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The problems with gurus: We mistake status for skill.

Updated: Feb 4, 2022

So you wanna be a better counselor?: Part 4

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how a well defined field, feedback, and time, are the preconditions for mastery. But so what? What a happens to a field that doesn't have these things? What's the worst that can happen?

You create a field of gurus.

Gurus are a problem. A big problem. Following gurus over masters is like following astrologers over astronomers. It’s bound to create problems. Gurus appear to know what they are doing, but they don't - because they're not getting feedback. And it if they don't know what makes them successful, they they can't help you be successful.

Gurus are antiexperts who lead us don't wrong turns and blind alleys. If gurus are so harmful to our developing skills and becoming masters, why do we so often succumb to them? The trouble is in poorly defined fields with no clear feedback true masters are really hard to identify. One big reason is the influence of status.

We mistake status for skill.

For instance when a teacher walks into the classroom we assume they know what they are talking about regardless of how good they actually are at the subject. We can’t immediately assess the teachers skills, so we rely on her status as “teacher” instead.

Status is tricky. We live in a time where a lot of people dislike status, but status is built into the human animal. We’re always aware of status, almost all of us want higher status, and most of us want to be associated with higher status people. I don’t think status is a bad thing, but I do think status should come from ability not popularity. Status is really about what you can offer your group. High status people can offer their group more, so they deserve to be esteemed.

People often gain status because of how charismatic they are, not how well they perform.

A friend of mine tells a story about being at a parade in central Arkansas. It was the mid 2000’s and as it so happened Bill Clinton was one of the main attractions. Clinton stepped out of the parade, went over to my friends grandmother and said “Hello Mrs. X. Long time no see. How are those tomatoes of yours?” The grandmother, a stanch republican, stormed off.

Later the family gathered around and asked grandma why she was so mad, and how she knew Bill Clinton. Turns out grandma had meet Clinton years before when he was governor of Arkansas, and they’d had a conversation about her home garden. Apparently he’d remembered her, and grandma being a stanch republican hated that he'd remembered. It made him likable, and she didn't want to like Clinton.

Was Clinton a good president? Ask a dozen people and get a dozen answers. It’s hard to say objectively. Politics is an undefined field with bad feedback loops, but we can say a large part of how he became president was his charisma.

Status leads to losing skills

Other times people gain status not because of charisma, but because of their skill. This creates another problem. They believe they will keep their skill, even though they aren’t practicing anymore. I hear stories every day of someone complaining that their boss making a dumb decision. The stories usually end with “and my boss used to have my job. So she should know better!”

One example is a coder friend of mine who’s boss doesn’t get how long projects take. My friend feels like his boss should know, because his boss used to be a coder after all. But the truth is his boss used to be a coder. He’s not practicing any more. He’s lost his edge, because he’s moved up to management.

If you want to keep performing at a high level, you’ve got to keep doing thing things that got you the skill in the first place.

Status blinds us to our circle of competence

Finally, high status people rarely thinking about their circle of competence. They believe that being smart in one area makes them smart in another area. But you only really know what you’ve deliberately practiced. For instance when they test expert poker players, they are really good at reading tells relevant for poker, but they aren’t any better at lie detection than the average person. Lie detection is outside their circle of competence. Or when they tested a world memory champion who’d done really well at memorizing numbers they found he couldn’t memorize letters. Memorizing letters was outside his circle of competence.

I’ve seen this a dozen times when I played sports. I’d see someone who was really good at soccer try and explain some concept to a younger player, and completely fail. Being good at playing soccer is different than being good at teaching soccer. Teaching soccer is outside the their circle of competence.


This central problem, mistaking status for skill leads to the creation of gurus. Psychotherapy is a field uniquely riddled with gurus. Almost no one does the work to track their outcomes and get good feedback on their performance. The biggest problem with gurus is that they often give magic bullet answers instead of talk about the hard work it takes to master our field.

The even trickier thing is many of them would agree with me. They’d say, “yes, you absolutely need to work hard. It’s not going to be easy.” But they don’t see the contradiction between what they are saying and what they are doing.

Now you know the three preconditions and you know the big problem to avoid, what would you actually do?

Let’s talk about the big 3.


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