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The Right Way to Pick Someone’s Brain

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I am a photographer and writer passionate about the outdoors, meaningful travel, and living deliberately. I hope to use my platform online to show the beauty and complexity of the world we live in, and to encourage genuine connection to the outdoors, culture, people and wildlife.

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There are so many people I look up to. Incredible, amazing people who create and write and speak in ways that I admire immensely.

I used to ask people I admired for advice out of the blue. I used to expect a response. Here is exactly what was wrong with that.

THIS:

“Hey! I would love to pick your brain sometime about that thing you’re really good at that I have no idea about, but would like to be good at as well.”

SOUNDS A LOT LIKE THIS:

“Hey! I would like some of your time and information for free, even if it took you years and a ton of energy to learn that information.”

Time and energy are the most valuable currencies we have. Requesting that someone sit down with you and give you their time and knowledge is a big ask. They might even charge money normally for that type of thing.

If you are looking for guidance from someone you look up to, here’s how to ask.

EXPLAIN WHY YOU ARE WRITING THEM

How do you know about this person and their work? If you read their blog, tell them. If you’ve heard them speak, tell them. Tell them what you like so much about whatever it is they do– why does it speak to you? Why are you compelled to write them?

CHECK EXISTING RESOURCES

Someone’s experience and knowledge is precious, and there is a good chance this person has shared at least some of it somewhere– whether that’s online, in a book, video or some other medium. Do your research so that you’re not asking something they have already covered.

MAKE YOUR ASKS SPECIFIC

Concise, pointed questions are way easier to answer than open-ended ones. “How did you book your first paid collaboration?” is easier to answer than, “How did you become a blogger?”; “What was your biggest challenge with starting your business?” is much easier to approach than, “How did you start your business?”

RESPECT THEIR TIME AND ENERGY

Most people want to help each other out, and hopefully the person you reach out to will graciously answer your questions. But thank them. Be polite. Understand that they are taking the time to help you. And if you have anything to offer them (buying their book, sharing their articles with your friends, writing about them for your school newspaper), be generous with that too.

 


For the record, I absolutely love getting emails and messages, and I love answering your questions. If I can help give someone information they need in order to pursue their dreams, I do. But if you’re looking for the right way to reach out, this should help.

In pursuing anything, understand you will use resources where you have them and ask questions where people generously give you their time. But no one person will give you all the answers you need– only you can learn that yourself over a long period time, collecting experience that is full of trial and error.

There is immense power in mentorship and helping each other. So when you do start figuring it out– when people start asking to pick your brain– pay it forward in the way that someone else once helped you, and believe that there is always more to learn.

 


 

Feature photo by Ali. V. Follow her on Instagram at @alisonvagnini.

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  1. Andrew says:

    I truly believe that people need to experience what really excited them rather than really drilling someone else with questions about their experiences. I suppose everyone has asked someone else about the topic that excited them the most before, but instead of trying to live the whole experience through them maybe you should just get some guidance? Life is about making mistakes and learning from them. That’s my take on the topic. Thanks for your post!

    -Andrew

  2. Carrie says:

    YES. This is such great advice! I think the rise of the “personal brand” on social media, and how that translates to entrepreneurship, creates a false sense of sudden success. There are SO many things to learn when it comes to earning a paycheck doing meaningful, passion driven work. It requires trial and error and self awareness, in addition to all the generous advice. There are no secrets to success that anyone can share, we all have to find our own way.

    • I totally agree with everything you are saying! People want a fast and easy recipe for success, but it just doesn’t exist. There is no substitute for trial and error. Thanks Carrie!

  3. Karo says:

    Really nice post! I totally agree on what you said about being specific. I get some advice requests and the ones which are most difficult to answer are the very general ones. Being specific helps both the person you asked for help as well yourself to systematize what you learn.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this. This topic seems to be coming up all over on my feeds lately in different formats. It’s funny how ideas like this just sort of percolate and start popping up all over. I read this post: http://goo.gl/SbCMOk on Forbes yesterday. Right after reading it I started working on a post for my blog about why it is important for business owners to invest in creatives rather than utilizing content mills and similar websites. Anyway, I digress. I really loved your post. Valuing one another talents and time is important to a healthy society, and I think these are really important conversations we all need to have more often.

  5. Lynn says:

    Yes to being respectful of other people’s time! Not from personal experience (because only my friends read my blog), but from what I’ve seen on the internet, people have a tendency to feel like they “deserve” a response from big bloggers, like they are owed a blogger’s time simply because that blogger wouldn’t exist without readers. We see this with actors/singers/celebrities, too. Which is ridiculous, of course. As a reader, the only thing a blogger owes you is a well-crafted post. Anything more than that is nice, but not required.

    • Thanks Lynn! I have started to feel that super recently and it’s been a really interesting shift. Sharing pieces of yourself on the internet is a dynamic thing! Thank you for the love. xo

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