How valuable is your brain? Dixie Gillaspie helps you field the offers of “I’ll buy you a cup of coffee if you’ll let me pick your brain.”
Today I’m writing this in in a coffee shop, latte on the table in front of me. Alone.
But in my early days of “expert status” that almost never happened.
Because even 20 years ago (gasp!) when I embarked on solopreneurship as a management consultant, being publicly visible meant fielding frequent requests for brain picking sessions. (And NOT being publicly visible meant professional death.)
Now, as an author, coach, and so on, it seems my brain has become even more attractive. And with social media, my public visibility has become more widespread. Now the requests to “pick my brain” don’t always come with an offer of coffee, because they’re Skype sessions with someone on the other side of the world.
And one thing people want to pick my brain about, is how to handle it when someone wants to pick their brain. As seasoned professionals, many of them men, discover that their “transition” isn’t transitioning, that the job offerings available aren’t a match for the expertise they offer, or that traditional employment is no longer attractive, they’re hanging out a shingle as an adviser.
Young people are making the same discoveries, being self-employed might be risky, but there’s no security in having a JOB either, and freedom (as I mentioned in the story about Outdoorplay, the company that turned down an order from SeaWorld) is a form of compensation.
So freelance entrepreneurship is on the rise.
This means that networking events and social media platforms are full of people who know something you don’t. All of them potential clients. And if you are one of those advisers who knows something most people don’t, you are in a space with a lot of other people who know what you know, or at least claim to.
So it’s easy to feel like you need to take every meeting offered.
More than that, I hear from clients and colleagues, there’s the fear of being labeled as “arrogant” or “inaccessible,” or worst of the worst, “GREEDY” if you don’t make yourself available for “brain picking sessions.” Especially if they’re offering to buy your coffee, right?
Perhaps predictably, although I strongly dislike (read ABSOLUTELY HATE) universal generalities, women tell me they’re most afraid that declining to have their brains picked for the price of a cup of coffee or less will label them as not nice or snotty. Men say their greatest fear is being perceived as greedy or only concerned about the money, not the client.
For myself, there were many years that I tried to accommodate all the requests for brain picking sessions, although I will admit to being miffed when the recipient of the contents of my brain didn’t even offer to buy the sustenance for my body. (That didn’t happen often, but I fell into the trap of feeling really insulted when it did.)
Gradually I came to realize a few things:
1.) The brain picker was often looking for direction or personal validation more than advice. They didn’t know what they didn’t know, they didn’t know what they needed to know, and usually they didn’t even know what they wanted to do once they had all the answers. (Which is a sure-fire way to ask all the wrong questions.)
2.) They often thought that since I was so “wise, experienced, smart, connected, you name it” that I was going to solve all their problems for them in one session. And while I can usually help a client resolve one defined issue in a single session, I don’t think there is anyone who can solve the problem of not knowing what you want, or what you need to know, over one cup of coffee.
3.) I’ve coined a phrase that isn’t a universal truth, but close, “If you don’t pay me, you don’t hear me.” I could offer superlative insights, make incredible suggestions, blow up every barrier they’d concocted for themselves, drink my coffee, and walk away, and NOTHING WOULD CHANGE.
There are a lot of experts who offer suggestions for how to respond to the “Can I buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brain?” come on.
Michael Hyatt has a blog post that has been circulated widely as a creative way to answer the question. He lists all the resources he has made available, for free, where people can access the contents of his brain. But of course, what people really want is access to you.
A recent article in the New York Post includes sound bites from several professionals who suffer from the onslaught of brain picking requests, with several suggestions ranging from the “don’t do it for free, if they value your expertise they’ll pay for it,” to the “it’s my call, I don’t do it just because they expect it.”
Of course, you can handle the coffee for brain contents equation however you see fit, but here are some guidelines I try to remember to follow.
Don’t Get Upset
In the New York Post, a market expert is quoted as saying, “When someone asks to pick my brain, I bristle. My brain is how I earn my living — would you ask a plumber to unclog a drain for free?”
And that is a perfectly justified response. The contents of my brain, accumulated over years and years of managing businesses, consulting, coaching, studying, observing and living, are my stock in trade. When you ask for access to that you’re asking for far more than my time.
But, before you get all bottlebrush bristly, remember that perception is reality. And for most people, their perception is that sitting down for coffee costs you time, but it isn’t work. It’s not like they’re asking you to dig a ditch, or, as the expert above says, unclog a drain. To the person doing the asking the request is reasonable, your time for a cup of coffee, and you might even enjoy the encounter or gain a client.
Also remember that they are probably sending you a message about how they value (or don’t value) their own time. If they think a cup of coffee is a fair trade for your expertise and time they probably would, and maybe have, been expected to be on the other end of that trade before.
Besides, what good will it do to be upset? Either you’re going to keep it to yourself or vent to someone else, or you’re going to let the brain picker know just how you feel about being undervalued. Chances are no one is going to be better off, and unless you’re one of those people who just gets their rocks off by venting, it’s not going to do anything for you but waste the time you didn’t want to spend meeting someone for coffee.
Finally, don’t get upset if you share insights or give advice and nothing changes. You planted seeds. Maybe they’ll germinate and flower years from now, and you will never know. Maybe they weren’t what that person wanted or was willing to cultivate, but they’ll repeat your words to someone more ready for the work and the harvest. You can only control what you contribute, not what they do, or don’t do with it. Even when I’m working with a paying client, attachment to their choices and outcomes is a sure path to hating my work. (Which doesn’t mean I don’t celebrate with them like a rock star groupie when they have breakthroughs and amazing results!)
Decide What YOU Want
Don’t let yourself get guilted into a meeting you don’t want to take. If you’re getting the “us guys have to stick together” line, or the “can you meet me at a coffee shop near me because I don’t want to travel” routine, or the “I might want to hire you, but I want to see what you can do first,” pitch, just say “no.”
Even if it feels like something you’d like to do you still don’t have to commit to a meeting. Suggest a phone call or Skype conversation. At the very least, request that they set the meeting for a time and place that is convenient for you.
Sometimes you just want to do it “because.” Some of my best insights, blog posts, even client resources have come from sitting down with a stranger and their questions. They may not be any wiser at the end of our meeting, but I am. That makes it worth it even if I buy my own coffee.
In the last few years I went on a networking sabbatical while writing a couple of books and doing some deep internal work. Although I am technically an introvert, I like people and I especially enjoy getting to know someone one-on-one. So if a request comes when I’m feeling a ready for some interaction I’ll likely take it, just because.
We all like to feel like we’ve made a contribution. You’re a nice person (if you weren’t you probably wouldn’t have read this far) so you like to spread that nice around. If it makes you feel good do it, but watch for those tendrils of attachment to their choices and outcomes and set your boundaries so that you don’t get into martyrhood.
Demand Skin In Game
A cup of coffee, or even lunch, isn’t enough of an investment to get most people to take the time seriously. A lot of experts will tell you to charge a fee, and I’m all for it if that’s what you want to do. But we’re talking about the “no money exchanged” kind of meeting so I won’t address fees here.
There are a lot of ways to get them to make an investment without charging a fee. My go-to is to demand that they get clear on how we’re going to spend our time. What segment of my brain do they want to access? After years of medical consulting, I think of this phase much the way I would the patient interview that takes place before an appointment can be made. What are the symptoms? How long have you had them? What have you done to relieve them?
Depending on the situation, and whether it is a business matter or a deeply personal one, I ask that the brain picker send me information about their goals for our time together. What do they want to learn? How do they want to feel? What needs to change for them to make it worth their time? This allows me to put time and money in context, they’re investing time and money (I’m not a cheap brain picking date – I’ll take a latte please!) and I want them to understand that their investment is important too.
Set Your Boundaries
Making it clear in advance that you’re just coming to chat, or that you only have about 45 minutes, allows you to firmly stick to your guns if the meeting is a chore, or extend yourself further if it is enjoyable or has mutual benefit.
Trust Your Gut
Finally, trust your intuition. And don’t tell me that’s a “female thing.” My male clients have powerful intuitive skills, but they’re often less likely to trust them.
So listen to that gut feeling that says “I’m being played” or “They aren’t serious.” And stop thinking you’re a sucker if you want to take the meeting just because you have a hunch it might make a difference in the world. Sometimes you’ll never see the harvest of the seeds you sow during that meeting, but you can walk away, go-cup of coffee in hand, knowing that you have sown the seeds, the rest is up to them.
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