How to become a guru

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photo courtesy flickr user visual.dichotomy

(MoneyWatch) Influence is a funny thing. Once it required leaping through certain hoops: Winning political office, say, or starting a large business. But technology democratizes anything it touches, and now, thanks to social media, you can have followers even if you haven't done the sorts of things (like starting a major religion) that won you "followers" in the past.

I was thinking about this while reading the recent Inc cover story on Tim Ferriss, whose 4-Hour Workweek empire has turned him into the ultimate Silicon Valley lifestyle guru. Then there's Suze Orman and a host of other personal finance gurus, whose advice is very similar, but whose personalities are all outsized enough to win them followers and fans.

How can you build up the sort of influence that opens career doors for you?

There's luck involved, of course, and a lot of hard work -- more, alas, than 4 hours per week. But here are a few ideas that seem to help.

1. Define your brand. Gurus need a topic. After all, few people become gurus in multiple unrelated areas. Anne Lamott writes fascinating fiction, but it's her writing on religion that gets her invited to churches -- which then become packed with adoring fans. What topic can you own? Ideally, it's one that's broad, but not too crowded with other gurus. Though even if it is, you can carve out your own niche (money for millennials; time management for entrepreneurs; fitness for the 50+ set).

2. Spin a good story. You don't need a degree in your guru area, but you do need some reason that people should listen to you. Often, this is a conversion story -- the sort of St. Paul on the road to Damascus narrative that humans intuitively like. I used to be awful with money, and here's what I learned! I used to work around the clock, then I figured out how to outsource everything!

3. Go direct. Traditional media is great (see below), but even major media hits have a limited influence if you don't have a good way to capture people's information and keep them part of your world. That means spending a lot of time on social media and blogging and building your database of names and email addresses.

4. Be easy to reach ... at first. If you are quoted in one major news outlet as an expert, chances are you'll soon be quoted in another soon. Why? Because journalists often Google their story topics, and find their expert sources by seeing who other people have quoted. If your email address comes up easily in a search, you'll get on the contact list fast. The more media mentions you get, the more credibility you have. After all, once you're quoted in, say, CBS MoneyWatch as a financial guru, it's not just you calling yourself a financial expert. It's a trusted source. Of course, after you get famous enough, you can be a little harder to reach, to build mystique. But in the beginning, it helps a lot.

5. Network like crazy. Influence is best shared. If influential people write or talk about you, some of that influence rubs off on you, which you can then share with others. Oprah has launched gurus in just about every major category (Nate Berkus in design, Peter Walsh in organizing, etc.) but usually it's a result of multiple influential people giving someone a nod. Do what you can to be interesting enough to get on the radar of the right people -- and the effect will start to multiply.

Who's your favorite guru?

Photo courtesy flickr user visual.dichotomy