I don’t want you to ‘pick my brain’!

By Caitlin Kelly

Will you share your secrets with me?
Will you share your secrets with me?

Here’s an interesting issue — when (or not) to let someone seeking work-related advice to “pick your brain”. Without charging them for your time and expertise.

From the New York Post:

“When people are self-employed, you absolutely need to think of how you’re spending your time,” says executive coach Mike Woodward. “That said, charging for the occasional mentoring service is a slippery slope. It’s one thing to brand yourself as a consultant if that’s what you want to do, but monetizing mentoring could become a distraction from your own career goals.”

But call the concept “consulting” and all of a sudden it makes sense to charge.

It’s one thing to brand yourself as a consultant if that’s what you want to do, but monetizing mentoring could become a distraction from your own career goals.

 – Mike Woodward

The eponymous creator of Anne Chertoff Media, a boutique marketing agency that caters to the wedding industry, found a similar niche.

“I honestly got annoyed with people taking me to lunch and thinking that the cost of a meal could equal my contacts, expertise and advice, so I created a service called ‘Pick My Brain’ on my website. For $500, I give 90 or so minutes of whatever advice the customer needs,” she explains.

We’ve got two competing impulses — the urge to be generous and helpful to others, which reflects our better nature and realizes that other have done this for us, likely, along our own path.

But in an era of $4.05 (yes, here in NY) gallon gasoline, when my weekly grocery bill has literally doubled in the past few years — and when my industry is offering pennies on the dollar for the most skilled among us, what’s the upside?

Time is money! You take up my time, without payment in any form, you’ve cost me income.

And some skills take decades to hone and sharpen. Anyone who thinks that “picking my brain” will vault them into The New York Times is dreaming; I’ve helped one fellow writer get there because she deserved it.

So I bill my time at $150/hour for consultations and individual counseling. I’m going to raise it in 2015 to $200 an hour.

But…didn’t a lot of people help me? Frankly, not really. A few, yes.

I have mentored many other writers and am, very selectively, still happy to do so.

But when and where and to whom is my choice. In my younger and more idealistic days, I assumed that my generosity would be reciprocated, even thanked. Wrong!

Now I’m too busy funding my own basic needs, and a retirement. I can’t afford to give away hours of my time. It is what it is.

The people I choose to mentor are: bright, highly motivated, say thank you, follow through quickly, and don’t argue endlessly with my advice, (they can ignore it, but arguing feels rude to me.) They do whatever they can in return and, I trust, will share their good fortune with others as well.

Do you let people pick your brain?

Do you ask others for this?

34 thoughts on “I don’t want you to ‘pick my brain’!

  1. I rarely get asked, but when I do I usually give the information as freely as I can. Someone actually asked me about self-publishing in a Facebook message a while back, and I gave as much information as I could. I hope it helped!

  2. yes, i have, and i do, depending. in advertising, i offered some free advice, for those who were friends and not clients, and still brainstorm and suggest ideas when asked if it is just a matter of throwing ideas around.

    as a teacher, i will help a child or parent who is struggling, or offer suggestions to other teachers, though i do charge for formal tutoring by the hour, for children up through 5th grade, who need more support. as a humanist, my nature is to help, and as a professional, my skills are valuable, i’ve gone through a lot of training, schooling, and gained experience, and that is worth something.

    1. Thanks…That’s the challenge…to be kind and helpful but not to be a doormat. I also think women are socially conditioned (and expected) to be helpful, so it can come as a shock if we ask for financial compensation. Kindness is a value that matters to me, but it is not paying my bills in a time of crazily rising costs.

  3. Oh this is very pertinent to me right now! I’ve recently started my own business venture, and I’m getting some friends asking me for ‘creative’ advice, pictures for their blogs etc. it’s such a grey area and I’m so terrible at saying no! Like your younger self I assume that if I am kind and generous it will be reciprocated, but I’m not sure that is the case… and sometimes ‘free advertising’ is of little value to me if it’s not the right market. Another friend has advised me that people won’t value my work unless I charge for it, but then I see how competitive the market is and giving things away for free seems to be the only foothold into it. Thing is, it’s not my ‘main’ job like you. Maybe I need to start acting like it is!

    1. I would.

      But that’s me…and I’ve been supporting myself through my ideas/writing/photos since I was 19 and living on my own, so I’m used to negotiating and asking for money for them. Most women are not! My attitude is pretty simple — if you want what I have, you have de facto created a market (i.e. my goods/services are something you have sought out.) Why should the price be zero?

      Yes, the market is highly competitive. Then you have to put on your Businesswoman hat (difficult for many creatives!) and see what others are charging at your level of skill and experience. Then add 30%! 🙂

      In all seriousness, if we do not value ourselves, few people will willingly open their wallets.

      1. “if you want what I have, you have de facto created a market”

        Oh that is such a simple and effective way of thinking about it! Thanks for the freebie 🙂

        I’ve spent most of my life doubting my skills, but I learnt to value them when my business (which I run with a partner) became my only income generator. People pay for is was in my head, and then listen to it because it works. That was, and still is, quite the eye opener!

      2. Thanks!

        I think it can get very over-complicated and jargon-y. At heart, I’m a Marxist — I sell you my skills. You do not “give” me a job. Even if I accept a full-time staff position, I retain the same attitude. I think once you see it and live by your wits/skills/sales ability, it is very hard to un-see and un-feel the very real sense of power it gives us. I grew up in a family of FT freelancers, none of whom would ever rely on a a paycheck, bonus, commission, raises, pension…It taught me to eat what I kill! 🙂

  4. All of life involves give and take. However, what counts as a favour to be repaid in kind, or a service with a fee depends largely on the circumstances and the person asking.

    I used my skill with a needle and thread to supplement my income while at uni by making ball gowns for friends. This was paid per project and negotiated dependant on fabric, time and whether or not I was involved in the design process. These days, as I work full time, I help out a friend of mine as a favour. She is struggling to learn to sew, has paid for a couple of courses and come away from the experience more confused than before. I don’t resent my contribution to this endeavour as we have been friends for a long time and the exchange of various favours and mutual support has been ongoing for a number of years. I don’t feel my friend is attempting to take advantage of my generosity.

    That said, in the days when I was still acting, singing and going for regular auditions, an old teacher asked me to help with research for her book. While I was initially happy to help, in the end I had to rethink my decision. Basically she wanted all my contacts to list in a publication that would be marketed to the next generation of performers, i.e. my direct rivals. I had no choice but to decline politely. No amount of money could have compensated me for the loss of exclusive access to my personal network connections. It would have make it exponentially harder for me to find work and would have destroyed the trust I had built up over time with the various casting professionals.

    Sometimes it is more than a question of ‘how much is my time worth’. Where your professional reputation is on the line, despite the unwritten expectation that any woman who works should be polite and helpful (especially to other women who may or may not be under-represented in her field), it is worth considering whether you should write that reference, or take that call, or whether doing so could be damaging to your own survival in the open marketplace.

    Also, ‘would they do the same for you?’ may offer an indication of whether or not someone is likely to respect your time and skills and therefore value any help you may give. There is no feeling quite like being kicked in the teeth repeatedly for responding to a cry for help.

    1. Katherine, thanks so much for such a thoughtful comment!

      Lots in here to think about. Yes, of course, we help friends of long-standing. That’s friendship! But this notion that “I need X and you must give it to me” is absurd. No, I don’t have to give you a thing, actually. And, yes, I have succeeded in a highly competitive field through MUTUAL exchanges of help, information, advice and contacts. But, like you, I don’t just hand over my hard-earned, carefully-culled professional contacts and never will, for a variety of reasons.

      I was very naive in earlier days and allowed flatterers to woo me…then disappeared. Never again!

      Having said that, a new-to-me client yesterday said “I need someone who can X” and I immediately emailed a friend visiting Argentina (!) to alert him to a possible gig, as he just lost a long–term one last month. If you can’t rely on a kind, smart network, certainly while self-employed, you will starve. But that network is composed of ethical, reliable, generous people of comparable skill.

  5. I am a victim of having my brain pic and like you before you came to realize that time is money I give away free advice by calling those I have advised friends. Thank you for this post. I just noticed that I give away advice on social media as well places like Facebook and Twitter. And most of the time don’t get so much as a thank you but thank you

  6. I think the hard part is figuring out where the boundaries are, which are certainly different for everyone. Charging for advice is totally acceptable. What you actually charge isn’t really part of the equation since market forces will take care of that. I make a distinction between people asking for advice. and people wanting access. Not that I have that much access, but that can’t be bought. Maybe I give access to my bestest friend. Or my dog. But that’s it.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I agree. I’ve sometimes later regretted “giving it away” when the person is greedy. That happened recently and I was so stunned by their behavior I did not react in the moment.

      Advice is one thing and access totally different, I agree. I sometimes fear they will ask for both so I am now very direct when I do my webinars and coaching that I am happy to offer a lot of advice, but will not share my contacts.

  7. rich

    While I make some money from my writing it is less than ten percent of my income. I busted my ass and spent many hours on the Internet learning how to write the best proposal.etc. I put my time in. Other people want to sit me down and pick my brain. When I needed help and I asked someone I made it a point to first offer to compensate them for their time. Time is valuable. ..that being said I have also done much pro-Bono much throughout my life as well….

    1. Rich…so true. People have some bizarre notions of entitlement and it’s our job to disabuse them!

      Many people think “writing” is dead easy and fail to see (or care) that the best spend a lot of time and energy and $$$ attending conferences, reading books, networking, etc. to gain that level of skill. It may appear effortless but they don’t see the rest of the iceberg — preparation.

  8. I like to help out young people who are about to become or just did become lawyers — it is a scary world out there, and a few mentors of mine had the grace to point me in the right direction on things, so I try to pay it forward. Listening to my mentors got me started on the right foot in my career. So while I’m grateful I didn’t have to pay for their advice, looking back, I know it was more valuable than any check I could write at the time because they knew how to play the game and were giving me the tips. Thankfully, I had the sense to take it. Not everyone does!

    1. I appreciate your generosity — and I also mentor some young journalists and would-be authors. But, as you point out, if someone argues or doesn’t seem to get that you are being helpful, it’s annoying and a waste of energy. I worry about entitled younger folk who think this is their due.

  9. Back in the day I did, and for the most part, they were thankless. These days I do the relationship building thing: give freebies away to people who are already invested in me (clients, of the web or photography businesses), when it’s appropriate. It makes both parties happy, so it’s a strategy that appears to be working!

    Otherwise though, no brains to pick….

  10. I actually appreciate all the advice you offer here on the Broadside. As a board member for a non profit, I have had people offer me their friends’ time, as in, “my friend is a grant writer. She could look this over.” I try to point out that editing is not just “looking over” but in my real life as a writing teacher, I’ve learned that editing is not a skill many people understand or value, even when they are paying for it.

    1. Thanks, Andrea…

      People have no idea. Writing seems easy (just hit the keys!) when it is not. I will be teaching (help!) freshman writing at college this fall for the first time and am both excited and nervous to explain why this is such an important issue to grasp.

  11. I’m interested in what people ask you for. I’ve been asked how I got to where I got to as a freelancer. And I’m always happy to share that. My contacts? Now that’s another story. If you’re good, hard working and I would back you with my life? Sure. I think there’s more than enough success to go around. I just try to remember the authors who have been so gracious to me–and those who haven’t given me the time of day. And I try to be the former.

    1. Yes and no. I was just asked by someone who seems to want to compete directly with me, and in the same region, offering writing classes — asking me how I did it.

      No. Just, no. I have helped many people gratis. I’m at a point now of being very selective about it. I do it, but not as a reflex.

  12. So you, Caitlin, charge a fee because your “generousity” is not being ‘repaid’ in kind and – how do you say – no “useful doors” were opened for you. My god. How mercenary. Remind me never to ask you for a favour. Oddly, please cue laugh, I was just about to [ask you for some advice]. Never mind. Even I recognize a door shut in my face before running into it. Anyway, I am currently broke and therefore can’t “afford” you.

    I am generous to the point of stupid. My main commodity being time. Money, when I have it, too.

    And then one day, and your approach to life will no doubt endorse this: Husband of a friend of mine asked me to do a last minute job for him. At the weekend. I turned it round in a few hours. I even delivered it to their door. Not that they were at home. I had the audacity to charge him for my efforts. My friend called off the friendship. Neither was I ever paid. I thought it strange though didn’t waste time dwelling on it. Just another way of the world I clearly don’t understand.

    A few years ago a mentor foisted herself on me. She was great. One hell of an inspiration. Black, big bosom. And slammed down her fist on the table and told me: “Ursula, you have got to start charging for your time”. I know, I know. But I prefer to give without expecting anything back. Which does not make me, as you say in one of your comments, “a doormat”.

    Other than that: Yes, I agree with you. I don’t like the expression ‘pick your brain” either. But that is purely for aesthetic reasons. What a ghastly picture. Pick something else. Preferably not your nose. Come to me. I’ll hand you a tissue. Free of charge.


    1. As usual, Ursula, you take a pretty dark view of things.

      I have no problem with you calling me “mercenary” because I’ve seen how easily and casually people take advantage of my good will and generosity, and that of others. I’ve said many times, here, how much I have (and continue to do so) mentored younger and less experienced people. But that is always my decision, not something they can assume is theirs just for the taking because I have something they want and need. I have propelled people with ZERO experience in journalism into the pages of The New York Times. That’s a sort of generosity that no one can ever purchase from me. And I was happy to do it, to see and champion excellence.

      If you have such difficulty setting boundaries, that’s also your decision.

      If you prefer giving without expecting anything in return, that’s also your choice. Charging for access to my 30 yrs’ worth of skill makes the issue very basic — if you value something highly enough, you will find a way to pay for it. My gas, groceries, mortgage and other costs of living are not donated to me simply because I want and need them.

      Or you’ll find someone with whom you have established a relationship of trust and that person will help you without question. I do it and others do that for me.

      But we have established a relationship of trust.

  13. I just met a guy in Iceland who gave me free marketing advice. I didn’t even ask for it! I told him about a project I am working on and he got really excited and started brainstorming for my success. The second time I saw him he acknowledged that he gave me advice that he paid a lot of money for. I laughed and said “Yes,you did. Thank you by the way.” 😉

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