My Brain Is Not For Picking

Spencer Ingram
Jan 19, 2015 · 4 min read

I regularly receive emails from students and young entrepreneurs that say something like:

“I’m a student at university of wherever working on a startup / want to work at a startup. Can I pick your brain over coffee?”

Putting aside that I dislike coffee, “picking my brain” is a sign that you don’t really know what you want and we will spend the entire meeting just trying to find value for being there.

Getting things into my brain took a lot of time and effort, so you need to show me why I should spend my valuable time letting you poke around.

In most cases, I can help you with a quick email response before we commit to a longer engagement.

To write requests that land a response, you need to address two questions:

1. Do I make it clear and easy for this person to help me?

2. How do I add value to this person?

Here are tips, and tough love, on how you can answer those two questions:

Don’t be boring.

I want to help ambitious, optimistic, action-takers. Show me you are a self-directed maker.

If you are asking for help on a project, then share that project with me. I want to see resourcefulness, imagination, and some real work.

Be on a mission.

The typical email sounds like this:

“Hi I’m_________ , [me me me me me] and that’s why I’m thinking about working for a social impact company. Can I set up some time to pick your brain about social impact startups?”

Brain picking is too big of a request when I don’t see any value for me being there.

Improve on this request by crafting your mission statement. Keep it short, I don’t need your life story.

An email with a mission statement might read:

“I’m passionate about eliminating systemic poverty through financial access. I’m curious about domestic opportunities related to micro-lending and education.”

This gives me a good sense of what you are about. My brain neurons say, “Ah! we know someone/something about this specific topic!”

Be specific with your ask.

The more specific you are, the easier it is for me to respond quickly. A good ask is clear and can be completed in under five minutes.

The ask in our original example was poorly defined; “Can you recommend some companies?”

Where? Doing what? Big? Small? What kind of role?

Avoid requests like general feedback, or help in anyway you can. These feel lazy and create work to figure out how to help you.

I’m not here to do the work for you. Show me how you have already tried to help yourself. It is ok to say you are stuck after trying something on your own. Here is a full revision of our example:

“Hi Spencer, I’m Jane.

Your blog post on social impact career advice was super helpful! I use Rework for discovering social impact companies and thought it might be a nice addition to your list of resources.

I’m passionate about eliminating systemic poverty through financial access. I’m curious about domestic opportunities in startup companies related to micro-lending and education, but I’m hitting a wall on finding companies in Austin.

Can you share one new lead for my Austin hunt?”

Jane shared a useful resource and she provided a short mission statement with a lot of specificity (micro-lending, education, startups, Austin).

Jane did her homework and knows I live in Austin so I might have a valuable lead for her search. Jane’s email is easy to respond to in under 5 minutes.

“Jane, glad you found the learning resources helpful. Thanks for the ReWork tip! For new leads, check out the companies at ImpactHUB Austin and my Guide to Austin Startup Scene and look for companies in the Village Capital portfolio, I believe they made some Austin investments (Student Loan Genius and Upswing).

Always Add Value

Jane added value by sharing a resource for my blog. How might she take this a step further?

Let’s say Jane writes a LinkedIn update with the resources I shared and thanks me in her post. This is a nice way to give a public thank you.

Additionally, Jane’s post invites her LinkedIn connections to share more resources to benefit her search.

Additional tips:

1. Keep it short and break up your sentences like Jane did above.

2. If you do not receive a response in 48 hours, email again. Try for a third time if you have to. If you can’t get through on three tries, then try a new strategy. Find your contact on LinkedIn or Twitter.

3. Say thank you as soon as possible. A thank you earns you a future response. If you land an in-person meeting, consider mailing a thank-you note in addition to your email. A physical note will arrive a few days after your encounter and will create a nice reminder of who you are.

4. Report back on how you used the advice you were given. What was helpful? What did you learn? Sharing what you did will earn you a future response.

Best Monday Ever was started because career-ing should be more fun. Get unconventional tactics to win at your career with our open-source toolkit at

Spencer Ingram

Written by

I help people win at work.

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