Beware of Gurus

When I was living in Athens, a colleague invited me to attend a meditation class just outside town. She seemed nice, if not uncommonly calm, and I was curious, so I accepted.

The class was quiet, with long periods of sitting in one spot with our eyes closed. Occasionally I opened them to look at the dozens of small photos around the room of a middle-aged man wearing a gentle, avuncular smile. He was the guru.

Toward the end of the class, we watched a video of this guru giving a lecture. Most of what he said seemed reasonable, but some of it seemed downright silly to me. Nonetheless, the regular members of the class listened in rapt attention and seemed to draw great meaning from his words.

At the end of the class I was solicited for a donation, which I obligingly gave. But I never went back; that guru stuff freaked me out.

Gurus still make me uncomfortable — and suspicious. Unfortunately, it seems that more and more people in our industry are proclaiming themselves gurus. Lately I have come across countless articles featuring a “usability guru,” a “wireless guru,” or an “e-marketing guru.”

I think there is something wrong with people who confer on themselves guru status. Sure, you can understand the marketing impulse behind it — after all, people always want to consult with the most experienced person in a particular field. Calling yourself an expert is bad enough. But calling yourself a guru is over the top.

Being a guru implies that you have such knowledge and expertise that your opinion is unimpeachable, like gospel. Gurus seem to think they have the right to make proclamations, such as “Online advertising doesn’t work,” or “Flash is 99 percent bad,” without any substantial support. And they sometimes attack methods of inquiry, such as online research, that might contradict their assertions or provide another perspective.

The problem with gurus in an industry like ours is that they are often very conservative. They usually become famous for certain points of view and end up staunchly defending them in the face of change. In our constantly changing industry ideas should be continually examined and challenged. If you have a high profile, espousing fundamentalist beliefs about the web can constitute an abuse of power.

People who really believe in the pursuit of knowledge embrace open exchange, objective inquiry, and the consideration of alternative points of view. The most wise of experts support their claims with evidence and present them with humility. Posturing and bluster usually serve to hide weakness.

Achieving success on the Internet involves too much — about technology, business, customers, and the creative process — for any one person to know, no matter how experienced. No one should have the last word on any aspect of the industry because success is contingent on so many factors.

It’s fine that people want to influence the way people think about the industry. But beware of gurus. They usually don’t want their views questioned — and they almost always ask for a donation.

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