Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?
Those immortal words are from “Charlie Brown,” the 1959 hit song by the Coasters, who are pretty darn immortal themselves.
In 2019, it isn’t high school rebels who get picked on. According to Anna Goldfarb in her New York Times article, “The Right Way to Ask, ‘Can I Pick Your Brain?'” it’s “experienced people in every industry” who have the brains everybody wants to pick.
(In the unlikely possibility that someone wants to pick your brain, refuse immediately. If strangers want to pick at your kidneys or your liver, that’s fine. As for your brain, you simply don’t have enough to go around.)
“Can I buy you coffee and pick your brain?” is the standard invitation to a career mind-meld. The experts advise against this approach. According to Professor Dorie Clark of Duke University, the coffee brain-suck combo, while well-intentioned, sends the wrong message.
“These requests,” she says, “can seem as if you’re following a generic script.”
I agree. If you want buy-in, throw away that generic script and get personal. Make it clear that your inquiry is not a boilerplate request, but a matter of life and death, as in: “I’m about to be fired; I can’t afford the medical treatment I desperately need; and my pet parakeet is listless and out of sorts. I really need your advice.”
Another way to get a positive response is to “immediately highlight any commonalities and unique bonds you have.” Perhaps you both attended the same college, or, even better, you both were kicked out of the same college. If there’s nothing specific you can cite, pick a commonality shared by all the elite.
“I’m sure spending time with me will be well worth it,” you might say.“After all, we both like champagne, caviar and off-shore bank accounts.”
You are also advised to “be vulnerable, and get to the heart of why you’re reaching out.”
A good way to play the vulnerability card is to say: “I’m a loser. But if a loser like you can become a success, maybe I can do it, too.”
Professor Adam Grant receives dozens of brain-picking requests every week. He advises advice-seekers that “instead of expressing some sense of entitlement to my time face-to-face, say, ‘Hey, would you be open to either a phone call or an email dialog?’ Give me the option to choose how I want to communicate.”
This does sound respectful, but asking for options could backfire.
“How do I want to communicate?” is an answer you could receive. “How about you drop dead and we use a Ouija Board?”
When strangers request coffee dates, Clark makes them “jump through a few hoops.”
Clark’s hoops could be as simple as “clarifying what the seeker is actually looking for.” Not me. When some truly desperate person asks to pick my brain I give them a few simple tasks to make sure that they’re serious.
“I’m really busy,” I say. “I could have more time if you’d pick up my dry cleaning and a pint of Chubby Hubby. And while you’re out, buy yourself a plane ticket to Tibet. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Lhasa, and I’d love to know how it’s changed.”
Once you have set up a meeting, it’s “crucial to be aware of how long the it runs.” If you asked for 30 minutes, don’t let the meeting run longer. That’s the rule. Of course, the rule only applies to normal people. You’re so fascinating that it would be almost immoral to limit the time spent in your presence.
Besides, an extra hour or five would give you time to fully interrogate your coffee companion. (Top tip: Binge-watching a few seasons of “Law & Order” is a great way to polish your interview skills.)
A longer meeting will also give you time to have a second cup of coffee, a cruller and maybe lunch and dinner, too. Though you’ve already offered to pay for coffee, this is patently ridiculous. Your invitee is successful and probably in much better financial shape than you. Make them pay for the coffee and cruller. And be sure to put a few items to-go on their bill. This will demonstrate that you are thrifty.
The advice you receive may bring you success long term, but right now you can’t throw away money buying coffee. It’s not that you’re stingy. But let’s face it — sending your parakeet to the Mayo Clinic is not going to be cheap.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning, Inc. in Sausalito, California.