GUEST POST: Responding to the “can I pick your brain?” question

If you’ve been anywhere in my vicinity, or my online vicinity, in the past few years, you know this topic is a doozy for me. Here I am in a space of promoting connecting, friendliness, and supporting one another, yet I regularly — as in three, twelve, seventeen times a week — say No when people, usually in the most flattering and sweet “I love what you’re doing and really admire you!” way, reach out. It’s a constant struggle of feeling like a bitch and being protective of… me. 

Levi Baer, Experience Designer, is in the same space as me and thus having to navigate the same “I want to help! Everyone! But I need to pay my bills and maintain my sanity and have downtime!” waters. I’ve gone through many iterations of how I handle the requests, Levi mentions one of them below. I’ll throw a few more thoughts out in the comments. It’s an area of such intrigue and complexity for me, I have a spreadsheet of articles on it (some of which I’ll include below). Levi is thoughtful, transparent, and a connecting-connoisseur, so having him Guest Post on this topic was a no-brainer. 

You can find Levi on Twitter and Instagram at @mysterybaer and can pick his brain Saturday mornings at Coffee & Conversation or at Office Hours at The Shift coworking space in Uptown on Sept. 30th.  

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“Can I pick your brain?”

This question gets thrown around all the time, but for the person being asked it can be a gift and a curse. On one hand, it’s an honor to be sought out for your ideas and experience. It feels good both personally and professionally when people come to me for insight and advice, especially in an industry like mine (business consulting) where my thoughts are my commodity.

However, the fact that thoughts ARE my commodity is what lies at the root of any tension surrounding this seemingly harmless question. My business offers team building consulting and being asked for my favorite ice breakers or ways to foster innovation are exactly what I want people and organizations to buy from me.

Imagine asking a lawyer for free legal advice. Normally you wouldn’t, because we are all used to paying for their time and more importantly for their thoughts. But why? The answer is complicated, but one reason is that we understand the value behind their time. It’s the same reason you pay the Geek Squad to repair your computer rather than your nerdy, 14 year old nephew, because you find more value in the Geek Squad’s work.

I asked my friend Scott Kane about this concept. He runs Kane Community Law, which provides excellent legal counsel to small businesses in Chicago; this is what he had to say:

  • First, consumers generally undervalue information because they don’t perceive it to be scarce. However, in the 21st century, what you’re paying an information provider for is rarely JUST the information, but rather their expert counsel on what it means and how to act on it.
  • Second, a lot of consumers of information services are blind to the years of work that took the provider to get to their current expertise. For example, a consumer might balk at the hourly rate a provider charges for a quick consultation, but that consumer only sees the “tip of the spear” – they don’t see the years of education, practice, and dedication it took that provider to reach a skill level to even provide “quick” consultations.
  • Third, consumers often under appreciate the complexity of the services they are soliciting. This often leads to consumers lamenting that a producer can’t just “do” something for them, when the consumer – as a lay person – lacks the background to appreciate how large of a request they are making.

Scott, who generously provided this in response to me asking to pick his brain on the topic, makes it clear that there is a lot you don’t see behind the response of a trained professional. As I grow my own consultancy I still want to be as available as possible to my network, which means I need to be open to these types of questions. I’ve asked a lot of other people if I can pick their brain and gotten all types of responses, some more friendly than not, and I’ve seen that some types of responses are more effective than others. So without further ado I present:


  1. Honesty

If you are asked for time and/or advice, be genuine with your response. If you don’t want to, then say no. Don’t say “I’d be happy to…” unless you actually will be, otherwise you are setting yourself up to feel resentment in relation to your work and possibly towards the person asking, neither of which are good. People will appreciate an honest response more than a sympathetic “sure”.

  1. Canned Response – With a Dash of Personality

If you get asked the same questions over and over again, save time by writing responses or lists once, creating a blog post or public Dropbox, and sharing that content with anyone who asks. The trick here is to not forget to add a little bit of personal touch; don’t just copy and paste a list with nothing else. In your response acknowledge that you are sending pre-made information and even highlight one or two items that might be good places for them to start looking.

Saya Hillman is one of my favorites for this method. If you have a question about services or locations in Chicago, her referrals lists leave you with more than enough options.

  1. Office Hours + Scheduled Response Time

If you are getting a lot of requests for coffee meetings and feedback you might need to start setting a schedule. One option is “office hours”, a certain time of the week where you set up in a public space and people are welcome to drop in or reserve a block of that time. I learned of this method from Brad Feld in his book Startup Communities, where he talks about his leadership role in the vibrant entrepreneurial community of Boulder, CO.

Another option is setting up a specific block of time when you respond to these sort of requests. For example, every Saturday morning from 8-11am you write back to as many people as possible, and what you don’t get to just has to wait until next week. If you use this method, be sure to at least skim your messages so as not to miss any urgent priorities or possible paid work.

  1. Buy Me Lunch (The Free Consultation)

Meeting up for coffee or lunch is great, especially if the other person is buying, and having the requestor pick up the tab can at least acknowledge that there is some value behind the time and information being exchanged. The best way I’ve seen this executed is to be forthright and say something like, “I’d be happy to answer a few question over a cup of coffee, if you don’t mind grabbing the check.” If someone isn’t willing to spring for a cup of coffee, they probably have no understanding of the value behind your time and ideas.

  1. Yes, Here’s my Rate…

This one comes from Marie Forleo who has built a career on being asked for advice. She has a great video with her top three responses to the pick your brain question and my favorite of hers is to say you’re available and give your consultation fee for such a meeting. There is no clearer way to establish the value of your service. For many of us it can be challenging to start to tell people in your network they need to pay for your time, but on the flip side, where else would you rather establish your value than the people that already know and trust you. They are also likely to be your strongest advocates in word of mouth marketing.

The next time someone asks if they can pick your brain, remember that you’ve got a lot of options, many of which can continue the exchange in a manner that’s mutually beneficial to both parties. Put yourself out there, especially at the beginning of your career, but remember to protect your boundaries. And if someone asks you how to respond to the pick your brain question, you can now use method #2 and send them this list, just be sure add an emoticon with the message so they know you care 😉

What other methods have you found useful? Did I miss anything? Leave a comment with your best way to give advice while valuing your time.