How Not to Be the Expert

Some tips for those who really, truly want to avoid becoming known as The Expert on any single topic (or The Guru, or The Obvious Speaking Choice…) while being professionally active.

These tips come from decades of experience.

1. Don’t specialize

You’ve prepared an important article or book or blog post on a significant topic in your field?

Time to try something else!

Delving deeper into that topic, refreshing your work for newer audiences, or—worst of all—showing how that topic applies elsewhere (even if it’s stretching a point): Don’t do that. You’ll wind up on the speaking circuit, in demand, known for your expertise.

Repeat as necessary: If you do important work in two fields, you may still wind up known as The Expert on one or both.

Better to change topics frequently. Mark Lindner owns the phrase “habitually probing generalist,” but that’s the general idea.

2. Don’t broaden your exposure on a single topic

You’ve done that significant piece—call it a book, just for fun.

The obvious next step would be to do a related article, and maybe propose some speeches on the topic.


This is related to Rule 1, but not quite the same. It’s also related to Rule 3:

3. Don’t propose speeches on your topic(s)

If you show up at CIL/IL, Charleston, state library conferences, ALA, ASIST speaking on your topic, you’re likely to become known as The Expert even if you have other topics.

If somebody really wants to hear from you, let them come to you: Don’t go looking for trouble!

4. Don’t go on the speaking circuit

If you’re following Rule 3, you’re halfway there—but if you’ve made the mistake of doing a couple of good speeches or papers on your topic, you may find a stream of speaking invitations coming in.

If you accept as many as you can plausibly handle (and if your workplace favors professional activity), that can wind up being quite a few…maybe to the point where you’re on the speaking circuit.

Set an annual limit. (I used eight trips or ten speeches a year. That seemed to work effectively. Depending on the situation, you might still consider that being on the speaking circuit—four speeches might be a better limit. Don’t worry: If you’re following the other rules, you won’t have to turn down invitations after two or three years—they’ll shrink on their own.)

5. Don’t act as though you’re The Expert

Rule 5 may be key.

The expert makes sure that her knowledge is available for interviews, etc., and pipes up whenever somebody posts or says something related to his topic.

6. Prefer precision to hyperbole

Avoid “all” when the facts say “most” and “most” when the fact say “some.”

Avoid speculation about certain futures when you really don’t have much basis for such speculation.

Never say “inevitable” unless you’re talking about mortality.

Don’t confuse anecdata with studies, and be aware of the limitations of most studies.

7. Avoid the bleeding edge

Focus on topics that need further exploration and explication, rather than the Hot New Topics.

It’s particularly useful to do something deep and comprehensive at roughly the point that an area is becoming irrelevant or obsolescent. (I would say obsolete, but that’s really tough…and you might become the Expert on curiosities of the past.)

If you are compelled to look at The New, try to make it something people don’t really care much about.

8. Be an introvert

This is a valuable addition to all of the tips above; it will help you to avoid the spotlight.

Where are #9 and #10?

To be a proper listicle, this post needs to have at least 10 items.

A proper expert would always find a couple more things to say, if only by repeating an earlier rule with slight rewording.

But, what the hey…

9. Don’t create or promulgate infographics

What more need be said?

10. Understand your data, and make sure your readers get plenty of it

Numbers! Librarians love numbers! You can never have too many numbers!


These rules have stood me in good stead, as evidenced by the fact that, after 16 (or so) professionally published books, half a dozen (more than that) self-published books and several hundred articles and columns, I am the recognized Expert on…nothing.


Maybe, possibly, Gaia willing and the creeks don’t rise: A multipart discussion of how some books (all on topics about which I am not The Expert) came to be written.

Unless, of course, I decide to read Crime & Punishment instead. (Then again, maybe not…)

2 Responses to “How Not to Be the Expert”

  1. ksol says:

    My father’s etymology for “expert”:

    And “ex” is a has-been

    A “spurt” is a drip under pressure.


  2. Walt Crawford says:

    While that’s sometimes true–and it’s also frequently true that you’re never an expert at home–it’s tricky.

    I was having a little fun here, mostly as part of my non-memoirs and my own odd path to “reasonably well-known, but not really The Expert in anything” status.

    In practice, there are people who I regard as experts and value as such–e.g., Peter Suber on open access, Dorothea Salo on institutional repositories, Jamie LaRue on finding ways out of the library ebook miasma. I don’t think the caustic definitions of expert apply to either of them. But neither of them is Expert-as-Guru, and maybe that’s part of it. Perhaps the “10,000-hour” phenomenon (i.e., to become excellent at something requires 10,000 hours of practice) comes into play here?