The problem with thought leaders

If you want to learn how to run a business, there’s no better source of information than the internet. Twitter, blogs, newsletters and podcasts have been my primary source of business education, and I can’t tell you how lost I’d be without them.

But there’s a problem: Most of the information out there sucks. Some of it is ok advice for some people, but it doesn’t apply to you. Some of it is just good ol’ fashioned terrible.

In this post, I want to explore why this happens, and how we can filter the signal from the noise.

The business model of content

There are two types of people sharing wisdom on the internet:

  1. Professional content creators - People who not only know how to create content, but promote and monetize it too. Getting people to consume their content is the way these people make money.
  2. Domain experts - People who have wisdom on various topics (e.g. running a SaaS business, the thing I'm trying to learn about) because that's what they do for a living. They share their wisdom because they're interested in the topic and it's a way to pay it forward.

The problem is that there's a relatively fixed amount of attention, and all of the people sharing wisdom are competing for that attention. The domain experts generally have the best advice to give, but the professional content creators have way more incentive to compete for the audience's attention.

As a result, most of what you see online was created not by the domain experts, but by performers.

The rules of physics don't apply to thought leaders

Even setting aside that thought leaders often don't know what they're talking about because their expertise lies elsewhere, there's another problem that especially afflicts the world of business advice: Thought leaders can do things the rest of us can't.

By definition, they have huge audiences of people who listen to them and trust them. I can't tell you how many times I've heard from a thought leader that they had a business idea so they threw together a sales page and got $10,000+ in pre-sales in the first 24 hours.

That's a cute story and everything, but it's not how the world works for the rest of us. Unless you also have a massive audience, the things that work for them might not work for you.

How to spot the noise

This might sound harsh, but I suggest being cautious taking advice from anyone who is more successful for their thought leadership than they are for the topic they claim to be an expert on.

For example, if someone has written several best-selling books about leadership, they're probably a professional author, not a professional leader. If someone has a popular podcast that publishes highly produced episodes twice per week and has ads and other forms of monetization, it's hard to imagine they have much time to spend in the trenches doing...anything else. If someone posts entrepreneurship advice to 100,000 Twitter followers but their main source of income comes from those same followers, they're probably better at Twitter than they are at entrepreneurship.

Disclaimer: Don't interpret this as a hard-and-fast rule. There are thought leaders who do their research, have fantastic intuition, or actually do have experience as an expert in the field they're writing about. The challenge is knowing who those people are, so I think it's best to be suspicious of all of them.

A note on when domain experts aren't the best people to learn from

I worry that this post might seem a bit too negative towards professional content creators. I don't actually feel that way, I just think their advice tends to be most helpful for beginners, and it becomes less helpful as you become more experienced.

Look at how education works for example. Who is the right person to teach math to a kindergartener? Probably not someone with a PhD in math. The concepts being taught are relatively simple, but the challenge is in communicating the concepts well and understanding pedagogy. I'd much rather have a professional educator teaching kindergarteners math even if they themselves are not experts. But by the time you reach grad school, the things you're learning are very advanced, and you already have enough of a baseline that you're better off learning directly from a practitioner.

The same thing applies here. If you're just getting started on a topic, finding a popular Youtuber who has lessons on the topic is probably the way to go. But once you start leveling up, you should seek out true experts who can help you get to the next level.

How to find the experts

The key to finding domain experts is to focus on mediums that require very little effort for the content creator. They don't have time to invest heavily in content creation, so they're mostly only going to share wisdom if they can do so in a low-effort way.

In my experience, there are two very low-effort mediums that experts tend to enjoy:

  1. Unscripted podcasts - I'm not talking about NPR-style podcasts. Those are hard to make. But the types of podcasts that just have a few people talking to each other unscripted are super easy to make, and as a result, you can hear from some true experts on those types of podcasts.
  2. Twitter - Again, it's easy to randomly fire off tweets. Busy people might struggle to find the time to write a blog or make Youtube videos, but they can generally find time to shitpost on Twitter.

You may find other mediums that work well for you, but by and large, I suggest trying to find people who aren't in the business of building an audience. They're just sharing their wisdom casually because they want to. That's where the gems are.

But wait, aren't you trying to build an audience? Does this mean you're not to be trusted?

Yup. By my own logic, you should be suspicious of the advice I'm sharing in this post. What can I say, I'm a complex man full of contradictions.

Have thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear from you! I'm @TylerMKing on Twitter.