Christina Truong

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Coffee, Brains & Advice

08 April 2016

Also posted on Medium

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Can I take you out for coffee and pick your brain?

This question simultaneously brings up feelings of flattery and hesitation. I’m flattered that someone deems me knowledgeable enough to help them on their career path and give advice. But getting unsolicited requests feels like an imposition on my time (and subsequently, my money). Even if the request is short, polite, friendly and comes from a good place. And then being asked to travel to a coffee shop, to meet someone I don’t know? We all have different comfort levels so for some people, this is not an issue. But for me, it’s a bit of an uncomfortable ask from a stranger.

Even emails can be time consuming. There have been times where it has taken me 30–45 minutes to respond. Sometimes I’ll get a laundry list of questions, a resume, a blog post, a request to tap into my expertise to help them figure out how they can make their product or organization better. So… what do I get out of this? Helping someone may feel good but it don’t pay the bills. When I began freelancing full-time, my time feels even more precious. Every hour that I’m not doing billable work affects my livelihood. I can’t count on a steady 40hr/week paycheque anymore.

However, I feel guilty when I say no.

I do like to be helpful so I generally want to say yes. Especially if the request is coming from a woman or PoC who specifically sought me out to get my perspective. I feel like I owe it to my people!!!

And the kicker? Sometimes I’ll tell the requestor about my mailing list, consultancy service or rates. crickets All of a sudden my expertise is not needed anymore and often I don’t even get a reply back. So, here are my personal suggestions to help brain-pickers get a “yes” to your requests and for brain-pickees (yep I’m making up words now) to hopefully help you find a balance between doing free work and helping out.

Brain-pickers: Asking For Mentorship or Advice

Avoid using the term “pick your brain.”

A lot of people don’t like it (makes me think of zombies). Also, it sounds very one-sided. It’s better if you can also offer something of value, beyond the warm fuzzy feelings of helping someone out. If you don’t have something to offer, try letting them know it’s ok to say no and acknowledge that you know that you are asking for their time. Something like:

Hey, I love your work and I was wondering if it would be okay if I could ask you a few questions about xyz. If you don’t have the time, I totally understand and appreciate any insight you’re comfortable with providing.

Don’t say “quick” request, meeting, etc.

I have a quick question for you.

This should be a quick request.

“Quick” in reference to time is relative. What is quick? 15mins? 30mins? An hour? Don’t dictate my time constraints. Also, how do you know it will be quick? One question may take me 5 minutes or 30 minutes to answer.

Be specific.

“Hi, I was hoping you could give me some advice for how to learn to code.” This doesn’t tell me anything. Do you want to learn online? In person? Are you thinking of enrolling in a program? Do you have any experience already? Do you want to be a programmer or just have a general interest? Make it easy for the person to respond to your request.

Say thank you.

One more time for the people in the back, SAY THANK YOU!

This is a huge pet peeve of mine. I know we live in a world where “inbox zero” is some kind of badge of honour but if I’ve taken the time to respond to your email or meet up, say thank you. It takes 2 seconds to write and 2 seconds to read. A thank you is definitely not an imposition on my time! Be on time and actually buy that coffee. Or even be 5 minutes early. If you’re going to offer to take someone out for coffee, take them out for coffee. It’s not about the $5, it’s about the gesture.

Don’t take a “no” personally.

If a person says no, try not to take it as a personal rejection. It couldn’t hurt to take a second look at what you wrote or ask a friend for their opinion, to see if you may have made any missteps. But maybe they really were just too busy. Or maybe, they just didn’t want to. And that’s not personal. But remember, no means no. Do not follow up with “but, I just…”


Do not harass them, impose on them or demand their time. Especially if no money has been exchanged, contracts signed or expectations have been established. Do not expect that people just want to help you for free. Nobody owes you anything.

Don’t be creepy.

Avoid making statements that are too personal and have nothing to do with the person’s work.

I’d like to connect with you on LinkedIn. By the way, you’re pretty.

This is not a compliment. It is wildly inappropriate!

I realize there are pictures of me online and I often share personal things publicly but those are things I choose to share. Err on the side of caution and ask yourself, “Should I say this?” before hitting send. You don’t know what people’s comfort levels are until you actually get to know them! Social media channels, like Twitter, are great for being able to interact with people you may normally not get to “talk” to. But, similar to the previous point, the person is still not obligated to respond to you (or follow you back) and you still don’t actually know that person. Until you’re able to build a rapport, try not to expect that everyone has the same level of comfort when it comes to getting too personal. There’s being “personable” and there’s being “personal.”

There are other ways to find guidance, mentorship and advice without requesting coffee dates. Here are some other things to consider: If the person is a speaker, go to their events and try to catch a chat after. Follow them on social channels.

If they write/blog, look up their work before contacting them. Maybe your question was answered in one of the posts.

If they have a newsletter, sign up for it.

The best mentors in my opinion are friends and colleagues! Instead of the “cold email,” I usually follow the points above and have genuinely been able to meet and get to know different people. Hitting up your buddy for some advice is way easier than asking some rando on the internet!

Brain-Pickees: How to Respond to Requests

Learn to say no.

Try not to feel guilty. You’re not a bad person if you don’t have the time or energy to help every single person who asks. Also, “too busy” can mean anything. Maybe you’ve had a long week and you’d rather be at home eating popcorn and watching your favourite TV show rather than meeting someone for coffee. That counts as being too busy! Self-care comes first. Feel free to use or remix my template:

My goal for this year is to be mindful of how much I can take on and as much as I would love to help, I can’t accommodate all the requests as I’m am concentrating on a few projects right now. However, I’ll be at such and such event. Maybe I’ll see you there? Or you can sign up for my mailing list or check me out on Twitter.

Set some boundaries.

If you’re open to meeting, set a specific time and place, so you can be in control of how you spend your “free” time and set boundaries. Don’t feel bad about asking them to come to you. (And for brain-pickers, don’t be mad. You should be offering to come to them!)

I’ll be downtown on Wednesday at such-and-such place. If you’re available, you can drop by between 2–4pm.

Suggest an alternative.

You want to help but don’t have the time or energy for an in-person meeting. Suggest a Hangout/Skype call/etc instead or tell them to email you some questions that you can answer at your leisure. Or send them some resources. If you’ll be at an event, invite them! That way they can also meet other people too. Win-win.

I actually have a folder in my email called “Advice” and I put all my brain-picking emails in there. So when/if people ask me similar questions, I can copy and paste or see what I wrote last time. Also, Gmail has a “canned response” feature that allows you to save templates. (Sorry folks, not all my emails are 100% hand-crafted. The secret is out!)

I hope this doesn’t deter anyone from asking for advice. The goal of this post was to help you get a “yes” more often or to help you not feel obligated or overwhelmed by uncompensated work.

If you found this useful, spread the ❤ by recommending and sharing this post!

I also occasionally host a “Coffee with Christina” online chat (yes, for FREE!) so I can still help folks with their questions. Sign up for my mailing list to join me for the next session!

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