Why requests to pick my brain hurt my head.

When I was a kid I collected baseball and football cards. Today I collect something far more valuable: knowledge. I add to my collection every day by reading, listening to audio books and podcasts, and talking to experts. I tap into my inner Oprah, and ask questions to try to expand my knowledge, my abilities and effectiveness. Which is why every night I go to bed a little wiser than I was when I woke up.

Pass It On

To return the favor to all those who have shared with me, I try to share what I know with others. That’s why I write this blog. It’s why I guest lecture to college students and why I try to make myself available to those who want to meet with me one-on-one, like Hall & Oates.

Johnny Requests

Because I have openly demonstrated a willingness to talk about the things I know, I get a steady stream of requests to discuss a wide variety of topics. I am happy to share what I know. However, there is one question I really dislike being asked when people want me to share my knowledge with them.

‘Can I pick your brain?’

Newsflash

No one wants to have their brain picked. The idea of brain picking conjures a variety of unpleasant images in my head, of my head. I see graphic depictions of ice picks to the cranium. And vultures picking at my lobes of squishy gray matter. I imagine someone picking my nose and really, really getting up there.

Brain picking makes me think of picking at zits and picking scabs. In other words, asking to pick my brain is not an intellectually enticing pick up line.

Reframe In The Membrane

Brain picking is really focused on the person trying to extract value. Not the person offering the value. Which makes it sound like a selfish request. So let’s not use this phrase anymore.

Pick Your Pick-Your-Brain Substitute.

The next time you want to pick up on someone else’s knowledge try one of the following pick up lines:

  • I would love to learn more about __________. And I don’t know anyone who knows more about it than you.
  • I would love to hear your philosophy on _________.
  • You are the smartest person I know when it comes to _______. Can I ask you some questions?
  • You are the Queen/King of ____________ and I would like to be your subject, of this subject.
  • If I bought you a Butterfinger would you drop some of your knowledge on me?
  • I am extremely impressed by how much you know about __________. Would you consider acting like Sonny, and share?
  • I want to learn how you _______________ because no one does it better. (Baby, your the best.)

Note: you are suppose to replace the ________ with the topic you want to discuss. So don’t actually say, ‘I would love to learn about line from you.’ Unless you want to learn about line dancing.

Key Takeaway

Think about what you are saying before you ask someone if you can pick their brain. There are much better ways to ask those you admire to share their knowledge, guidance and perspective. Including asking someone to share their valuable knowledge, guidance and perspective. Be empathetic. Put yourself in their shoes. Flatter, praise and respect those you would like to learn from. You will be sure to create a mutually beneficial exchange that leaves all brains better than ever. And potentially better than Ezra.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this message, please share it with them.

Why you should share what you know for no good reason.

I grew up in Vermont. If you’ve ever met me you know I am very proud of this fact. Vermont was a wonderful place to be a kid. It was beautiful, safe and quiet. There were various career options available to Vermonters. We had a lot of maple syrup farmers, stone fence stackers, and a couple of world-class ice cream makers. But I didn’t know a single advertising professional.

house near road on forest
The maple syrup district in my hometown of Norwich, Vermont

I left Vermont for college and went to the University of Wisconsin. When I graduated and wanted to find a job as a copywriter for an advertising agency, I didn’t know anyone who could help me prepare for my job search.

A Friend of a Friend of a Friend.

However, I did have friends. My college friend Gina Wagner (now Gina Zanik of Salt Lake City) told me that a friend of her Mom’s might know someone who could help. A few calls were made, and through a friend-chain I was put in touch with a man named Paul Zukowski.

Paul Zukowski

Paul, a grown man with a real advertising career, then did something remarkable. He took time out of his day to meet with me, a total stranger, on a Saturday, to offer advice on how to best present my work, to maximize the chances of landing a job as an advertising creative.

Paul not only owed me nothing, he was likely to get nothing in return for helping this penniless, jobless, cotton headed ninny muggins. Yet Paul offered me some of his valuable time and gave me some really great, if not unconventional advice. Advice that ultimately helped me land my first job in advertising. And this blog post, written 23 years later, is all he got for his effort. (Although, upon his death he may receive eternal consciousness. Which is nice.)

Visit-780x460-0006-UnionSouth3.jpg
Union South at the University of Wisconsin, where Paul dropped knowledge like college.

Thinking of Paul

I haven’t seen Paul since the day we met at Union South in Madison, back in 1996, But I have thought of Paul often. In fact, I think of him every time a college student contacts me asking for an informational interview. I think of him every time someone wants advice on launching their own business. I think of him every time someone who is looking for a new job wants to grab coffee. I think of him when an aspiring blogger wants to buy me a chocolate milk and learn how to get started. (You can learn most of what I know here.)

The Impact

Paul Zukowski, a man I have seen once in my life, played an important role in my advertising career. When I was desperately trying to get my foot in the door, he showed me how to put my best foot forward. As a result I got a job as a copywriter. I then got promoted all the way to Chief Creative Officer, before launching my own advertising and idea agency called The Weaponry in 2016.

IMG_8840
Me at work, reflecting. Or at least posing as if I am reflecting.

Paying It Forward

Today, I pay it forward and continue the goodwill that Paul started by helping others. This week I drove from Milwaukee to The Weaponry’s new office in Columbus, Ohio. During my drive I spent more than 3 hours talking to people who reached out to me because:

  1. They were about to graduate from college.
  2. They recently moved and were looking for a job and a network in a new city.
  3. They had lost a job and needed to figure out their next chapter.

I don’t expect a thing from any of the people I try to help. Although I hope my willingness to help encourages them to help others down the road. Just like Paul helped me.

Key Takeaway

Sooner or later we all need a Paul Zukowski. We need someone who can help us chart a new course through a foreign land. While it’s great to find someone who will do that for you, it’s even better to be the Paul Zukowski. To be the one who offers help and guidance while expecting nothing in return. Because it sets off a chain reaction that can make a significant impact on a significant number of people for generations to come. Heck, it can even help a kid from rural Vermont (#redundant) start a career in advertising, launch a business, and launch a blog to share the story with the world.