How To Choose Your Next Online Expert

Online and off… these days everyone is an expert.

Self proclaimed or otherwise, anyone can launch a website and call themselves an expert, start writing a blog with authority, and make some cash off their opinions.

And no one seems to notice.

People click Like to follow pages and sign up to follow blogs as mindlessly as a Tinder swipe. (I’m guilty of this).

Even worse, people are happy with the convenience of online learning and flexible payment options to sign up on a whim and wait for their life to change.

In reality, we have no idea who we are following and how credible their content is – and lots of us don’t care.

In part, this is what Tom Nichols (professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard University adjunct) is referring to in his piece The Death of Expertise.

He says…

“I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.”

Seth Godin has been vocal about this idea also – giving his strategies for separating online noise stating “An opinion needs to be based on experience and expertise.” (For anyone to pay attention…at least that’s the hope, but not the reality)

In the face of these streams of thought my email spam screamed otherwise.

“You don’t have to be an expert to create an online course”…and weeks after that another that said I, too, could be an online coach in less than a month with minimal investment.

I gasped. Because I think you should be an expert – I think it’s a character-driven set of values to seek excellence. And in my profession, it’s irresponsible not to.

Online programs are plentiful and many are appealing to the lowest common denominator of scrutiny. Counsellors, coaches, and personal development specialists abound – in almost every industry.

Because it’s a huge growth industry and because there’s real potential to help others at a greater reach than ever before.

Some are excellent and truly credible.

I’m not a life coach or business coach and I don’t want to be because I’m not an expert in that and would do a disservice to anyone that sought me out for those skills. It’s important that I not confuse my customer and say that I am or can do these things. I have no expertise, education, training, or success in these areas to be able to qualify as an expert.

But I know some that are and I’ve checked them against these tests to make sure before I refer clients to them.

Some are excellent and truly credible.

Others are packaged up opinions from people with no expertise whatsoever.

How do you know the difference? Why should you care?

I never thought I would value expertise the way I do now.

I grew up competitive, but was never really an academic.

I mean… I was… until I was 15 in that I loved school and was an honour roll student.

At 15 I had major surgery and my body and emotions spiralled a bit out of control from the trauma, and with it my ability to focus and produce good grades. So from grade 11 on I started to slip. These were the first moments I had ever been disappointed in myself academically.

I felt like a failure. I barely had the marks to get into university and slid in on a recommendation to the program that had the lowest GPA requirements for admission…. Fine Arts.

And I hated it. Drama people are weird. I’d show up to study sessions that seemed more like setups for orgies with everyone naked … or half naked.

I remember spinning on my heel and walking out the door and going to change my department of studies the next day when that happened.

I added a bunch of communications classes and a human anatomy class. I aced every one because I loved it, because I had great professors, and because I was challenged by the material. It made me think.

It made me think in a different way.

I struggled through my undergraduate degree. Classes in my major were interesting but seemed narrowly focused. Others stimulated ways of processing I hadn’t considered before. I couldn’t find out the formula for good grades though. Classes I loved and thought I would ace I didn’t. Classes I didn’t and thought I would bomb in, I aced.

I learned a lot about my learning style. I learned that essay based classes got me A’s. Exam based classes got me C’s. Regardless of content or interest.

I was focused on finishing and stopped caring about GPA.

Truthfully I found academics boring, narrow minded, and pompous. I couldn’t wait to get out.

When I got my BA I vowed to never return to the hallowed halls of university again.

Instead I jumped into careers with a lot of on the job learning and continued my love of learning through personal research on a variety of areas.

But that didn’t mean I was qualified to do anything with those – it was strictly personal interest and would continue to be. University didn’t prepare me with skills. It taught me how to think in a different way. It taught me perseverance and tolerance and finishing. I’ve used those skills ever since.

And in my 30s I did the unthinkable. I returned to school – graduate school to get my masters in counselling to change careers and do what I’m doing now.

It was a means to an end that I didn’t really believe in. Or didn’t think I did.

I hated it. Just like the first time. I tried not to. But I did.

The theories were archaic. The concepts were boring. It was a skimming overview rather than meaty in depth work. In reality what I needed as a neuroscience based counselling program, but that wasn’t available.

So I graduated with distinction – acing the program despite my negative attitude and resistance. But that didn’t make me an expert. It meant I was employable and unskilled with extra letters behind my name.

I spent a fortune and equivalent hours to a PhD in a neuroscience based modality to make me a specialist. And I grew into being an expert.

And the culmination of that work made me value expertise.

I wanted to help people at the highest level I could access skill for and to also ensure I wasn’t going to hurt anyone. And I wasn’t going to launch a practice or online series until I had achieved that. 

At the same time, I wasn’t really setting that bar for anyone else I followed online, until recently when I fact checked a recent bestselling author who has risen to celebrity status with no credentials other than a blog that she writes her experiences in. A blogger who is now an author who is now a guru in relationships and other mental and emotional health issues.

When I started checking out others – I found a sea of various levels of fame and various priced improvement and advice and coaching certification programs with little foundation beyond personal experience and opinion.

Well so what?

Well – there is power in information. There is power in influence. There is potential for damage.

Online, everyone is an expert.

Every blogger is an “author”, every survivor is a mentor, everyone with an opinion, presence, or history can be a coach. In any discipline on the planet. I’m no different.

We raise great storytellers that can write bestsellers on their own experiences alone to celebrity status and call them gurus and pay them for advice – when all they are is a great storyteller with a great story.

It’s shallow and encouraging us to lose our ability to discern garbage from garden variety from greatness.

It’s encouraging us as consumers to not value excellence and not seek to become it ourselves.

It’s important to put everything under scrutiny to separate the noise from the nuggets of usable, valuable wisdom.

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Try checking out the people you follow, revere, and seek professional advice from online and offline through these lenses…

1.Question everything and check credentials.

Stop being a passive recipient to every glossy brochure or website you come across.

Question what you read and subscribe to all the time – and everywhere.

Dive into any self proclaimed experts credentials and history especially before you buy anything from them or adopt their truths as your own.

But if you want life changing results – if you’re going to invest money and time in particular for programs – do your homework.

Who is this person? What are their qualifications? What do others say about them? What have they done that’s extra? Where have they proven their success?

How do you evaluate with a critical rather than a cynical eye?

A cynical eye will assume everything is bullshit and everyone is selling snake oil.

A critical eye will look for proof to pass the litmus test.

In my industry, which has varying degrees of being regulated or unregulated depending on location, it’s essential.

Almost anyone can say they are a counsellor. They can claim they are a psychotherapist (and the two of those are even not the same).

Very few clients in my history of practice have even bothered to ask for my credentials or check – and the ones who have, did so because they had already wasted precious time and money and are recovering from potential damage from someone with little to no education and training that offered top dollar “psychotherapy”.

A few weekend coaching courses online, an 8 month diploma at a local college, or just a bachelor’s degree. And they put up a shingle advertising psychotherapy.

Few knew that it was imperative for them to research credentials. That trusting your brain and the history of and future healing of your life to someone without the right qualifications could actually cause harm.

Don’t get me wrong. There are master’s level and PhD level therapists that are awful.

Pieces of paper don’t make you a better anything. They don’t make you smarter either. I hear horror stories every week of things previous therapists have done that have caused more illness than they healed.

Inappropriateness and ethical violations and terrible therapy occur regardless of education.

For a therapist… Masters level and above is considered the most very basic level of qualifications for this job – but not everyone knows that.

My university did though – they told us that this was just the very basic level of knowledge and not enough to practice with and that we needed to specialize and get more post-grad training on top of it. Not everyone I graduated has done that but we all look the same to the naked eye.

I think this should be the standard for every industry. Go beyond the basics.

Question everything you read regardless of education of the person selling it to you, but look for credentials and solid training of some kind.

Because most is just opinion. And it might have value as a connecting point, as a shared experience – but you need to have it in context.

Look for registration with some outside body, previous success thats proven in their area of engagement, and validation  from credible sources in the form of testimonials, published work, etc. – it doesn’t have to be a degree. In same cases it’s better if it isn’t – but there should be evidence of credibly, valid training and knowledge acquisition. 

2. Look for relevance and a desire for excellence.

What else has this person done to excel in their field. What successes have they had related to what they’re offering?

Extra courses, post-grad specialties,… this shows they take pride in their work, in their profession and have integrity in pursuing excellence. That will mean they want to set that bar for their content and offer you the same.

They aren’t just in it for some sideline business to make cash – they’ve done the trench work to earn your attention.

Are they speaking to you about what they’re educated and experienced in?

Don’t buy a car from someone that has training and experience as a swim instructor or lifeguard.

Don’t take opinions as fact just because they are are written out professionally and without typos.

What results are they saying you’ll get from working with them or going through their program?

Get someone you trust to look it over – someone in a different discipline and place of life that can offer objectivity.

Online personalities can cruise on charisma alone. Some with an image. Some relationship experts are best selling authors that are giving advice and yet their non fiction piece of work is about what they’ve learned from individual perceptions about their train wreck of relationship history. With takeaways that don’t come from experts in the field… with advice for you about your life that is only an opinion that’s applicable to their life.

You have to ask what’s in it for you… every time. And that may be just connection or resonance with personal experience – which isn’t the same as expertise.

The person must be likeable. They must seem honest and genuine – of course… but don’t put your faith only in someone’s personal experiences in life that they’ve had a journey through as more than just the story of their life.

In your life – your experiences are your own. And they need someone that can attune to you and your life with true expertise – in addition to resonance and relevance.

There is a need to value expertise and expert knowledge over opinion. There is a place of connection and community that is collective experience.

But transformation needs more than that.

In my line of work – the potential for damage is great. I consider the time I sit across from someone sacred. And I am present, and working, and using all of my skills from years and thousands of hours of invested time seriously.

I have not become an academic… or a snob. I have become concerned. I have learned to value what I have invested in after contrast and comparison to others who have not.

There may be exceptions – but these general principles for seeking and respecting knowledge and expertise need to be reborn in an environment of competing experts where no one is really an expert anymore.

There are no shortcuts to being excellent. Seek that desire for excellence in everyone you follow online, everyone you invest in online and be proactive in the content you feed your mind.

If someone has an online platforms and are selling you a coaching program, a book, or some kind of course – do your homework.

What, exactly, makes them an expert.

There are as many scams out there, if not more, than legitimate programs.

Look for a combination of credentials. Look for appropriate self disclosure. Avoid anyone that is trying to work through their own psychological issues through the development of an online program that they’re also trying to make money off of.

Look for experience and additional training. Their About Me section should have clarity over what makes them not just passionate about what they do and how it can benefit you but where the material comes from – how it’s backed by science or otherwise credible sources or bodies.

Or are you just paying for someone’s opinion? And are you ok with that?

A degree and formal education doesn’t make you an expert. It doesn’t make you better at anything in fact. It means you have put together a foundation for the next step and that’s about it.

If you’re buying into something that promises you to be a “certified” whatever… make sure that certification comes from some body outside of that singular business – it doesn’t give you professional cred unless it comes from a professional body.

There are amazing experts out there that have valuable information, educational programs, life transforming courses out there for you to take. Find the best ones – and go for it. Take advantage of all that’s out there for you to grab and how easily available it is – but don’t be duped. Not everyone is an expert. Not every program is credible. Make sure you’re paying for more than just someone’s opinion of how the world works when really – you’re the expert of your life – you could do that for yourself. Value expertise…and excellent in all things – but especially anything you’re adopting into your life. Influence matters.

by Tara Miller

Psychotherapist & writer. Helping you live your fullest life using neuroscience based SRT (Self Regulation Therapy). Specializing in general and trauma therapy.

8 thoughts on “How To Choose Your Next Online Expert

  1. Gary says:

    Reminds me of the saying, Caveat lector, or let the “reader beware”! Do we really know who’s behind the online curtain (screen)? Perhaps the wizard of oz? How do we know if we don’t investigate and do our own due diligence? You list some excellent ways at going about doing this and make good points as to why we need to do this in the first place. I like what you said, “Question everything you read regardless of education of the person selling it to you”.

  2. Jamie says:

    BANG ON! From someone who works in a different industry that has various levels of certification as well as various levels of people selling snake oil, this post is awesome. Sometimes it’s hard to see the difference between the cynical and the critical eye, but being critical of what you read is a skill, an important one that I’m still learning. Thanks for this Tara.

  3. Mary Ann "Yogi Wonders" MP says:

    What a brilliant article because I won’t lie. I fall for quick-fix ideas, it’s the instant gratification to find someone that can help solve your problem and whatnot. I believe this is why I follow Isaiah because I know he cares for everyone that’s under his umbrella.

  4. Donnie says:

    This article is much needed to separate the real experts from the fakes. It inevitable to happen, these kinds of businesses are exploding, and things need to be leveled and sifted through, articles like this will help. Great information for true self development.

  5. Denise says:

    Thanks for this Tara, this is a really useful reality check, especially when you are seeking help from a place of vulnerability because your defences are lower and it’s easier to fall prey to someone else’s self validated schemes. Although I would say I have also fallen prey to the so called ‘experts’ at these times too especially in relation to diagnoses and treatments. Although I question diagnoses and through experience have learned to subject treatments to rigorous research often times they have drastically exacerbated symptoms instead of addressing the issues behind the illness and one is simply left to deal with the physiological, psychological and emotional fall out.

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