The Dangers of Letting People "Pick Your Brain" & Why Serious People Are Happy to Pay You
Be wary of losing time, money, and energy on meetings that aren't serving you.
I left my nine-to-five on September 17th, 2021. That makes tomorrow my twenty-month anniversary of self-employment. Wild.
For the most part, the days have been long but the months have gone fast. Everything still feels new and yet I’ve learned so much. Most lessons have been earned enjoyably, but others have been painful. For instance, I made a harrowing discovery when I did my taxes last month.
Going through my earnings for the last calendar year with a fine-tooth comb made it abundantly clear how much time—and money—I lost letting people “pick my brain.”
It’s funny how even when you think you have visibility on something, zooming out can dramatically alter what you see. In my case, I felt my modest earnings (compared to what I would’ve been making as an employee) were to be expected given the first eighteen months—hell, even the first few years of self-employment—are largely about establishing strong roots to support the growth of strong branches over time. In other words, I believed I had to do a lot of free work to establish myself.
But that lens skewed my perspective and blinded me from the reality of how much time and money I’d been losing by agreeing to meet with people who wanted my advice without the desire or budget to pay me for it. And the next thing you know, I’d be spending a power hour with them fleshing out their course concept, building their curriculum, and structuring their workshops. I love doing those things so it’s easy to get sucked into these conversations and give them my all. But in the aftermath, my creative energy is left punctured and I have that much less to dedicate to the work I get paid to do.
Serious People Are Happy to Pay You
I was divulging to a young marketer I worked with earlier this year how a course creator was trying to pitch me on doing work for them. The course creator said he couldn’t pay me but it would be “good exposure.” The marketer snorted and said, “You’re too old for that shit.” I still laugh about it now. Because she was right—not just about my age at thirty-three, but the level of expertise I was able to provide.
Then I think about how I operate and how I should uphold those same standards for myself. I’ve paid a marketer friend to help me on a past project, an instructional designer friend to vet my course, and I pay a monthly Substack subscription to support my friend’s writing when she had initially added me for free.
Even back when a childhood friend of mine started a business creating handmade crochet accessories and wanted to heavily discount my orders, I insisted on paying full price. Because I wanted to support her and even the tiniest investment in her business felt like an investment in her dream.
The lesson here is to know your worth and prioritize people who demonstrate they know it too—by offering to pay you.
How to Politely Decline Requests to “Pick Your Brain”
When you’ve made a habit of accepting requests to “pick your brain,” it’s hard to change your default response to “no.” But it’s easier to do if you establish a “no unless X, Y, or Z” mindset. For example, in my case, I’m happy to help out friends or the odd acquaintance undergoing a career change, job search, etc.
Otherwise, here are some tips I’ve found helpful to ward off requests for free advice:
Have a template response explaining what you offer consults on and send them a booking link requiring them to pay upfront (ex. Calendly linked to your Stripe account).
Don’t cave just because someone is persistent. They’re already wasting your time trying to sell you on why you should help them for free. Things are bound to go downhill from there.
Suggest they send you their question and depending on how extensive the reply is, give them some basic information and then suggest they book a paid consult to go deeper (in hindsight, I’ve wasted tons of time answering complex questions that should’ve been paid consults).
I hope you learn from my mistakes and signal the value of your time when people try to dismiss it. This is especially important for women. Because for some baffling reason, we get pitched on doing free work “for exposure” a lot more than men do. My advice to my younger self—and to you—is to not waste time on people proposing such things. Know your worth and you’ll attract people willing to pay you for it.
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