call themselves an expert.”

    Exactly right. I’ve talked face-to-face with “big names” in my industry (former editors of the New York Times, etc.), and not once have they referred to themselves as experts. On the contrary, a lot of what we talk about is the fact that we don’t always know the right answer, and we have to rely on our experience and intuition to be able to find it.

    Great post that really rings true!

    • Same here! I cringe at the use of the word. I think we should all go by the “show, don’t tell” model and if we’re that good, our work will speak for itself.

  • AlisaMeredith says:

    I loved this one so much, Carol Lynn! I just got an RFP with a couple of things in it that are outside my experience. One is way out of my league, and the other one I could do, but someone else could do better. I offered to find someone to do those parts and do the rest myself. I told the potential client this and am anxious to hear back. I suppose I could have whitelabled the work, but it just feels better to be completely honest about it. I don’t know it all. Never will!

    My problem is I tend to downplay what I do know just in case I get asked a question I can’t quite answer and to avoid what you said – raising expectations to perfection-level! Your “I don’t know” followed by an offer to find out is a great approach.

    • That’s something we used to debate, too – do we outsource and then white label or just refer? And we decided a long time ago to go straight-up referral.

      1. It’s way too much overhead to even try to manage a vendor when you don’t know what they’re doing and it’s not your area of expertise.

      2. Unless you mark it up, you’re basically doing it for free which means time you spend managing and middle-manning for zero money which is BAD, but marking it up could also be a problem if you end up pricing yourself out of a job.

      3. If something goes wrong with that piece of the project, you don’t have to fix it. Obviously you want to refer someone you trust, so you do have a vested interest in the outcome, but trying to manage and also be responsible for someone else’s work is so hard.

      I find that is usually appealing to people anyway. Long gone are the days when a company would expect you to do everything in house. If you’re transparent and refer them to someone, they will appreciate that you’re looking to give them the best you can.

      • AlisaMeredith says:

        Excellent points. Middle-manning (my favorite new verb) for free is BAD. Which then can lead to resentment, which is worse. Great reasoning. Thanks for saving me the debate (with myself). 🙂

  • Once upon a time, I was an expert. I think I was 17, and I knew everything there was to know about everything. That is, of course, until I went to college and discovered that I didn’t know anything about anything! These days, I hold onto a small number of truths: (1) that which works for me doesn’t necessarily work for anyone else; (2) anyone who believes that there is only one right way to do anything lacks imagination and ingenuity; and (3) that which I do not know I can learn (if I choose to do so).

    • I might have been an expert right around that time, too! Imagine that. My knowitallness my even have extended into college but the more I learned the less I knew. I also agree with your truths except I would like to append the second one to include…. “is dumb or delusional.” The less charitable version I suppose 🙂

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