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Gurus And Other Experts

The terms “expert” and “guru” have become buzzwords in the marketing world. Often used to distinguish one practitioner from the masses, many gifted and heart-felt professionals use these terms to capture their vast knowledge and experience.  I have to say it does make the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and the guru-thing is just waaay too worshippy for me.  I’m sensitive to language, though I do question my very visceral resistance, which could be another topic all together.

On the flip side, I would hire “Phil’s Expert Plumbing” because:

A.  I don’t need or want to know the details of a plumbing repair; I just want it fixed.

B.  I get a sense of pride and confidence from a tradesperson who refers to him/herself as an expert.

C.  I’m a sucker for a great advertising slogan.

However, if I’m looking for a web designer, a therapist or even a doctor, I want to know they’re passionate about their work; they come with years of experience and the ability to guide me. I also want someone who’s open, who listens, and who doesn’t proclaim to have all of the answers, who can lose the ego and say “let me get back to you on that”.  I want someone who will take their expertise and tailor it to my needs.

My dear friend, mindfulness coach Debra Hickok and I chatted recently about the bevy of new experts in everything from shopping to spirituality.  I mentioned that for me, the term creates disconnection.  Debra described a common phrase in the mindfulness world called the Beginner’s Mind, which refers to an awareness that reserves judgment and assumptions, and sees the world through the lens of a learner. Who knew? I loved that notion and went on to dig around a bit further.

I learned that Beginners Mind or Shoshin, is actually a Zen Buddhist practice going back many hundreds of years.  More recently, in Shunyru Suzuki’s book Zen Mind: Beginner’s Mind, he writes: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”.

Author and teacher Jack Kornfield calls it the “Don’t Know Mind”.  He regards this state as a method for embracing uncertainty or conflict in everyday life.  Rather than wrestle with what-ifs or create a story based on assumptions, Kornfield advocates for the simplicity of sitting with what we don’t know.  Easier said than done, but this is why it’s called a practice.

I understand the challenge of trying to describe yourself and the work you do succinctly, but for me, those terms say very little about who you are.  I want to know about your perspective, how you approach what you do, why you do it and whom you serve.  As a coach, some of my deepest learning comes from my clients.  In their quest for clarity, I’m right beside them.  They are the experts in their own lives.  I am simply the guide.

Now, where is that dishwashing guru when you need one?

Wishing you the happiest of New Years!





  1. I think this is a beautiful and thoughtful description of what it means to remain consistently open and in the “Beginner’s Mind” Joan. I love the distinction you make which allows room for each of us to engage an area or body of work in which we have a specific skill set, training and even natural gifts and yet what makes us even better at what it is we are doing, is to always maintain what you aptly describe as the perspective of being the “learner” at all times. People who study effective leadership understand that the very best leaders are constantly seeking the gifts and input of those around them. Lastly is that it gives us such freedom to release the “expert” role. Thanks so much for this great and meaningful post!!

    1. Author

      Debra, I love your comment about allowing the freedom to release the “expert” role. It’s giving ourselves permission to not know it all. What a relief!

  2. Beautiful post Joan! I’d say that this concept certainly applies to leaders. As Jim Collins points out in his iconic book, “Good to Great”, what most often differentiates good leaders from great ones is their humility. The best leaders, and practitioners, understand that life is about learning, being ever mindful to keep our ego at bay to better open up to the possibilites of new ideas, other possibilites, greater potential.

    1. Author

      Thank you Peter! Your comment reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Nelson Mandela on this very topic “A leader. . .is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

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