Photo by Gabriel Gonzalez on Unsplash
This article by Mita Mallick first appeared on Fairygodboss and has been republished with permission.
“Can I pick your brain” seems to be having a moment. It’s the phrase all the cool kids are using, replacing other famous requests like: “Can you be my mentor?" Or: “Can you connect over coffee?” Or: “Can you please recommend me for this job?” You know, even though we may have never met.
Someone who I have never met asked me the other day over email if they could just pick my brain for a few minutes; "Just a few minutes of my time," they promised a few times in the note.
I almost responded: "I am not sure if you want to pick my brain. After being woken up three times last night — once by my daughter and twice by my son — I'm not sure there is anything left to pick at. Since I can’t even remember the password to my laptop at the moment, I am not going to be of much help."
Since I've never met this person, since we don’t know anyone in common and since we don’t work at the same company, I decided not to respond to the request. Friendly reminder: this is not ghosting. You can only ghost people you have actually met or know.
Here’s the thing: I am all for brain picking, brainstorming, being a sounding board, coaching and helping. But I only let those I know very well pick my brain.
My employer? Well, they pay me to pick my brain. My community of friends? That’s what we do. We unconditionally support each other, collaborate and give unsolicited advice — best done over a Starbucks beverage or cocktail, for me. And, of course, my family? They have 24/7 access to me and my brain.
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So while everyone else is running around asking “can I pick your brain?,” here are the three reasons why you shouldn’t ask to pick mine:
1. Because you don’t know me or you have never actually met me.
If you send me a cold email introduction or LinkedIn message asking for time to pick my brain, I am likely going to say no. And yes, that’s not a "maybe" or a "try me in two weeks." It’s a hard no.
Tip: If I really want to meet someone or get to know someone, try to see if someone in your network can help facilitate an introduction.
2. Because you just want me to give you ideas for free.
Maybe you don’t have the money to pay for a consultant. Maybe you don’t have money to pay for a coach. Maybe you don’t have money to hire more people on your team. Maybe I seem like a nice enough person who will give you some ideas for free.
A few years after I graduated from business school, a prestige beauty company heavily pursued me. I had three rounds of interviews, the end assignment being a strategy deck to see how “I think.” Mysteriously, after I submitted my beautiful deck, the position went on hold. My husband said: “Ah, so they picked your brain and got your ideas for free.” I hate when he is right, which happens to be a lot of the time. So, I am super cautious of who I give my ideas to when and why.
Tip: Don’t be an idea thief. That’s all I have to say on that.
3. Because you haven’t thought about what’s in it for me.
If you pick my brain, can I pick your brain back? Do I even want to pick your brain? Have you thought about how we can collaborate together or how this could be mutually beneficial? Now every conversation I leave, no matter what the nature of the meeting, I always ask: how can I be helpful to you?
Tip: Understand what value you can bring into the conversation and be clear on what you can offer in return.
While brain picking might be the hot new trend, think about why and how and with who you engage in this request. And remember, some trends aren’t always a good look — shoulder pads, acid-washed jeans and scrunchies were never a good look for me.