How to Respond to the “Can I Pick Your Brain?” Question
Have you ever had someone ask to pick your brain? Sometimes they’ll use those exact words, but other times it looks like this:
- “Can I buy you coffee?”
- “Are you available for a quick Skype call?”
- “Can you help me real fast with just a couple questions?”
It’s flattering and at the same time a very strange feeling. On the one hand, it feels good to be asked for advice, but on the other hand, something seems a bit weird about the exchange. Why does it feel weird?
Maybe you blog regularly about a subject or share videos helping people with what you know. You’ve developed an unofficial reputation as the “[Fill-in-the-blank]” guy, or the “[Fill-in-the-blank]” girl.
You’ve spent time getting good at what you do. You’ve put in the hours and you’ve spent the years. There’s a reason someone wants to pick your brain — you have knowledge they don’t. You have value to offer.
“There Are Plenty of People Who Know More Than Me”
You may not be the most advanced person in your field, but you don’t need to be. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to be a master in order to deliver value to someone, but it’s simply not the case!
All you need to know to teach is more than any other one person.
Just because you aren’t a master in your field doesn’t mean you don’t have something of value to offer someone who is a beginner. You don’t need to know how to get to level 7 from level 6 in order to teach someone how to get to level 1 from level 0.
There are so many pursuits, hobbies, practices, and skills in this world. No one can know everything about everything. That means there are constantly new people coming into every single field.
There are always beginners who need help with that very first step. If you know the first step, you can help a beginner. That means your time is valuable. Your advice has value and it’s something you should be charging for.
In fact, someone who is more advanced than you may not even be the best person to teach a beginner. Because that first step is more fresh to you, you’re better able to relate to their struggles. The more seasoned master is decades removed from that first step. You have a unique opportunity and unique value to offer.
Can I Pick Your Brain?
Let’s break down why something feels off when someone asks to pick your brain. We’ll call this person a Brain Picker.
If you’ve been working at what you do for any amount of time, you’ve attained some level of expertise. Maybe you’re not a master yet, but you’re certainly past the beginner stage.
Brain Pickers recognize this value. They’ve heard about you. Why? Because you’re good. Because other people are saying good things about you. Because you blog. Because you podcast. Because you provide a lot of value for free and you have their attention.
One way or another, you’ve established yourself as an expert in the eyes of this person.
It feels weird when a Brain Picker asks to buy you coffee. While they may not be saying they don’t value your time with their words, their actions are saying your time is worth a $4.78 latte.
Call It What It Is: Consulting
Let’s be real here: what someone wants is consultation. This is why it feels weird! What they’re asking for is legitimate consultation but they don’t know what to call it. They want help, but they don’t realize that what they’re asking for is a paid service. They have problems, you have experience. They have questions, you have answers.
It’s your job to call it what it is: consulting.
You’ve given a lot of free value and that’s why these people see you as someone who can help them. But you have to remember: the reason they’re asking you for advice is because they see you as someone who is knowledgeable. This is because you’ve continued to put out information on this topic.
You can’t fault them for expecting more free value after hungrily consuming all of your free blog posts and podcast episodes, but some people need a reminder that just because some of your content is free doesn’t mean that your time doesn’t come with a price tag.
Position the Conversation
One thing you can do to politely shift the conversation with someone who wants to “pick your brain” is simply ask them what questions they have. This gives you the opportunity to point them to any existing resources you have that answer their question.
Simply say in response, “I’ve hand-picked and shared several articles and podcasts below that help with this question. Feel free to check them out — I think you’ll find them to be highly relevant!”
Follow this with, “If you’re interested in 1-on-1 consultation, I’m available at [rate].”
This accomplishes three things:
- Politely directs them to resources you have available for free.
- Establishes your time as valuable and makes your rate clear.
- Solicits questions you can use as fuel for future blog posts.
In many cases, a Brain Picker may not know about your free material. Providing links to free material keeps you from looking like a jerk to those who may be unaware, while also providing a contrast for people who are trying to get more for free by positioning the personalized advice as it should be: paid consulting.
The initial questions you receive not only help you determine which of your free resources or paid consulting options would be the best to reply with, but also provide topics for future content you produce.
You’ll find that the most well-received content you make will be those that were made in direct response to questions you received. You’ll notice a huge difference in engagement from the posts where you just wrote about whatever you felt like or guessed at what people were interested in.
Free Consulting Is Lose-Lose
It’s tempting to do consulting for free for a friend, or “just this once” for an acquaintance, or “at no charge” for family.
But here’s the unfortunate truth:
People who don’t pay for your advice won’t value your advice.
Yes, that includes family. Yes, that includes friends.
It seems like you’re doing them a favor by giving them free consults under the guise of “coffee” or “lunch,” but you’re doing them a huge disservice.
If you want someone to take your advice, charge them for it.
Look at what you do for a living. You charge people money for your expertise. You get paid for your knowledge and your work. Why should others feel entitled to that for free?
I always say, “Good friends pay full price.” A good friend respects you. A good friend tips you on top of paying full price — they don’t devalue your work by asking you to give it away.
The “Pick My Brain” Product
Inevitably, you are going to have people asking to pick your brain. Inevitably, you are going to have people asking to buy you coffee.
You could go through the conversation-positioning process every single time, or you could actually create a “Pick My Brain” or “Buy Me Coffee” product that is essentially your consultation services.
Set up a page on your site and link to it from your email reply or elsewhere on your site: “Click here to buy me coffee.”
This preempts the inevitable requests you’ll get for brain-picking sessions. Outlining the process on a page shows that you’ve already thought all of this through because you get asked a lot.
This page conveys that you get this question a lot and there is demand enough for you to have taken the time to setup it up. It communicates that your time is valuable. It provides a quick way to re-position the conversation and show that what someone is asking for is not just a “quick Skype call” or a “short meeting over coffee” but a valuable service that is something you charge for.
Don’t Be Afraid to Simply Say No
A very valid question to ask yourself is: do you even want to do consulting? The more you write, the more you podcast, the more you publish, the more demand there will be for your time.
It’s not a matter of if but when people begin asking for your time (both paid and unpaid). You need to want to do this for you. Maybe you enjoy doing your work and maybe that fulfills you. Maybe you don’t want or need the extra money. Maybe you are content.
Don’t feel obligated to take on a commitment you don’t want to take on. I use my “Gut Check” test a lot:
Imagine saying yes and immediately assess how you feel in your gut.
Does saying yes to this request feel right when you imagine it? Or do you automatically start to feel anxious?
- Are you giving enough time to your family?
- Are you happy with the amount of sleep you’re getting?
- Do you already feel overwhelmed?
- Do you feel like you have too much on your plate as it is?
It’s not selfish to say no. You don’t even have to give a reason or an excuse for why you’re not taking on consulting or “requests for coffee.”
If you’re already not giving time to the things that are important in your life, don’t even consider doing consulting on top of your current workload.
You can very matter-of-factly express that you’re not available for consulting at this time. Yes, reply with this even when the person requesting does not call it consulting. Call it what it is.
Alternatives to Consulting
In my case, I’m not taking on any consulting at this time. I’ve made a few exceptions in the recent past, but have stopped in favor of focusing on a couple important things:
Even when I can’t get to all of the hundreds of emails I receive, I make a point to prioritize the paid members in the Community. Because I have this valuable resource, I’m able to encourage people to join as an alternative to consulting because it’s an effective way to get more direct access to me at a tiny fraction of the cost.
When I was taking on consulting, my rate was $1,000/hr. My Community membership is $39/mo. I often got people asking me for a “quick Skype call.” I informed them of my consulting rate but also let them know they could get more direct access to me in the Community for a lot less. They of course also get access to a bunch of other really smart people who are eager to help at any time of day in the live chat and on the forums.
Yet they didn’t hire me and they didn’t sign up. They ignored the message or they give an excuse. They could have got a significant amount of the same value for 4% of my rate but they didn’t do it.
Why is this? It’s because they are Brain Pickers. Brain Pickers will consume all of your free content and then try to get more from you without ever compensating you for anything. There’s another word for them: freeloaders. Freeloaders will never be your client. They will attempt tomake you feel bad for not giving even more on top of what you’ve already provided for free.
These are not the people you want to cater to. These are the people you want to filter out. Do not feel bad.
Your Time Is Valuable
Regardless of whether you are the most knowledgeable person in your field, you are a step ahead of someone. Your time is valuable. Your experience is valuable.
Take note: it’s not a matter of if but when people begin asking for your time. It’s easy to assume that you’ll be flattered (or that someone else should be flattered) by being asked, but once you’re getting dozens of requests a day for free time, it’s no longer flattering.
Ask what questions you can help with, then follow up with two things:
- Existing free materials.
- Paid consulting options.
This way, you’re still being helpful, but you’re also asserting the value of your time. Your paying clients will thank you for it.