Guru Fatigue: Getting Paid Without Being The Wizard

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I’ve been on a guru kick lately…

Recently, I asked you to consider being your own guru. And, most understood that was more a call to action to actively engage in the quest for knowledge, question authority and cultivate the qualities that embody the person you’ve been hoping will “make everything alright.” It wasn’t a call to stop learning, trusting or sharing, but rather to question the notion of learning and sharing blindly and to rise to the challenge to engage and lead.

Let’s talk a bit more about how the word guru’s been slung around as a tool to drive money…

In the modern business world, the word guru is often used as a label placed in an effort to position certain folks as the all-knowing sages—the Wizards—in anticipation of extracting maximal wealth in exchange for knowledge and access. Now, you guys know me, I’m completely in favor of being well-compensated when you provide value. And, if that value drives the creation of substantial economic output, your rewards may well be substantial. More power to ya!

Then, why, when I was recently introduced as a lifestyle guru, did I almost puke!

Because, when I think of the word guru, I equate with the phrase, “someone who has arrived.” Maybe that’s not fair, it’s not the literal translation, but I do believe it’s how the word is often thrown about today. And, I’m not that guy. I’m still very much a journeyman.

Still, there’s a fair bit of wisdom that says, “if you wan’t to be paid for what you know, you’ve got to play the role of the wizard…the Guru.”

Which leaves me with an interesting question…

Can you get people to take you seriously enough to pay you real money for knowledge and access, without placing yourself in the position of the guru?

It’s a pretty fascinating question I’ve kicked around a bunch over the last year. Because I have this desire to get paid to share what I’ve discovered by living on the adventurous edge of life, but also view myself as very much “still on the road” to discovery.

The word guru translates to “darkness into light.” Someone who helps illuminate. And, we often overlay, “through wisdom, patience, kindness, compassion and leadership.” At it’s essence, it means “teacher.” Nothing more, nothing less.

But, somehow, over the last few decades in the offline world and the last few years in the online word, the word has begun to take on a more questionable connotation. One who knows all their is to know. One who has arrived at that special place all others aspire to. One who bestows knowledge to the worthy. And, a bit too often, one who stands above others and, from that place, betrays those who’ve surrendered free will and trust.

Granted, not all gurus embody these less-than-guru-like traits. There are plenty of genuine luminaries, seekers and sharers of pure wisdom, love, knowledge, compassion and, depending on the field, straight-up tactical knowledge and access. But, it’s been my experience, the best of those don’t call themselves gurus, there is no self-anointing of wizardom. Rather, as Chris Brogan and Julien Smith shared in the wonderful book, Trust Agents, they simply do what they do and, let others do the labeling.

In my case, I have not nor do I believe I will ever transcend the quest.

I work to engage on a visceral level with life, business and people. I push boundaries some people envision pushing, yet never do. I spend a lot of time contemplating questions, options, paths, strategies and tactics others only contemplate contemplating. I try, fail, learn, correct course, try again then share what I’ve learned.

Is there value in sharing what I’ve discovered? To my good fortune, the answer so far has been yes.

Does that a guru make? Not a chance.

Truth is, I’ve seen an increasingly level of what I’d call “Guru Fatigue” these days.

For a long time, the wisdom in the word of “making money from what you know” was you had to position yourself as the wizard. The top dog. And, for certain clients and fields, that’s likely still true.

But, over the last few years, I’ve sensed a growing movement of people who are really looking not for the opportunity to worship at the feet of the guru or rulebook, but the chance to connect, to be listened to, to be valued, to join in something bigger than themselves, to be inspired and rekindle hope and to learn something that will take them or their companies a serious bit further down the path than they are now from somebody who’s a serious bit further down that road…who they trust.

They’re not looking for the wizard, but rather, someone real they can trust to get them to the next level. Which, interestingly enough, is much closer to the literal definition of the word guru.

So, here’s my question –

I wonder…could that someone be you?

I’ve had a lot of people tell me they’d love to make a living sharing what they know, but they don’t know enough to share.

Fact is, there’s a pretty good chance you do already know enough about something to be able to share it with others and have value associated with that process of sharing. You don’t have to be the wizard to create that experience. You just have to be:

  • Real (interestingly enough, as we’ve discovered, that doesn’t necessarily mean revealing your identity),
  • Deliberately invested in pushing your life or your specific area of interested forward in ways that will generate not only engaging experiences, but knowledge to be shared,
  • Willing to compile your experiences into a format that provides value to others,
  • Able to share what you’ve discovered, and
  • Motivated to find the people to whom your knowledge and advice are valued,

Great examples of this approach include:

The common thread with all of these people is that they position themselves not as some exalted sage to be proselytized, but as:

  • Someone real,
  • Someone who’s a bit further into the journey,
  • Someone who has built-in the space to think about and solve problems that others haven’t,
  • Someone who can help accelerate the journey of others,
  • Someone who cares…
  • BUT not so much the ultimate, end-all-be-all wizard or guru.

So, I wonder two things…

Have you noticed a growing sense of guru-fatigue?

And, looking deeper into your own life-experience and knowledge-base, what might you be able to built a revenue stream around without having to present yourself as the god of that world?

Love to hear your thoughts in the comments…

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46 responses

46 responses to “Guru Fatigue: Getting Paid Without Being The Wizard”

  1. Judy Martin says:

    I’m going to read this post again, as there are some golden nuggets here. This made me think not only about what I’m offering in my blog, but how I’m packaging it. Made me think more in terms of delivering actionable items to help others.

  2. I once went on a retreat where the teachers reflected on this issue, and said their definition of a teacher is ‘a practitioner who shares’ – very close to what you’re describing.

    Ironically, this kind of humility is often more likely to gain respect than playing the guru.

    • nora says:

      Mark, I totally agree and that’s also how we look at ourselves as writers in the MFA program I’m in right now – you’re never ‘done’ with the journey; it’s all about the process (I think that’s applicable to just about anything).

      How do you become a writer? You write. and rewrite. and write some more. My best professors just help facilitate that process among us, they don’t purport to be all-knowing. They’re teachers and mentors, but the true value they give is teaching us how to listen to ourselves so we know what advice/criticism to listen to and what to throw out.

  3. Daniel says:

    I’d feel weird being called a guru. It’s my preference to be known as a writer; that’s in a general sense cos’ I’m more excited to provide value in writing, above and beyond the other services that I’ve been providing as a one-time startup “package”, that includes strategy and web hosting (if the need for the last one arises).

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by jonathanfields: Guru Fatigue: Getting Paid Without Being The Wizard – http://bit.ly/9WnxQO

  5. Naomi Niles says:

    Hey, looks like I’m in great company! Thanks, Jonathan. 🙂

    Regarding the guru fatigue, I think you are right on that. I notice it too. Personally, it makes me squirm a little, but there are probably some people who feel like they need someone especially “strong” and guru-ish to lead them still.

    • Ken Weinert says:

      Interesting thought.

      When someone labels you a guru, who does it say more about?

      You?

      Or them?

  6. Mike Willner says:

    I think the people who have “guru fatigue” are those who have been around the block (without getting fleeced more than once or twice) and have a healthy skepticism toward anyone claiming to have all the answers. I don’t consider as gurus those thought-provoking bloggers, such as yourself, who teach what they’ve learned about their topic of interest (where some of their “lessons” are offered free-of-charge as an inducement to their readers to purchase a premium version of their service); I just consider them experts in their field and I appreciate their win-win marketing strategy (FYI, I also like getting free food at Costco, which often results in my purchasing something I had not previously considered purchasing). Everyone complains about how teachers are underpaid. But I think, with the reach of the internet, the greatest teachers, many of whom are today’s bloggers, will, some day, start making the big bucks (if they are so inclined), as well they should.

  7. Marelisa says:

    I think one of the main problems with being thought of as a guru is that you can’t make any mistakes in your area of expertise (after all, you’re a guru). And if you’re prohibited from making mistakes, you limit your opportunities for growth. In addition, I think that people respect those who say “I don’t know it all, but this is what I’ve done and these are the results I’ve gotten. Go out and see for yourself if this works for you.”

  8. Anne Wayman says:

    I’ve actually worked with and for three people who have obtained guru status here in the states… only one was what might be styled a spiritual guru and I left shortly before that blew up. The other two are still going strong. And in fact so is the first one after a major on the face falling.

    Since I was behind the scenes it didn’t take me long to realize they were real people rather than some exalted whatever.

    There certainly is guru fatigue or healthy skepticism where I hang out and when someone seems to treat me like a guru (it happens even tho’ I’m not on your list 😉 ) I really try first to make sure I’m grounded and then to help ground them in my non-guruness if you will.

    I hope we are all learning to turn the that still small voice, that guru inside… fingers crossed at least.

  9. What a post!
    This sums up and puts into words what I have been thinking recently. I can’t claim to be a guru/expert in anything, except being myself. I can claim, however, to be working on some things… to be practicing and researching what I talk about.
    The hang-up I’ve had was how to transition from where I am now, to where I am now, but being paid for what I can share. I have been recently been thinking that I could be a step ahead of some, and be a motivator/connector. Exactly! I can add value by being real, by sharing my experiences.

    I’m glad to know that I’m in good company and that others share my thoughts.

  10. I would also say an additional characteristic of a guru is someone who is creative. So many people in a niche try to imitate others who are already prominent instead of being themselves. I think often times that’s an outflow of wanting the same prominence without having to put in the hard work because their motive really isn’t to create something that benefits others. So, I think I just expounded on your first point, “be real.” 🙂

  11. This is a thought provoking post. In my own blog I have gone out of my way to be careful NOT to present myself as someone who knows all their is to know.

    I would have to agree with you that people are not looking for the wizard, but rather, someone real they can trust to get them to the next level.

    You made a lot of great points here – thanks for sharing.

  12. This is where service meets experience. I remember our call together, Jonathan, where we talked about feeding your soul through the work you’re doing to help people make progress in their lives. Yes, there’s compensation, and often in myriad ways beyond the almighty dollar.

    That’s the upside of entrepreneurialism. When you get over yourself and do great work (work that you love, that resonates with you) people will resonate with that, want to connect with you and give you their own label – guru or whatever.

    If it’s all about the label, it’s not about the work. If it’s all about the work, who cares about the label?

    Positioning has a place, but usually, it’s at the back of the line – after you’ve got the service thing down pat.

    Great post, again as usual. 🙂

  13. Lord yes I love this. I wrote a post recently on this very subject about how I don’t want to be someones guru. I think you outlined it perfectly when you mentioned all of your examples are just a “little further along than you are.”

    I’ve felt and am seeing the shift coming completely.

    It’s a conscious living thing that is moving right now and I for one am glad to see it spreading far beyond just my blog.

    Amazing post.

  14. I’ve never really thought of a Guru as someone who knows everything and who has reached his/her pinnacle of knowledge in their niche. I do believe a Guru is someone who may have more knowledge in any given field and is willing to share that knowledge and help/teach others. Which is exactly what I use my blog for.

    I try not to get hung up on the term or labels others put on me. My objective is to connected with people in order to learn more myself or share my knowledge and experiences to help them. The label is not of importance.

  15. Chris Hollar says:

    I just had this conversation with a friend the other day, as I was telling her about my training as a life coach and my adventures into the world of blogging. She said, “What the world needs now is teachers, not gurus.” I think she’s absolutely right.

    • Chris Hollar says:

      …and I would need a grammar teacher. What the world needs now are teachers, not gurus.

    • Ivan Walsh says:

      Hi Chris,

      Who teaches the teachers?

      Not being smart, but is the problem that the gurus simply aren’t delivering or what they deliver is sub-standard.
      I’m reading David Meister (biz theory) and he is truly remarkable. Wish I’d read him earlier.

      But he’s not a teacher – he’s too high level – unless you want to get into semantics about the meaning of the word teacher.
      And let’s not 🙂

      Does that make sense?

  16. Megan says:

    Well – I have to disagree with the universality of “guru fatigue” — You are traveling in somewhat exalted circles in that those you surround yourself with and your readers are not “Joe Average.”

    What I observe is that MOST people in America will do anything to avoid thinking things through for themselves, trying things themselves, risking failure, and trying again when the sky falls on them and everything falls apart.

    Almost everything published or marketed today seems to scream, “Trust me! I’m gorgeous, slim, and a multi-billionaire, and I can teach you how to be the same in 3 easy steps! You don’t even have to change a thing that you’re doing right now — except to follow these three simple little “secrets” that all successful, beautiful people already know!”

    They have gurus for practically everything. They want guaranteed results without all the sweat, headaches, risks, and agonizing that transform DO-ers into the kinds of people who achieve enviable results – in the long-run.

  17. Satu says:

    Hmm..I do not know about guru fatigue as a phenomenon.

    In my own life I have been looking for “answers” for a long time, not really for a guru as a person. Now it appears that it was just because I was depressed and I desperately needed there to be an answer. And because I could not imagine the answer to be me, it had to be something outside myself.

    Not that I’m not depressed anymore, I have no need to have “answers”. I just wish that I will be able to live my life to the fullest.

    “Lifestyle guru” is an odd title anyway, does it imply that there is one way to live everyone should aspire to?

  18. My favorite metaphor for why you don’t need to be all things to all people in order to be paid well for what you know is carrying a lantern on a mountain trail.

    Mountains are big. No one lantern can light up the whole trail, let alone the whole mountain. But your lantern serves all the people within sight of it. Concentrate on keeping the light bright for them and don’t worry about competing with some lantern-bearer on another part of the mountain.

    • Dom says:

      hi Molly –

      I love the point you make. Focus on what you do well, serve your niche, and don’t try to be all things to all people.

      hi Jonathan Fields – thanks for another great blog post – thought provoking as usual.

      Dom

  19. Megan says:

    Adding to my previous post: being surrounded by “Joe Average” most hours of every weekday — that I am alarmed every single day how readily they parrot whatever soundbites they tune into.

    Radio personalities, gurus, whomever – seem to be chosen based primarily because they relate to the emotional “tone.” After that I don’t see any critical thinking happening. Only a regurgitation of sound bites. They are absolutely convinced that they have a handle on the Truth, with a capital “T” because //insert guru here// wrote it or said it.

  20. sam mor says:

    I always enjoy your posts but today’s was particularly thought provoking for me. I will take my time and check out the links you’ve provided and think about how the information applies. Many thanks.

  21. Sonia Simone says:

    People certainly respond to confidence. They respond to, “I actually do know what I’m talking about on this problem you’re having, here, let me help you with it.”

    But as Mark McGuinness said, you can deliver that message from a position of humility, from the point of a student who’s simply at a different point along the path.

    One problem I have with the all-knowing guru thing is it seems to chew up the gurus. No one can live up to his own PR when he paints himself as the perfect expert without flaw. And it seems to make people nutty and miserable when they try.

    Love the analogy Molly pointed to, lantern on the mountain path! Very nice.

  22. Mike Drips says:

    As one wag put it, “the Internet is turning into a giant Ponzi scheme”. His perspective was that we get hooked into someone else’s success and think that buy purchasing their ebook, that we will also be purchasing their success.
    I got involved with one of the very well known people on your list and found that behind the “mask of the guru” was a person that was really just out to suck as much cash out of your pocket as possible while giving your a big smile and encouraging you on “your journey to success”.
    I’m sure many of the people on your list are sincere, but some are not.

  23. Tim Brownson says:

    @ Mike – Yeh but you accused me of doing something similar with How To Be Rich and Happy, then when I explained in detail via e-mail what we were really doing and how much money I had lost on the project you kinda went quiet.

    So no doubt you looked on me (and maybe still do I have no idea) as a wannabe guru looking to get fabulously wealthy.

    I have this belief that anybody that thinks they are a guru has about as much credibility 99/100 as the person that takes out a full page ad in the New York Times to announce how humble you are.

  24. This post really resonated with me! I just experienced, first-hand, how my clients are not looking for me to be super polished and have all the answers in life (like the “wizard,” like you mention), but “someone real they can trust to get them to the next level.” Couldn’t have said it better myself!

    I just published a blog post about my experience presenting to a group. In front of the room, I lost my composure. For a few moments I lost my breath and couldn’t speak! What it represented for me was ditching the persona that others have assumed for me as a successful coach who has everything ‘figured out and put together’.

    My presentation included sharing who I am at the core…with my limitations, self-doubts, etc.–just like everyone else. It was a real “coming out” for me! And it felt so freeing to release the titles that been externally bestowed on me previously.

    So yeah, “guru fatigue” hit me. The moment where I couldn’t speak was actually a gift in that it showed me the magnitude of the moment and how I simply yearn to be “me” in all my human imperfection (or, I’ll choose to call it human “perfection” because we are all perfect exactly as we are). I believe that when we are not fully being ourselves, we are shortchanging the world.

    Enjoyed reading your post as someone who ‘gets’ what many of us experience. Thanks!

  25. Mike Drips says:

    Just to let you know, Tim, the “guru” wasn’t you. Think along the lines of “cubicle”.

    • Pamela Slim says:

      Hey Mike, if you happen to be talking about me, I am sorry you feel that way.

      I don’t remember a situation where I was trying to suck money from you. I remember enjoying your tweets, connecting on the phone, and caring about what was going on in your life through the work we did in a program.

      If you felt something different, that makes me sad. But of course you are totally entitled to your opinions. You have strong feelings about things, and that is part of what makes you spicy and interesting. 🙂

      All the best,

      -Pam

  26. The original meaning of the word guru has become so corrupted that unfortunately I avoid it at all costs. It has become a very negative word. We now put quotes around it and use it to refer to someone on an ego trip.

  27. Phyllis says:

    Provocative post. Am I the only one noticing an appreciable amount of push back lately on those who have worked hard to be recognized as a leader (I’ll leave the guru term out) in their field and now, find the requests, demands and overwhelming amount of “followers” they have so carefully cultivated a nusiance?

    Please understand, many people on your list (and you) do great work, give much of themselves and truly care about making a difference. They are funny, nice and interesting or we’d all stop reading/following/buying.

    Just be gracious, grateful and kind and don’t worry about labels. People say what they want about you and trying to control that will make you a little bit crazy.

    I appreciate your willingness to talk about this topic – it seems to resonate with many – but doesn’t get discussed that much.

  28. Lianne says:

    Abso-fucking-lutely! (can I say that here?)

    I believe that this fatigue, as you call it, is actually part of a much bigger paradigm shift – I described it in more detail here: http://www.lianneraymond.com/2009/10/the-collapse-of-the-old-paradigm-andrea-lee-referencing-the-deaths-at-the-james-arthur-ray-event-in-sedona-asks-if-the-self.html

    Sorry, I know that seems pretty self-serving to post a link, but I’m risking it because I am pretty passionate about this topic.

    (And as a VFer who has known you since way back in the early days of sonic yoga, I also just wanted to say, Hey! awesomeness happening here, JF!)

  29. […] Thanks to my friend @jonathanfields for making me think with this post, Guru Fatigue: Getting Paid Without Being The Wizard.) Bookmark at:StumbleUpon | Digg | Del.icio.us | Reddit tweetmeme_url = […]

  30. Paula G says:

    Love this post. I am always so clear to share that I am also still on a journey. When clients or audience members have that gleam in their eye — that “wow how did you get THERE and how can I ?” with the assumption that there is a THERE to arrive at I am quick to remind them that I am not some guru on high. I have simply experienced my journey and developed things that I know work and can help my ideal clients. You hit the nail on the head about being a few steps ahead on the same path. There is no “there” there. Walk your own talk. Be authentic, be real. That is what it’s about. As someone once said if you start reading your glowing reviews & believe them, you’re in trouble.

    I don’t worry about labels very much… I focus on being myself and being authentic and knowing I have knowledge, tools, and services that can truly help others and because I offer it through my business there is an exchange of money. But for me whether money is coming in or going out (as I engage the services of others) it’s about the exchange, the joy, the value. Without that none of it matters.

  31. I like this list you’ve compiled. I’ve been following Lynn Terry for 3 years. This post is bookmarked. Thanks!

  32. Hi Jon

    Great post – but I don’t know if the Guru and Journeyman tags are so antagonistic from each other. I think many people have guru-like moment and revelations in our life where we finally make some sort of thought leadership breakthrough and are able to communicate it.

    However, what separates the Gurus from the rest are that they are on a constant journey that never ends for new learnings, thoughts and breakthroughs – and as a result they achieve a regular flow of those guru-like moments.

    Of course, only the community as a whole can actually grant a Guru his/her title, and that means having to do more than aspire to guru-dom, but to constantly prove that you’re on that journey. It’s not easy to be constantly on that journey however – and I suspect that it is a tiring one – even for something in which you’re passionate about.

    All the best

    Boris

  33. […] was recently reading Jonathan Fields’ post, “Guru Fatigue: Getting Paid Without Being the Wizard“. He makes some great points about how the word “guru” has been “slung […]

  34. I think guru is one of those tough to explain words and does have negative connotations because of all the “make money” gurus online that are always about. The pure term “to illuminate” is much more accurate and a great thing to be though.

    • Ivan Walsh says:

      It’s a good point.

      Most of the very successful types, refer to themselves more as specialists, experts or use their qualifications to highlight their skillsets.

      I think the term guru is a bit jaded, tbh.

  35. Cori Padgett says:

    I suffer from a healthy dose of ‘guru’ fatigue. lol I much prefer following people who I feel make a connection with their readers.

    That’s what I try to do on my blog and I appreciate when it’s done elsewhere as well. Although to be fair I was a bit A$$ backwards, and created my blog AFTER I was already selling my ghostwriting services very well.

    The blog was intended as a way to ‘soft sell’ my skills, but then morphed into something I love doing, and has helped me connect with some awesome people and (I’d like to think anyway) a resource that has helped quite a few people as well.

    Thanks for a great post Jonathan!

    Warm regards,
    C

  36. Duff says:

    “Authenticity” is the ultimate guru trip.

  37. Dawnaurora says:

    Thanks so much for this post. It was very refreshing to read about how others share their knowledge. If there is high demand for the knowledge, I don’t see anything wrong with getting paid for it especially if it is good.