the problem with “can I pick your brain?”

I was on Marketplace Morning this week talking about the problems with asking someone if you can “pick their brain.” (The short version: It’s vague and doesn’t explain what you’re really looking for, and the people you want to ask are often inundated with similar requests.) We talked why people ask this, better ways to connect, and why women and people of color can end up shouldering a disproportionate number of these requests.

It’s about three minutes long and you can listen here:

{ 45 comments… read them below }

    1. KayDeeAye (formerly Kathleen_A)*

      The way *I* use – or used to use – “Can I pick your brain?” is to mean “I have an idea that I’d like to discuss with you.” Notice that it’s *an* idea – not, like, a whole career trajectory or campaign or anything.

      But this definition has not served me well since lots of other people mean a lot more by it than I am willing to commit to. So it now kind of makes me twitch, really.

    1. Quickbeam*

      Exactly. I have a weird niche set of skills and when I get these calls it’s from people who don’t want to pay.

  1. Leela*

    A friend of mine was a successful local perfumer, and she got sooooo many requests for “pick your brain” coffee dates, where she’d lose an hour or more of her time to answer very basic questions for a coffee, the value of like 4 dollars or less. She started replying with “my consulation fee is $X/hour if you’d like to meet!” and the responses just completely dropped off

  2. SheLooksFamiliar*

    Almost every time someone asks ‘Can I pick your brain?’, they really mean, ‘I want you to tell me what to do, and in great detail.’ When I ask what they’ve done on their own, the answer is usually, ‘Nothing, that’s why I wanted to talk to you.’ Maybe a dozen or so people – in 30+ years! – have said, ‘Can I show you what I’ve done so far, and then you tell me if I’m on the right track?’

    Big difference.

    1. Manders*

      Yes! In my field, it also tends to mean “I’m really hoping you’ve got some secret up your sleeve that can get me this very valuable result with no money or effort on my end.” Something I’m learning to suss out is whether the person asking me is actually prepared to act on what I’m going to tell them, or whether I’m going into this conversation just to burst their bubble.

    2. BC Lower Mainlander*

      I would rather come across as showing that I’ve made an attempt to solve a problem: I’ve done A, B, and C but I can’t figure out what’s wrong, please help!
      I haven’t the foggiest idea what I’m doing, so I haven’t started and I need you to hold my hands and wipe my nose!

  3. Bee*

    I have anxiety and depressive disorders, and managing the face-to-face networking I have to do in the course of my job expectations already gets me to my max. Having a disability means I just don’t have extra capacity, even if I respect the initiative of the asker.

  4. TexasThunder*

    I use it occasionally, but try to be conscious of the person’s time, already have done my homework, and generally try to ask something conceptual like “do you think this will work?”
    I work in tech, and I’m generally flattered by having someone ask my opinion (but I don’t really have a problem pushing back if it is inconvenient)

    1. JSPA*

      Yeah, to me this means, “I have three alternative strategies worked out that sound good on paper, but not much historical sense what’s already been tried and failed. Can I run them by you, in case you spot a pitfall that I wouldn’t know to take into account?”

      Stuff like, “you’re expecting normal levels of gene recombination in a dead zone” or “the key councilperson never comes to evening meetings” or “Fifteen years ago, Jan worked on option two for 9 months, and got nowhere” or “they’re talking about rezoning that entire neighborhood, and this time it looks like it’s more than just talk.”

  5. Away from the spotlight*

    I guess I should consider myself lucky that I’m not important enough for someone to want to “pick my brain.”

  6. Donkey Hotey*

    Part One – Personally, I only use the phrase with friends I interact with. Far too unprofessional for someone I barely know.

    Part Two – Alison, I was so excited when I heard the segment on Marketplace. It was cool to put an audible voice to your written voice.

  7. WantonSeedStitch*

    I’ve never used this in networking, only about solving specific problems and seeking help or advice from people in my own workplace: “can I pick your brain, coworker who used to be an investment banker, about how private companies are valued so I can get an idea of this person’s potential stake in his company?”

    1. MtnLaurel*

      +1…when I ask or get that question, it really means “I’d like to give/get a brain dump on this thing that one of us knows a lot about and another one doesn’t.” And it’s always with someone I work with.

  8. AyBeeCee*

    I only use this in my own workplace with coworkers as a sort of “I have a random bit of trivia I don’t remember from like six or more months ago and we had a few conversations about it then so I’m hoping between the two of us we can recreate the conversation so we don’t have to fix this same damn thing from scratch.”

    1. Clisby*

      Or “I need to fix this software problem, and I’ve tried X, Y, and Z to no avail. You used to work on this system – can you suggest some other things I could try?”

  9. Goldenrod*

    I mean….I feel that the problem with “Can I pick your brain?” is that it always makes me immediately picture a zombie actually eating my brains, like with chopsticks.

    1. juliebulie*

      Same, except I imagine a bird with a sharp beak and talons. Get that bird away from me! I haven’t enough brain to spare!

    2. Squeeble*

      Same. I don’t mind the intent behind the question, but pick a different, less disgusting phrase!

    3. Hummus*

      Yes, I hate this phrase for the imagery too!

      Except for me, it’s more like monkeys grooming, but the recipient’s head is open.

    4. Filosofickle*

      Yes. It sounds predatory and violent! And very one-sided, too. It’s not a conversation, it’s you extracting something from me.

    5. OrigCassandra*

      ObJoCo TisTheSeason Song: “Re: Your Brains.” Several hilarious fan videos of this one on YouTube.

  10. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis*

    In my previous job, “can I pick your brain” meant “I don’t know how to do this thing that I’ve been shown innumerable times before and have no confidence that I’m doing it right”.
    So, in my head, my answer would start “only if you’ve engaged yours first!”

    Drove me batty!

  11. #1 The Larch*

    What an appropriate phrase for the Halloween season!

    It’s such a vague question. It could mean anything from “I don’t know how to do this please help” to “I’ve got this great idea and I want you to be a sounding board” to a million different things in between. My advice; just ask for exactly what you want, even if it is “I’ve lost all my confidence on how to do this thing I’ve done before, because apparently I’ve done it wrong for months. Please show me again.”

    1. Jessica*

      Since women and minorities are together the majority of the world’s population, why yes, we would be (numerically) most affected!

  12. lurker*

    This hits me where it hurts, because right now I’m trying to research pursuing a pretty narrow direction my field goes off into and I’m totally stuck. I’ve been provided with some great contacts, but I can’t contact them, because I have no idea what I need to ask them.

    1. drpuma*

      I think you can contact them, and say basically what you’ve put here! “In researching Obscure Thing, I’ve tried A B and C but I’m feeling totally stuck. Person gave me your contact and said you might be able to help, can we talk through some next steps that might get me un-stuck?”

    2. Not So NewReader*

      [insert conversation lead-in here] You have been doing x for a while. I was wondering what you do, what are your go-tos when you get stuck. I have gotten stuck in y matter and I am looking for ideas that I could perhaps reuse to get myself out of other ruts. I know people who have been doing things for a while, learn tricks of the trade so to speak or develop their own handy tools for overcoming obstacles. I would like to know what are your ideas for problems with y matters.

      More briefly: Andy, have you ever been working on y and gotten yourself seriously stuck?
      You know your set here when they start laughing and smiling while nodding their heads.

  13. CouldntPickAUsername*

    or “can you do me a favor?”

    I’ll just wait for them to actually say what the favor is, I don’t agree to something without knowing what it is. You may have studied the awkward silence but I was born to it.

    1. That depends*

      I always say “that depends?” and it makes people chuckle. But it only makes sense to me. I’m not going to do everything people ask of me. I get too many requests that take me away from what I get paid to do.

  14. cheeky*

    I work with a lot of engineers, and I ask, “Can I pick your brain?” once in while. I only do this when I’m looking for someone else’s thoughts/knowledge in relation to something I’m puzzling through, never asking a favor or trying to push work on anyone. People come to me for the same thing. I’ve never had pushback, annoyance, or anything, and I’ve never been annoyed by being asked the same. Would never even occur to me to be annoyed.

  15. Sleepless*

    That question from a coworker: Sure! I work in a field where people have to use an insane amount of knowledge, and sometimes you just can’t keep it all straight. It’s very common and expected to randomly ask a coworker if they can think of anything you haven’t.

    Sadly, it’s also a skill set the general public wants access to but doesn’t want to pay for. My colleagues get a lot of messages on social media asking “a quick question.” I don’t anymore because I’m a bi*** and I gave everybody a hard no until they stopped.

  16. It's a No From Me*

    When I contact people who I would like to learn from I ask: “May I hire you for a consultation?”

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