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Picking Your Brain Isn’t Highway Robbery (Or Why Charging For Expertise Has A Short Shelf Life)


I’ve read a lot of articles about brain picking (1, 2, 3, 4 to name a few). You know about brain pickers, right? These suckers who think they can just glom a bunch of free information off of you and run into the wind like they’ve stolen something valuable from you?

Man, who are these people? Eff them! If you want this information in my brain, you need to pay me some cashola! Otherwise, you’re locked out. Sorry, but I don’t care if you’re my dear old Dad or a former boss who has stuck his neck out for me, either.

Except, that attitude is completely and utterly wrong.

The Knowledge/Idea Trap

Here’s the deal: your expertise is valuable but if you have a problem with brain picking, you’re valuing the wrong thing and managing the wrong problem.

I think it is safe to say that most of us think we have unique and interesting ideas about a few things in our area of subject matter expertise. I know I feel that way.

The trap is that we feel invested in our ideas and expertise (because, we likely have invested in it) so we feel that if we are giving some of that away, then we should be compensated for our investment.

There’s a problem with that line of thinking. Unless you plan on patenting an idea you have (good luck and let me know how your bank account looks at the end of that), your idea’s market worth on its own is next to nil. And to keep whatever low value market worth an idea does have, you have to stay ahead of almost everyone else in your field perpetually because nobody pays for ideas that are older than a few years (or months, or weeks, or days, depending on your industry).

Pruning Roses Via The Internet

Doesn’t education count for something? Doesn’t expertise mean anything? Of course it does. And not in some sarcastic way either. Education, both formal and informal, help prepare you and keep you at the forefront of your industry. It helps you develop in a way no other function can. When it comes to deep expertise, there is no better option.

Here’s the interesting part: a certain aspect of education and expertise has become so commoditized that it makes the idea in and of itself have low value.

Last year, I inherited some sad looking rose bushes at my rental house. My mom has cared for roses for a long time so I thought to ask her first but instead, I checked to see if YouTube had anything on there about how to care for roses (I’ve used YouTube before for this purpose). They did. I learned more by sitting through three or four five minute videos and then doing it than I remembered from my mom. I knew exactly where and how to cut, when to do it and what it should look like.

Shouldn’t master gardeners be terrified of this?

Following The Blue Collar Example

I come from a blue collar family so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that a new class and generation of workers is suddenly freaking out about this. I’ve heard hours of expert advice handed out for free with all of these people, too. Oh, the humanity! They are giving away their ideas for free!

Only, their ideas are rarely free. There is always some sort of cost involved in executing an idea. Whether it be the cost of time, actual material or the cost of expertise to help you execute it the way you need, the idea of a free idea is categorically insane. If I ask a web expert what I need to do to improve my website, they could probably list off a couple of things. The cheapest part about that whole process will definitely be identifying the problems with my website. The more expensive part, whether I do it myself or hire someone to do it will be the actual fixing of it.

In short, most blue collar experts don’t care about giving out advice or having people pick their brain. They make money on delivering and executing on them better than, cheaper than and/or faster than you can do yourself. And they’ve figured out they can charge a helluva lot more for that.

So Then, What’s The Problem With The “Pick Your Brain” Question?

If you’re the best plumber, the best recruiter, the best lawyer or the best whatever in your field, you will be judged on delivery, not of ideas, but of work and results. Any plumber can give you an idea as to why your sink might be leaking, a great one will fix the leak right the first time, quickly and easily. Any lawyer can tell you what your problem is, a great one will help you take care of whatever problems you had while minimizing your risk. People and companies routinely pay for the latter of those, gladly.

So if we reduce the value of ideas (which, by themselves, are worth very little to begin with and slope quickly towards nothing), then what’s to stop us from just wasting our time with brain picking questions all day?

I mentioned earlier that the vocal opposition to brain picking was valuing the wrong thing (that is, valuing ideas over doing the real, valuable work, that you don’t have to constantly defend and pitch as being valuable). But instead of managing who you’re giving your ideas out to in order to protect them (by charging for them, like they are valuable), you should instead focus on managing your time better or finding a better way to spread your ideas.

Managing Your Brain Being Picked (Without Being Insulting)

To give you an example, I’ll meet almost anyone for lunch. I have to eat anyway (time lost) and I don’t particularly like eating alone (personal benefit, even if it kinda makes me a loser). And if it is a brain picker who wants to buy me lunch, I make sure it is close to my home and is food I like to eat.

So I take the approach that my conversation over lunch is worth very little. It usually is as I invest zero time in it outside of the time I would have spent eating anyway. If it is someone who has an HR product, we talk about it. I talk about what I’ve seen (that I can remember). If it is someone with a WordPress issue, we can talk about what I’ve done and what they feel comfortable doing on their own. And usually, we talk about more than just shop which is good.

Sometimes they are happy with just that and I never hear from them again but that’s literally the worst thing that can ever happen. I get lunch with someone new, that I didn’t pay for and I didn’t lose anything for it. The ideas I gave them or the instructions I told them to Google are going to cost them way more in time, money and effort than whatever silly charge I could have constructed for our meeting.

Most of the time, I hear from them again. Sometimes it is for something more in-depth, which they are happy to pay for because I started our relationship in good faith and they know what I know (and what I don’t know). Sometimes, I get to refer one of my friends or perhaps even one of my company’s events or publications to the people I talked to which is good. It’s a low risk gamble that I’ll make a connection that helps me out in the long run, with the longer term goal in mind.

Selling Expertise Alone Has A Short Shelf Life

There will always be people and companies that want to abuse boundaries. Like the company that wanted me to draft them a social media policy based on a discussion. Or the person that wants me to re-do their blog for them for a credit link at the bottom (gee, thanks). But that isn’t brain picking, that’s work. And I don’t know about anybody else but it is super easy to say no to gratis work.

If you are in a position to sell your services, you should know that people don’t pay for expertise alone most of the time unless you have an extremely long relationship with them, you have something spellbindingly unique to offer (1% of you) or you’ve found a person or company who will pay you until you’ve run out of ideas (or their ideas catch up with you).

All of the consultants I know work their ass off on deliverables, on creating processes that help them do their job better and on mastering the art of communicating with people effectively. Dozens of painstakingly written documents, Excel spreadsheets that can’t be sent over e-mail because they are too big and reading hundreds of pages of BS and summarizing it so that a company can make a decision point and you can get to work on implementing it with the internal team. Because when Johnny CFO comes knocking on the managing director’s door asking why you just dropped 100g’s on a consulting firm last year, they’re gonna have something to show for it, not a bunch of ideas.

Whatever silly idea you have about selling brain picking sessions, creating a rate card for lunches and coffees, or keeping strangers from wasting your time because you haven’t figured this one out yet, it’s time to reconsider what exactly you’re trying to protect (your time, your sanity) and what you’re not trying to protect (your ideas alone).

If you truly have unique information, you probably shouldn’t be selling it in a one off way, anyway. You should be looking at scaling it beyond coffee shop and lunch conversations if you really think they have that much value. There are some pretty traditional ways to get your idea out there (write a book, get published) and some non-traditional ways (do a paid newsletter, offer paid videos).

Where Do You Stand?

In short, it is about three things:

  1. Realizing what is important when it comes to expertise — The ability to out-execute, or be the best in either cost, speed or quality (or some combination of the three) will always be more sustainable than dolling out piece meal ideas or excessively worrying about brain picking.
  2. You deserve to be paid for adding value — Ideas on their own don’t add significant value but if someone is asking you to work, you deserve to be paid. Knowing (and selling) things that are valuable and acknowledging (and not selling) things that are not will help you get paid.
  3. Real brain picking boundaries are about time management, not idea management — If someone can talk to you on the phone for fifteen minutes and it isn’t a bother, then what’s the problem? If you normally eat lunch but can eat lunch with someone who may be a good connection down the road and it isn’t an inconvenience, share what you know.

Me personally? I’m always happy to have my brain picked, especially by people I’ve made past connections with and as long as it isn’t inconvenient for either one of us. And I’m always happy to tell you exactly when brain picking turns into work (and, it never happens at lunch). As long as you’re cool with that, you can come over and we can go grab lunch when the schedule permits.

Where do you stand on this?

By Lance Haun

Strategy for The Starr Conspiracy. Former HR pro. Portland guy (Go Blazers!) and WSU alum (Go Cougs!). I get to write about what I want here.

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