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Unless you live in a wifi-less cave, you’ve probably seen ads like this, where organizations or individuals market their (ahem) industry expertise to the aspiring masses. It’s the kind of thing I like to call the wannabe industry.

As a shallow, celebrity-worshiping culture, we tend to glorify certain professions: writer, filmmaker, musician, pro (insert sport here) player, and many other creative professions. At a holy-shit-how-cool emotional level, it’s understandable. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a famous actor, walking the red carpet?  Or a best-selling author? Or a multimillionaire sports star? If you’re stuck in a dead-end career or struggling financially, it’s tempting to daydream about an if-only life in a highly compensated, so-called glamorous career.

Still, it never fails to surprise me how otherwise intelligent, ostensibly rational people get taken in by the wannabe industry, ready to believe wildest claims from (let’s face it) people who often aren’t any closer to the center of an industry than Pluto’s orbit is to the sun.

CAVEAT EMPTOR – Here are my biggest red flags for the wannabe industry. Feel free to add more of your own.

Questionable credentials. ‘Industry insiders’ often don’t have any more experience within their specialty than the folks they’re selling their expertise to. If this sounds circular, that’s because it is. So before signing up and handing over your hard-earned money, do a background check. If your expert’s resume is chocked full of awards you’ve never heard (or can find anywhere) or his / her lists of accomplishments look iffy, move on. Sadly, this wannabe-teaching-other-wannabes dynamic is prevalent in an industry near and dear to my heart: fiction writing.

Style over substance.  Your spider-sense should tingle if you come across an organization that relies a bit too heavily on slick promotional materials and paid endorsements. And if they offer financing, don’t walk, RUN for the nearest exit. Creative arts academies are a classic example. While there are hundreds of imitators with glossy takeaway brochures, there’s only one Actor’s Studio.

Small Business with a Famous Name Wrapper. Private sports leagues for kids come to mind here. Think your local Chelsea or Manchester United soccer academy will teach your child the secrets of the Premier League pros? Think again. These organizations are small businesses that pay a fee to license a famous name. A logo on your kid’s overpriced jersey (and socks and shorts and don’t forget the personalized backpack and team-approved shoes!) doesn’t guarantee a meaningful learning experience. Don’t believe the marketing copy, these clubs have about as much contact with their professional namesake as your local priest does with Pope Francis. And they certainly don’t have a monopoly on good teachers and role models for your children.

Outrageous claims. Success (however you define it) in any creative endeavor is a combination of innate talent, hard work, and serendipity. And oftentimes these elements work together in strange ways. There are penniless, unknown artists with incredible gifts who simply never get a lucky break, and there are talentless hacks whose relentless work ethic earns them a seven-figure income. There is no secret sauce recipe, no right or wrong way to the top of the mountain, and what works for one person may not work for someone else. The only guarantee creative professionals can count on is there are no guarantees. And to quote a favorite movie line, “anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.”

Question everything. Be skeptical and do your homework before shelling out the big bucks. And beware of the wannabe industry, it preys upon your deepest hopes and aspirations, and it counts on your willingness to ignore that little voice telling you, “you might want to step around this, it smells like bullshit.”

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