Distrust is society’s default emotion.
That’s according to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer survey. It found that 6 out of 10 people report that their default tendency is to approach new information with distrust until there is clear evidence of its trustworthiness.
Gallup found that confidence in institutions is at an all-time low. Down about 40% from when they started collecting data in 1979.
A survey from the American Press Institute found that 16 to 40-year-olds, that is Gen Z and Millennials, consume new media daily. But that 90% of them are concerned about misinformation in the media they and others take in.
Americans distrust their government, health providers, the media, law enforcement, and even churches. Many of us distrust big business—and yet it was business that was the most trustworthy institution according to Edelman.
At the same time, there is a whole trust ecosystem operating online.
In online marketing, we often talk about the know, like, and trust factor. But we rarely remark on how novel it is to trust a stranger enough to pay them to give you advice on your marriage, write copy for your website, or create a fitness program for you.
We tend to focus on outreach—upping your name recognition. And we pay attention to likeability, of course. But trust? It can seem that trust is simply the logical extension of being known and being liked.
Of course, that’s not how we used to think about trust.
Rachel Botsman studies the changing landscape of trust. She argues that there have only been 3 eras of trust throughout all of human history. First, trust was local. You had trust in who you knew and had direct experience with. Second, trust was institutional. During and after the industrial revolution, people sought out organized authority in the wake of massive change. Finally, we’re entering the era of distributed trust.
“…the way trust flows through society is changing, and it’s creating this big shift away from the 20th century that was defined by institutional trust towards the 21st century that will be fueled by distributed trust. Trust is no longer top-down. It’s being unbundled and inverted. It’s no longer opaque and linear. A new recipe for trust is emerging that once again is distributed amongst people and is accountability-based.”
The self-help industry has relied on this distributed trust dynamic for a long time. We can see it clearly in the earliest writers and speakers in the industry: Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale, and Dale Carnegie. Funny enough, Carnegie changed the spelling of his last name—from Carnagey to Carnegie—to leverage the trust of Andrew Carnegie’s legacy, even though they were no relation.
And today, of course, self-help seems to be fully distributed. With fewer and fewer people attending church, living near family, consuming major media, and even working traditional jobs, we are actively on the hunt for people we can put our trust in.
Botsman claims that institutional trust wasn’t built for the digital age. She writes for the Harvard Business Review, “We are inventing a type of trust that can grease the wheels of business and facilitate person-to-person relationships in the age of distributed networks and collaborative marketplaces.”
I’m not quite as excited about this as Botsman seems to be. Sure, peer-to-peer transactions are rapidly increasing. I owe my livelihood to peer-to-peer transactions! However, those peer-to-peer transactions are facilitated by companies funded by institutional wealth in the form of venture capital and traded in the institutional marketplace (i.e., the stock market).
But I can’t argue with Botsman’s basic premise: trust is a big business opportunity today.
Just like so many components of the public commons, trust has been privatized. That means trust is up for grabs by anyone who wants to leverage it as a resource for money-making. This leads to many small businesses that wouldn’t have been possible 30 years ago. It does grease the wheels of knowledge-sharing and cultural production. But the same infrastructure that allows for trust among people acting in good faith allows trust to flow to those acting in bad faith.
That’s not a deal-breaker. But it does bear curious scrutiny. A few months ago, I stumbled on just such curious scrutiny. Patrick Sheehan, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Texas, published a paper in the American Journal of Sociology. The paper details his findings after studying career coaches and the job seekers they serve and offers an analysis of the greater self-help expertise ecosystem.
Ultimately, Patrick was curious about a peculiarity of the career coaches who inspired and motivated job seekers most; they drew their expertise and basis for trust from failure, not success. Why would a job seeker choose to trust an expert whose formative experience seemed to be getting laid off or squeezed out of the job market? I also wanted to know the answer to this question! And so, I reached out to Patrick who graciously agreed to talk with me about his findings.
In this article, we’ll use a sociological lens to explore self-help expertise—how it’s formed, how it’s leveraged, and how it creates value. This is the third installment of our series, Self-Help, LLC, which examines how the idea of self-help has come to permeate life and business, often in unexpected ways. You can find the first installment (on winners & losers) here and the second (on how empowerment became a brand) here. Or, you can listen to this article below or on your favorite podcast player.
Curious—and a bit confused
Patrick started graduate school in 2017. “It was a time when all the headlines were ‘automation is going to put everyone out of work’,” he told me. Labor economists talked about how much we needed to invest in retraining and career transition. “I was really curious about what that would look like for people.”
Patrick started to attend job search clubs and retraining seminars. He was curious about what people were talking about, who was attending, and how job seekers were looking to the future. But he discovered something he wasn’t expecting: career coaches. “I was sort of skeptical from the beginning,” Patrick admitted, “because I was thinking of this as sort of ‘hard skills’ retraining.” One might expect a retraining seminar to focus on technology skills, the ins and outs of knowledge work, or even transitioning into the service economy. That’s not what the career coaches provided at these events, though. Instead, they were offering inspiration and motivational guidance.
“I got really stuck on this question: how can these people be experts in managing a career when it looks like they’ve struggled themselves very recently?” Patrick was a bit confused. Attendees loved these seminars. They listened intently—even as it seemed that the career coaches lacked credentials or concrete advice. He discovered that, overwhelmingly, the career coaches he met had history of “jumbled careers” and “long-term unemployment before starting their coaching practice.” They couldn’t rely on a long list of successes to substitute for formal training or credentials. “They must enter the field orthogonally, reinterpreting the world in such a way that their supposed ‘failures’ become signs of their ultimate wisdom,” Patrick wrote in his article.
“I’m not trying to adjudicate who is really an expert and who is not,” Patrick told me. Instead, he wanted to understand what was really going on—sociologically speaking.
Credentials versus experience
“However, when it comes to these minor self-improvement experts, they not only lack institutional affiliations but also often position themselves in contrast to official experts—health and wellness gurus present themselves as against the medical establishment, and financial coaches as against traditional investment wisdom. They compete with the official experts and often seek to undermine trust in their authority.”“The Paradox of Self-Help Expertise: How Unemployed Workers Become Professional Career Coaches”
American Journal of Sociology vol 127 no 4 (January 2022)
Patrick divides experts into two umbrella groups: credentialed experts and experience-based experts. Credential experts rely on what Botsman called “institutional trust.” Their credentials and formal training lend them credibility. “Doctors, lawyers, scientists,” Patrick told me, “people trust them because of the institution” that backs them up.
Experience-based experts also engender trust and credibility. But “their credibility tends to be more unstable and less generally recognized.” Take, for instance, the wellness influencer (we’ll talk about influencers in the fifth installment of this series). A wellness influencer might have credentials like a personal trainer certification or a degree in nutrition science. But they’re just as likely, if not more so, to have credibility because of their story, communication style, and personable advice. That said, if someone hasn’t developed a relationship with them online, they’re not likely to recognize the influencer as an expert. The influencer’s credibility doesn’t easily cross from platform to platform or from online to offline.
Patrick offered a different example: alcohol addiction. If one considers the systems that exist to guide people dealing with alcohol addiction, both credentialed experts and experience-based experts play a critical role. Doctors, as credentialed experts, will use the tools they have to treat the medical part of the addiction. But experience-based experts, like Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors or sobriety coaches, will offer support building on their own experiences with addiction. These experts are people who have been through addiction themselves and they offer a sort of camaraderie that most credentialed experts don’t have access to.
Sociologically speaking, Patrick argues that there is value in both categories of expertise—even if they’re often at odds. To demonstrate, he referenced Max Weber’s work on understanding how religion impacts culture. Weber differentiated between priests and prophets. Priests are credentialed experts—people whom the church anointed and therefore has special access to the divine. Prophets, on the other hand, draws their credibility from personal experience with the divine. They claim to circumvent the church as an institution and go straight to the source.
For our purposes, the critical component of this example is that priests can easily lose touch with their congregations or parishes. Because they are tasked with upholding the institution’s access to the divine, they can lose sight of the lived experience of the people they serve. They lose relevance. But the prophet lives among the people:
“The prophet, in Weber’s telling, is always lying in wait among the people, ready to exploit any legitimacy gap that emerges between a too-distant priesthood and the laity. The prophet represents an alternative route toward building expert credibility. Rather than lean on credentials and institutional affiliations, what I call “experienced-based” experts approach credibility from the other direction. They forego professionalization and rely instead on their closeness to clients, their intimate understanding of clients’ needs, and perhaps a charismatic spark allowing them to translate those needs into a demand for their services. Like the prophet, experience-based experts compete with credentialed experts and seek to undermine trust in those credentials as they jockey for position.”American Journal of Sociology vol 127 no 4 (January 2022)
The University of Chicago Press
Today, it can feel like the news cycle or social media ecosystem is dominated by the battle between priests and prophets.
Whether we’re talking about alternative medicine, outsider politicians, or reproductive rights, there are a lot of self-professed experts railing against institutions and established bodies of knowledge. This is another area where self-help is big business. Why go to a therapist who can help you unpack your past when you can hire a coach or a healer who will help you step into the future? Why submit to mood stabilizing drugs when you could meditate for an hour every day? Why read what experts have to say on a subject when you could “do your own research?”
These are deliberately provocative questions. And I think it’s important—as with the priest versus prophet example—to remember that both positions have value. There are institutions that need to be dramatically restructured. There are alternative forms of care that are useful. There is misinformation out there.
It’s when the priest versus prophet dynamic lurches into all-or-nothing territory that things get problematic.
Philosopher Alan Levinovitz calls this an “empowering epistemology.” Epistemology is simply the study or organization of how we know what we know. An empowering epistemology is a way of organizing knowledge in order to feel a sense of certainty and security.
Levinovitz offers wellness culture and gun culture—at least in their extreme forms—as two examples of empowering epistemologies. The prophets of wellness culture warn us about the priests of the medical establishment. They question peer-reviewed research while offering up anecdotal evidence of their claims. The prophets of gun culture warn us about the vulnerability and danger of everyday life. Legislator-priests don’t understand just how important it is to protect oneself from criminals.
Priests from the Labor Department might come in and teach you how to code. But the prophets of career coaching will help you envision a career you’re passionate about.
Empowering epistemologies are especially enticing in this era of extreme uncertainty and precariousness. One might wonder how a credentialed expert could really know what that person is going through when even that person doesn’t necessarily know what is happening. If distrust is the default emotion, then a system of thought or a compelling narrative can feel like Truth by affirming a particular feeling or experience one’s had. “People in these shaky times want someone to assure them, want someone to look them in the eye and understand them emotionally,” Patrick told me.
So how do self-help experts generate trust?
Patrick found that the first layer of trust is built by tapping into a moral universe in which work isn’t a function of earning a living, it’s a function of passion and self-expression. Whereas the Fordist system saw work primarily as a source of income, “coaches present work in a different light.” He said, “They present it as something much more sacred and important to your identity. It should be an outlet for self-expression.”
In the moral universe created from this belief, the “best” kind of work is work you’re passionate about. “You don’t do it for the money. You do it for the love,” Patrick explained. These are phrases that I think everyone is familiar with. But the way Patrick describes it as part of a “moral universe” and “social order” is critical because these maxims are part of the winner-loser framework I discussed previously.
Further, Patrick identified that coaches often elevated entrepreneurship and particularly passion-based entrepreneurship as the pinnacle of this social order. This bolsters the credibility of the career coaches because it puts them on top of the moral hierarchy. The story that’s told, according to Patrick, boils down to, “you could get a job—a dull, boring, alienating job—that might pay you a steady paycheck, but if you do that, you’re failing to fully live your life.” No one wants to fail at life. No one wants to settle for 42nd place. “The view that these coaches are promoting is a really seductive one. It’s really motivating and exciting,” Patrick told me.
Coaches utilize this social order as part of their “trust stack.”
The idea of being able to do work you’re passionate about is enticing. Rachel Botsman, the trust researcher I cited earlier, says that buying into an idea like this—making it feel safe—is the first layer of the “trust stack.”
Unlike truly new ideas, career coaches benefit from decades of increasing familiarity with “do what you love” ideology. So while career coaching might be a relatively new service, the idea that builds on is not. Our Self-Help, LLC guide, Micki McGee writes, “The ideal that everyone ought to work purely for the intrinsic rewards of his or her work—for his or her own amusement and delight—would be an appealing notion if only the extrinsic necessities of life were assured.”
But the reality is that there’s been an evident turn in American culture over the last 40 years or so. We no longer believe that a steady job that pays you well is what we want (or need). “You do want money, and you do want stability, but you [also] want to express yourself. You want to be an artist, that’s how you’re going to reach your highest potential,” Patrick told me. Adding, “It really is a cultural vibe.”
And this cultural vibe has material ramifications. Employers hear workers asking for more creative work, and so they offer up the specter of creative work at the cost of other benefits. “Here’s your creativity, but maybe we’re going to stop paying a pension the way we used to,” as Patrick put it. This is a significant trade-off—and it’s one that impacts every era of our lives.
The second layer in Botsman’s trust stack is building trust in the platform or 3rd party facilitating exchange. This is present to some degree with the career coaches Patrick studied—after all, his research involved immersive experiences of seminars organized by clubs for job-seekers.
But more than building trust in a particular platform, Patrick found that career coaches built on distrust of employers and traditional careers. “I’d be sitting in these seminars and they would say, ‘The system’s kind of set up against you. The path you’re on wasn’t working, and it wasn’t gonna work.’ And I’m thinking to myself, you’re right!”
Here, we can use Levinovitz’s “empowering epistemology” framework. He argues that the desire for empowerment comes from a profound sense of disempowerment. And that disempowerment is amplified by sharing anecdotes that highlight the brokenness of traditional institutions. These personal testimonies, as Patrick frames them, act as a way to connect with potential clients. The personal testimonies follow a similar pattern—one you’re no doubt familiar with and perhaps even use yourself. “People describe their own past as having some kind of traumatic event or personal crisis,” Patrick told me. Then, they describe hitting rock bottom and fearing for the future. “They didn’t know what to do—but then they had a realization: ‘I want to pursue my childhood passion, etc. I reinvented myself, decided to pursue my passion all the way, and now I’ve transformed myself to become this very successful coach entrepreneur that I am today. For that reason I can help you.’”
And that brings us to Botsman’s third and final layer of the “trust stack”: trusting the person on the other side of the exchange. You’re sold on the idea of work as self-expression. You can clearly see how the old system is broken. And now, all you need is a guide whom you can trust to guide you through a foreign land.
Similarly, Levinovitz dubs these guides “cultural ambassadors.” They’re the people who help you cross over from one cultural system to another. Patrick relates it to the hero’s journey. “Someone goes through a dark period, they fight demans, they overcome it, and then they’re the wiser for it. And that’s the pitch that coaches are often giving—having been through this failure and having worked out of it.” He told me that building trust often requires foreground their failure but in a way that provides motivation to the person hearing the story.
My guess is that this pattern feels super familiar to you. You see it online every single day. Maybe you work that pattern every single day. And it can be easy to question it. Is it manipulative? Is it nefarious? Is it creating real value at all?
Or at least, those are the question I ask myself! And it was something Patrick started thinking about, too.”This is not just fake expertise, which is something I definitely started thinking about. These are real services that coaches are providing, [even if those services] aren’t what they say they are providing.” Patrick saw firsthand just how disorienting getting laid off in midlife can be. “There is a real existential moment for a lot of people.” He said that the emotional support and reflection that coaches provide can create results that are productive for clients. “That’s not fake expertise or anything like that. That’s just solidarity.”
So maybe the expertise–the trust–being forged here isn’t so much an expertise about navigating a career (or life, or a career, or a marriage, or anything else you might hire a coach for). It’s an expertise in listening, empathizing, and motivating people to get back out there.
At this point, all the coaches are out there rolling their eyes, I’m sure! Of course that’s our expertise, I bet they’re thinking.
As Patrick said, that is a truly valuable service to provide. And, I think it leads to a few final questions. Why do we outsource that kind of emotional labor to a paid 3rd party? What structural problems create the need for all of listening, empathizing, and motivating? And finally, what is all that emotional labor doing to the people who practice it?
What it takes to navigate the 21st-century economy
Today, the job market is increasingly divided—and starkly so—between service industry jobs that pay very little and offer few benefits and knowledge industry jobs that pay better and might still offer benefits. And there simply aren’t enough of those knowledge industry jobs for everyone that is qualified for one. This contributes to both the need for career coaches and the growing number of career coaches. In a February post, Patrick wrote, “Career coaches thus occupy a unique position in the economy: themselves evicted from stable, salaried work by fraying employment contracts, they assume the role of street preacher, evangelizing for the ideological infrastructure of the new labor regime.”
There is an increasing fear among the middle and upper-middle classes about downward mobility. If a tech or media worker gets laid off, they need to find a similar job as soon as possible to avoid long-term financial consequences. And the longer someone is out of a job, the more likely they are to be subsumed by the gig economy or service industry. Since coaching represents a type of knowledge work, it can easily be seen as a way to stay on track if you’ve been squeezed out of your job. For some, that’s true. For others, it’s not so true. For almost everyone, it takes a toll.
Manual labor or service work is difficult. But so is the kind of emotional labor that coaches do on a daily basis. I asked Patrick if he noticed this with the coaches he talked to, and the first thing he said was:
“I noticed it in myself! I spent a lot of time at these job search seminars, just listening and getting to know people that are listening to coaches. It’s an emotional load just to hear people’s stories about that layoff from IBM… I heard so many stories of deep psychological pain and identity collapse. And I gotta say, I would be exhausted from field work.”
From my perspective, Patrick had a deeply human experience hearing about the pain others were going through. And coaches not only share in that emotional experience but are personally and professionally invested in turning those stories around. That is incredibly hard work. “Coaches are soaking in all that anxiety and trying to push out something positive, something motivational… That’s something that often goes unrecognized, but it is such a difficult thing… In the kind of economy we’re running right now, if we don’t have that sort of emotional outlet, if there are not people there to do that job, I think there will be a lot more crises that spill over” from individuals to families to communities.
All that said, Patrick told me there were plenty of times when he wanted to take the stage and tell the unemployed to “join the barricades.” No one acknowledged the structural challenges and need for reform. “Even if you recognize the structural barriers, the economy’s totally screwed up. There are not enough jobs. You still have to make a decision when you’re laid off as to what you’re going to do.”
I love what Patrick is saying here: we can acknowledge and even work against the structural problems that exist in the world and we can seek out help to deal with things as they are now.
This is what I see many coaches offering today and what I think many more coaches will be offering soon. There’s a lot of value in acknowledging the many ways the system is broken and developing a conscious analysis of the ways systems are stacked against us. And at the same time, creating the emotional and motivational scaffolding we need to survive—and maybe even to thrive.
That approach seems to be a good one to put our trust in.