People typically enjoy doing what they are good at. Experts are, by definition, good at their field. Most of the love, love, love to talk about it.
The Worst They Can Say Is No
Go ahead and write the author of one of your books with a question. Call up the professor whose online class notes you've been referencing. Send an email to a Laurel in your field. What's the worst that can possibly happen? Either you will get no response, or they will say, "Sorry, can't help you, please don't call again."
In the grand scheme of things, that's not an especially horrible worst thing that could happen. In fact, you're no worse off than you were before. You needn't dwell on "Oh no, I disturbed the Great One and now she'll hate me forever and forever." I'm sure the Great One got right back to her dinner or test grading and forgot completely about your call. You could probably try again in a month and she'd be none the wiser.
Mind Your Manners
We live in a very casual age, but until told otherwise, you may as well break out your good manners. It shows respect, which is good to demonstrate when you're asking for a favor. Introduce yourself. Be polite, be direct, and be clear in what it is you need:
- "Can you suggest a reading list for a beginner in this field?"
- "I can't duplicate the results you mentioned. I'm doing X, Y, and Z. Is that right?"
- "Have you changed your conclusions since the new evidence published in Smith's 2006 report came to light? It seems to me that they suggest a broader application of the technique." (It is not disrespectful to ask someone to clarify one of their conclusions.)
An open question like, "Can you tell me about your field?" will make it hard for the expert to answer.
Not Everyone Is Nice
Most people are, and most are flattered when you ask them for help. But you may occasionally encounter the crusty old sort of expert who will ask, in an annoyed sort of voice, "If you haven't read my papers (studied Latin/worked in the field/taken six credits of related classes), why are we having this conversation?" It will be up to you what to make of this. Some of these crusty old experts are just very short on patience and, once you have demonstrated that you are a serious student and not a dilettante wasting their time, be more forthcoming. Others are just, ah, not nice people. You are not obligated to continue a correspondence (or an interview) with someone if you don't want to. Exit gracefully. "Well, I can see that you're very busy with other concerns. Thank you for your time."
Curb Their Enthusiasm
Some experts will talk over your head, either because they are just so excited to be talking about their field that they forget that you're a beginner, or because it makes them feel superior. (Assume it's the former.) If they start using vocabulary that you don't know, ask them to define it. If it seems like they're heading off into a direction that's much deeper than you're prepared to go right now, bring them back. "Uh, Master Jones, I'm still new to all of this. I'm hoping to get my feet wet a little before building a full-scale reproduction in my backyard. Can you suggest a smaller project, maybe something that'll teach me one of the construction techniques?"
Expect to Do Work
But it would also be bad form to reply to every suggestion with, "No, that's too much work for me." At some point, you are going to have to do work. The expert is serving as a signpost for you, to point you in a fruitful direction. Teacher assigns homework, but you have to do it.
But if nothing the expert suggests sounds like what you want to do, be sure that you've been clear with your "why" and your "what," and what subgoals you are trying to achieve. The expert may be trying to guide you down the path that he or she followed, which may not be the path you want to take. Most experts are versatile enough that they can suggest alternate paths, but only if they realize that this is what you need.
If the expert persists in asserting that "you must learn ABC," and you really don't understand why ABC is important, ask. Once you understand the expert's reasons for insisting, you can more intelligently decide if those reasons apply to you or not.
Say Thank You
And, when you finish a project, send a copy of your documentation or a photo of your creation to your expert, with a little note. Experts who enjoy sharing their knowledge really enjoy knowing that you followed through, and that their assistance was helpful. This sort of follow-up also helps to create a lasting relationship with your expert, who may turn into a mentor.