Reluctant experts

Douglas Crockford is probably the most visible critic and advocate of JavaScript. His criticism gives his advocacy credibility, and vice versa.

A few weeks ago, at the end of a presentation he explains how he became “the JavaScript guy.”

I just wanted to say one more thing on a personal note. I never wanted to be the JavaScript guy. … The first time I saw JavaScript in 1995 I thought this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. … Five years later … I started writing about how this language is misunderstood. And I became the JavaScript guy. I’m still not comfortable in that role. It’s still not what I ever wanted to be … It’s likely to continue because the language is becoming more important so it isn’t something I can get away from.

It seems fairly common for someone to become well known for something they stumbled into. Their fame catches them by surprise. Why is this?

One reason may be that it’s hard to plan to be well known. You need to be in the right place at the right time. If you see something taking off and decide to become an expert in it, it may be too late to become famous in that area.

Another reason may be that fame is determined by how others value your work, which could be very different from how you value your work. Something you find only incidentally useful on the way to another goal may turn out to be very valuable to others. This is fairly common, as I discuss here.

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3 thoughts on “Reluctant experts

  1. Recording engineers often talk about how most of their business comes as a result of a miniscule fraction of their body of work.

  2. Louis Armstrong was a trumpet player. Phil Collins is a drummer. But both became famous when they started to sing.

  3. In my long-past academic career, I published about a dozen peer-reviewed papers. The two or three really good ones have languished in obscurity, cited by no one. The stupidest, most useless paper of the bunch just passed 200 citations this summer. Go figure.

    (The best, most original work I ever did was never even published, except as a department Technical Report.)

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