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?

When Is Help Worth Paying For? The Creatives' Dilemma

A chimpanzee brain at the Science Museum London
Pick it, but for a price...Image via Wikipedia

Correct me, please, if I am wrong, but I suspect that engineers or dentists or plumbers or dry-cleaners, when meeting someone socially, don’t get: “Oh, can I ask your advice?” Do you actually show a DDS your molars or point to a stubborn spot on your sleeve? I doubt it. It would be weird and rude and intrusive.

Writers do get this question. All the time. Maybe because, y’know, it’s just writing.

People email me, and perhaps also to many others, out of the blue to “pick my brain” as though that were an activity I might enjoy and find satisfying. Yes, it’s flattering that people think you have something useful to offer them. Sure, one works hard to acquire some level of visibility and credibility. But I’m not emailing random Big Name Person to ask them for their help, free. I know it took them years of hard work and experience, perhaps costly travel and education and internships and apprenticeships, to acquire the very knowledge I wish I had. Why should they just hand it over to me gratis?

I also studied interior design for a few years, planning to leave journalism for that field. One of our classes was  focused on the legal issues designers face. Like being sued. We were warned, in all seriousness, not to hand out advice on anything too substantive lest the suggested curtains catch on fire or someone slips on that sisal or their kid got caught their thumb caught in the Knole sofa and they’d come after us for it. I also liked the basic message — we were experts and would bill for that time and expertise. Clients will ask for anything they think can get away with.

I’ve spent many years mentoring, helping, advising dozens of strangers, free. Not so much any more. I plan to retire and in order to do so need to retain control of my time, which, in addition to my skills, is all I have to offer in the intellectual marketplace.

Here’s the challenge. I’ve already committed to serve on two volunteer boards, for several years, that take up a fair bit of unpaid time and attention. I enjoy giving back.

If you’re someone who really likes to help others succeed, as I genuinely do, and you like to be liked, as many of us do, yet you must carve out a decent freelance income from your well-developed, otherwise uncompensated skills, when and where do you draw that line?

Do you think, or find, that women have a harder time saying “no” to such requests? Do you feel any hesitation asking such questions?