Are you interested in your colleague's job or assuming your manager's position one day? Maybe you've met someone at a networking event and want to meet again for coffee to ask them more questions about their company because it's one for which you'd like to work. Or perhaps you've run into someone at a social gathering who's working your dream job, and you're incredibly curious as to how they've gotten to where they are.
Whatever the case, you ask this person, "Can I pick your brain some time?"
But what exactly does it mean to pick someone's brain, and how can you ask to pick someone's brain in a respectful way?
What Does "Pick Your Brain" Mean?
When you ask someone if you can pick their brain, you're essentially asking them if you can sit down with them some time to ask them a bunch of questions about a certain topic. This is because they're better informed about the subject than you.
Why Would You Ask Someone to Pick Their Brain?
There are tons of reasons you'd want to pick someone's brain — and that depends on whose brain you want to pick. Ultimately, however, the aim of picking someone's brain is to learn more about a topic that they can teach you about.
Perhaps you ask your colleague to pick their brain because you're interested in making a lateral move at your company to work on their team. You know the team is hiring, so now would be a great time to sit down with your colleague who knows all about the requirements and what the team is looking for. You might want to ask them questions about the job role, the time commitment, the vision, etc.
Or perhaps you want to pick your boss' brain about what their day to day looks like because you'd like to be able to envision your future fulfilling their role when they retire. You know they're planning their retirement sometime in the next few years, and you're in a good place to eventually move up into their role. So you might want to ask your boss questions about how they like their job and how they moved into their position, too. This way, you can work on mirroring their efforts and making similar strides in the workplace.
That person you met at the networking event is at the helm of a company that boasts a mission you really respect, and you want to pick their brain to learn more about the company and see if your values align, too. You might even want to ask this person why they started this company in the first place, and you might even want to ask them about the company's goals, both in the long and short term.
And maybe you want to pick the brain of that person you met at the social gathering who's working your dream job because you're wondering how they ended up there. Perhaps you want to inquire about whether or not they went back to school to get a higher degree or how they got their foot in the door at the top-notch company for which they're currently working.
How Can You Ask Someone to Pick Their Brain in a Polite Way?
Of course, when you're asking to pick someone's brain, you'll want to be respectful. Ultimately, you're taking up their valuable time and maybe even asking them to meet you somewhere that requires them to spend money on commuting.
There are thoughtful ways to ask someone to pick their brain. Here are some major politeness tips to keep in mind:
- Acknowledge that you realize this is a favor, and you're appreciative of their time.
- Offer to meet them somewhere convenient for them.
- Don't expect that they'll be able to drop everything and meet you immediately. Let them know several time windows that you're available, so they can pick a time slot that works best with their schedule — or, better yet, ask them when they're available, and work around their schedule.
- Let them know that coffee or lunch or drinks or whatever it is that you're suggesting is on you. Since you're asking them to take time of their busy day to answer your questions, you should always at least offer to pay for them.
- Explain why you want to pick their brain in particular, as opposed to just talking to anyone in a similar boat to them. For example, if they're a journalist working for a magazine for which you'd like to write, let them know that you want to pick their brain because you really love their work or you're an avid reader. You want to make them understand just how much you genuinely appreciate their input, advice and help. And this sort of informational interview is incredibly valuable to you.
When and How Not to Ask Someone to Pick Their Brain
There are some times when you definitely should not ask someone to pick their brain. For example, you never want to ask someone to pick their brain on something you're not serious about — you're wasting both of your time. And you don't want to ask them to pick their brain about something that they're not professionals on — they'll probably tell you they can't help you.
Likewise, you definitely don't want to ask your busy CEO who you've never actually met if they'd be willing to sit down with you to answer your questions.
If you do end up asking someone to pick their brain, you want to make sure you avoid the following offenses:
- Don't ask them to drop everything and meet you immediately.
- Don't ask them to meet you in the middle of a workday or request a big chunk of their day (especially last minute).
- Don't ask them to meet you somewhere super inconvenient for them to get to.
- Don't invite them somewhere inappropriate where you can pick their brain — this includes very fancy restaurants or super social atmospheres where you won't even be able to hear each other.
- Picking someone's brain can help you learn some of their knowledge. You might be curious about the company for which they work, a job they do, or a topic on which they're an expert.
- Picking someone's brain is asking for a favor. Always be polite and acknowledge that they're helping you. Make sure that you are setting up a time and place that is convenient for them, and always show appreciation.
- Don't take it too far. Don't expect them to drop everything to meet you or invite them somewhere inconvenient or inappropriate. Make sure that you have a genuine interest, they are a legitimate expert, and you create a situation that's easy for them.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.