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Blog // Simplicity
April 24, 2018

This Week I Quit Letting People Pick My Brain

Is there a more annoying question than ‘Can I pick your brain?’
It’s time to stop this. It’s time to say no.

Whether it comes via email, LinkedIn, or some other flavour of social media, the request is always the same: Can I have your time – usually in exchange for some sort of beverage, like a drink or a coffee – to ‘pick your brain.’

And, typically, the request comes open ended, the time unlimited, but for the sake of keeping this short, let’s focus on the problem and not its packaging.

What are people asking for when they want to ‘pick your brain’? Usually, it’s advice. But not just hum-drum advice. It’s never just ‘What’s a good show on Netflix?’ or ‘Where can I find a good hamburger?’ It’s career, or professional, or technical advice.

That advice is hard won. It has value.

Pick Your Brain = Work For Free

But the brain picker isn’t planning to pay for that advice. They are, with the offer of a cup of coffee or some other drink, making token recognition of the value of their request.

They want more than advice. They want access to your expertise.

The brain-pickers are, in the most oblique way possible, acknowledging that you have expertise. But they don’t want to pay for it. Or they found themselves faced with having to pay for it somewhere else and hope that, from you, they can get it for free.

They also don’t want to acknowledge their deep lack of expertise. This is inauthentic. And since the brain-picker is unwilling (or unable) to peruse knowledge in deeper ways agreeing to these sessions is just enabling their inevitable failure.

Expertise always, in every instance, comes with a cost. Maybe you didn’t pay money for your expertise in the form of courses, trainings, degrees and certifications (although most of us have), but you certainly did pay in time, effort, sacrifice, and trial and error.

Most galling of all, the brain-pickers want your expertise in pre-digested chunks. Ready-made solutions for their problems. It’s a drive-by thought crime. The theft of ideas and experience to compensate for their unwillingness to apply themselves to their own problems with any depth or courage.

Pick Your Brain Sessions Usually Fail

When you let someone pick your brain it invariably turns out to be an oddly unfulfilling experience. The brain-picker elicits your expertise with flattery but seldom, if ever, has anything to offer in return.

Which is not surprising, because it’s never set up as a meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship. What more can we expect from a meeting set up with the dynamic of ‘How much can I extract for the price of a cup or a glass?’

It’s the strip-mining of knowledge.

From now on, I’m saying no to all these requests. Of course, I’m just following in the steps of people smart enough to reach this stage of the journey a long time before I did. I’ll still try to turn these requests down politely in the future. I know people who don’t even bother to do that.

There’s more to be said on this: where friends fit in, how we approach our possible place as mentors, leaders, or other public roles, and so on. But I’ll leave those questions for another time (or maybe for the comments below).

For now, I’d like to say this: Let’s stop picking brains and start being present for each other in more open, authentic and mutually beneficial ways.

This Week I Quit is an occasional series where I share experiences of quitting apps, platforms, habits and commitments in a quest to live a simpler and more focussed creative life. Last time I quit night-time meetups and you can read the rest of the series here.

Dane Cobain 6 years ago

I’ve never thought about it this way before but you’re so right. It used to happen a lot when I worked in marketing but I’d be fine with it then because I was on someone else’s time anyway. But since going freelance, I’ve stuck to my guns and stopped giving out advice (or even doing work) for free. Time is money, after all.

I particularly agree with what you were saying about kind of the hidden cost of this brain-picking. I’ve sacrificed a lot to get to where I am today. I mean, I’m a writer. You don’t become a writer without making sacrifices. But it does get annoying when people start asking me for advice and free work when I’m only qualified to do that in the first place because I stayed in when they went out partying or because I was writing a novel while they were sitting there watching Netflix.

I think as well that there’s a difference between someone doing their own research and then asking you for clarification etc. and someone just flat out asking you for help instead of giving it a go on their own steam.

fernando 6 years ago

Thanks Dane – you make some great points. Yes, it seems attitudes are very different when folks are on their own clock rather than their employers. And, the questions people ask when they’ve done their won work and research before coming to a dead end, create very different kinds of conversations.

Agostina 6 years ago

I have been on both sides of this situation. The brain-miner and the brain-mine. I usually really enjoy sharing my knowledge. Although I’ve always felt bad and like imposing for asking friends to share theirs. Ive had to a lot with technology such as how some cameras work, or some design softwares, since Ive studied Audiovisual Design and I was not prepared with all this knowledge when I started, some friends were and I envied them for this in a good way, felt bad for not being prepared myself. But I was very happy to be the one sharing that knowledge thy shared with me, with others, or sharing with them other knowledge they may need from me.

Marlene 6 years ago

What bothers me the most is not when they ask for advice but when they actually make you work for free, I know this kind of advice giving is work as well, but I’ve had friends asking for free translations many many times. Most times is just a sentence or a “super short paragraph“ and I’m happy to do so most of the times, because I’m good at it and I want them to have a good translation, but it’s not that they will recommend me or give me some credit somewhere for it, which I think they should if it’s aproppriate. I’ve had friends asking me to edit, write, translate texts, and I love it, but usually, funny enough, is when I’m struggling to get paid work doing this and it’s just very frustrating.

Christine 6 years ago

I love those friends that respect your time, your expertise and your work enough to directly ask for a budget. They are the light at the end of the tunnel. Its harder if its not “actual“ work but “just a little piece of advice“, but, as you say, it is way different when theyve done their research, prepared themselves first and then got so stuck they needed you to throw them a life vest.

Toni 6 years ago

I’ve always wanted to share knowledge freely. It was a part of my ethos when an employee and continued after I started running my own business. My present job and the team I have came as a result of sharing my knowledge where ever I was able to help, and while we do charge for other businesses to consult, it’s still both a pleasure and privilege to be able to give away knowledge and grow people. And maybe I’ve been lucky enough not to have to deal with many ‘takers’.

Perhaps it’s my science background that makes me feel being able to share knowledge is its own reward now, but it’s been a habit since before I left school.

fernando 6 years ago

Agostina – Yes, in many ways I like to share, and feel a responsibility to pass on what I’ve learnt, which is why I blog, why I make myself available on Twitter.

fernando 6 years ago

Marlene – oh there’s a whole other big topic for sure. I suspect many of us have stories to tell of being asked to work for free, or for “exposure.”

fernando 6 years ago

Toni – When I was in academia the dynamic was different and sharing knowledge was part of a process of creating knowledge. It was more fluid and less taxing. But now, in the space I’m in, sharing knowledge, sharing the how it gets done feels like an additional chore. I don’t need to do it to get the work done. And, I make myself available quite a lot, through the blog, on social media, by being available on email, so that’s already plenty of hours in the week. I still have people I mentor. I still have lots of connections. I’m not closing myself off completely, but putting a boundary around this for the sake of health and well-being. There is no virtue in being exploitable.

fernando 6 years ago

Christine – yes. I don’t want to be hard on friends about this.

Charlie 6 years ago

I see this more as a “chain of favours“, meaning that today you will help them, and maybe they will help you in another oportunnity, or somebody else will.
Most of the times that friend asking for advice is the last one to return a favour, a lot of times they feel they owe you and will find a way to make it up to you. But at some point in your life you will need that unpaid help from somebody else and you wont be able to return that favour yourself, and it is OK, unless you do this all the time.

Eunice 6 years ago

I’ve had a similar conversation on this topic and agreed that although the situations may vary, it is best to avoid the ‘discussions over coffee’ and what not.

The best approach is to state upfront that your time is valuable and some form of compensation is required for mutual benefit.

fernando 6 years ago

Hey Eunice – thanks for your comment. It might not need to be compensation in a monetary sense. But, I do tend to think collaborators are people who pay to work together and that sense of mutuality and respect for each other’s time and expertise has to be present and it helps to make it plain from time to time.

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