Brain-picking: It’s a national epidemic. And I know I’m not alone in wanting it to stop at any cost, like, yesterday.
The scenario: A perfect stranger emails you because they see you have a specialty in a specific topic they’d like to know more about for their own business, something they probably found by Googling “best expert in [insert topic or career here],” which kudos for you for ranking high in search results. But rather than inquire about your professional services or how you might be able to collaborate on a specific project, they instead drop the classic line: “I’d love to pick your brain on [x matter]. When are you free for a quick phone call or coffee?”
The dilemma: They are implying that you have a certain knowledge that they want—or, more accurately, need—but that it is only worth a $4 latte in their mind’s eye (and those “quick” calls are never “quick”). Last time I checked we live in a capitalistic society. Expertise you’ve carefully built up over time, knowledge that you’ve gone to school for years (maybe even decades) to develop, experience that you’ve spent your career acquiring is a commodity, it’s something worth purchasing and not giving away for free. By asking me to pick my brain and responding with confusion when I send you my consulting rates, you’re implying my brain is worthless. So why would you want to pick it in the first place, pray tell?
If you’re anything like me, you’re subject to dozens of these emails each week. And you know what? They’re downright exhausting.
Have no idea what I’m talking about? Good, you’re probably not an offender then. Nevertheless, I’ll brief you on this growing trend of those wanting to lobotomize you (and me).
Before I go any further, let’s clear the air; this isn’t directed at those who solicit travel advice. I get frequent emails from many readers wanting information about a destination. These emails I love; assuming I have answers, they’re emails I can easily fire off a response to at the end of the day while heavily ensconced in a Younger marathon. For 10 years(!), I’ve been providing a free resource via this blog for aspiring travelers everywhere. I adore hearing from folks via comments or social media or even email. I’m always happy to tell you my favorite beer garden in Munich or share my favorite beach trip ever or divulge how I find cheap flight deals. I don’t consider this brain-picking; I consider this information-sharing, crowd-sourcing your vacation plans. This post is not for you.
Rather, this post is a plea for those people who shoot out an email that starts with “I found you on LinkedIn and want to pick your brain” without bothering to read up on me, peruse past posts that share such intel you might be seeking or even see what I do for a living; stop and think about what you’re doing before you hit “send.” Most don’t even go so far as to check out my About Me, which pretty intricately details my career and life for the past decade, before asking me “how did you get into travel writing?” or “any tips for an aspiring writer?” Sure, I’ve got plenty, the first of which is don’t be lazy and do do your research.
It’s for the folks who want the golden key to their dream career, those who want a Rolodex of contacts that they assume will unlock the great answers in life, those who don’t care to put in the legwork to start their own business or pave their own path and want someone else to do it all for them. To those people I say, you’ve come to the wrong place; you’re also quite possibly in the worst industry for such work ethic.
I’ve touched upon this numerous times over the years in hopes to curtail the countless emails—yet currently, there are 107 such unread messages in my inbox using the phrase “pick your brain” (not even factoring in those that have been deleted or archived). I know plenty of others in my field who receive similar. In fact, in the digital age, a creative’s skills seem to be valued far less than they once were thanks to the ease of transitioning to such a career, particularly with everyone wanting to quit their 9-to-5s and “get paid to travel,” i.e. become a roaming writer/photographer/influencer/content creator, skills many of us have been cultivating since high school. (My first tip would be: Go to college and get a degree in a media-related field, which will open up so many doors and give you skills you need well after influencer marketing has reached its shelf life.)
I’ve received an influx of requests recently from TV production companies coming to Nashville and wanting to hop on a call to pick my brain about the landscape here; they’re financially benefitting from my expertise, which is a commodity. Sounds to me like you need a consultant. Want to hop on a call and talk about what services I can provide you for compensation? Sure! I’m game. I even have a work with me page for that very reason. It outlines a lot of what SVV and I do for brands, small businesses, start-ups and established companies alike.
While a quick coffee date may not sound like a lot to someone with a salaried job, for those of us entrepreneurs who barely sleep as it is, who are working seven days a week to keep our businesses alive, who are slaves to our phones and email accounts, for whom taking even an hour-and-a-half break sets us back dramatically, it is asking a lot—time truly is money when you’re self-employed. It’s the same reason I deleted Google Chat from my computer the second I transitioned to a freelance lifestyle many years ago; I can’t afford the added distraction or time away from paying work. Plus, I do have many clients who value my time and pay for my knowledge. It’s hardly fair for them if I turn around and give similar information away to the next person who asks at no cost.
New-to-town writers don’t seem to get that and thus are usually the quickest to fire off a brain-picking ask. Sometimes their assumptions that you’ll meet up for coffee come off as entitlement, while others it’s possibly just pure ignorance. While I genuinely wish you luck as you navigate the Tennessee media scene, you’ll need to figure out an alternate way to extract intel on how to make it as a freelancer here. Most journalists I know are busy enough trying to track down sources, file stories, and secure new outlets and clients. Working in the media is a never-ending hustle, one with little to no downtime. The bulk of working writers do not to have time to sit down with their spouses, let alone every budding journalist who reaches out, particularly when the requests come piling in every day without pause. Consider hiring a business or career coach instead; many of us dabble in this world, too.
Let’s put it in layman’s terms: Would you call your lawyer and ask him to pick his brain about a legal issue? Would you consult your plumber and ask him to pick his brain about why your pipes aren’t working? Would you ask your doctor to sneak you in between appointments and pick his brain on that persistent, hacking cough that won’t go away? No, you wouldn’t. You would make an appointment for a paid service and/or hire a professional for the specific task at hand.
Apply that logic to all things going forward. I pay my doctor, my lawyer, my web designer, my developer, my photographers, my yoga teacher, even my intern a fair wage. While, I do have a close-knit group of entrepreneur friends with whom I share, swap and solicit business advice—a mutually beneficial group, a pseudo-think tank for creatives, a concept I highly suggest all fellow writers employ—I would never ask a professional, a complete stranger, to provide me with intel on a matter that’s going to bring me further income without compensating them fairly.
And for the love of God, strike the term “pick your brain” from your lexicon entirely.
Even something as mild as “a penny for your thoughts?” would be far less offensive than the implication that you were going to take a scalpel and physically maim me in search of extracting the information you are seeking. No one can say it better than business guru Marie Forleo, and if you haven’t watched her video on the topic, I implore you to do so here.
Of course, there’s always the exception to any rule. If you can answer the following questions with a resounding yes, then it’s probably OK to email the Brain in question (without using aforementioned offending language) and ask for assistance:
- Do you have a close, personal relationship?
- Have you worked together in the past in some capacity?
- Have you helped the Brain out in a similar situation in which they’d be more than happy to pay you back?
Great, you’re in the clear!
Situations in which it is not cool to ask for free consultation:
- When you’ve never met the person in real life.
- When you found the subject via a quick Google or LinkedIn search and have no existing relationship beyond social media.
- When the service you are requesting of the Brain is one for which he/she typically gets paid.
Go ahead, delete that email before you send it in error.
And if you choose to proceed nevertheless, please follow this tactic instead. I assure you, your probability of receiving a response dramatically increases by having a detailed ask presented in a courteous, professional manner. Personally, I’m much more likely to respond to a cold pitch containing specific questions and doesn’t have the phrase “pick your brain” anywhere in sight.
So, friends and acquaintances, let’s stop this brain-picking once and for all and start to respect one another and value the varied skillsets we bring to the table. Now, can I get a quorum?