10 Better Phrases Than “May I Pick Your Brain?”

Here’s what I hear when someone asks me if they can “pick my brain”.

  1. I want a cheat code to complete a project.
  2. I only wish to hear about the good bits.
  3. It’s all about me and my needs.

Blech. It’s why I intensely dislike the phrase. It reeks of selfishness, laziness and completely lacks any sense of generosity.

Am I the only one? I don’t think so.

Here’s the other issue I have with this phrase. I think the people asking its intention isn’t to be selfish, lazy, or greedy. When I’ve pointed it out the “brand of you” the message sends, most people get quite indignant. “But that’s not what I mean!” I’ll hear them sharply say.

My response to that? If you don’t want people to think “selfish, greedy, lazy,” don’t say it. 

So now I’ve shared my feelings about the phrase “may I pick your brain” you have a choice, several choices actually. I’m just sharing a point of view. You get to decide what to do with it. Because, excellent reader, you get to choose who the Future You is going to be.

Adventure 1: Stay on the path you’re on. You’ve read what I have to say and disagree that it sends a negative message about you. Ergo, why should you change how you ask the question? You shouldn’t—end of the game. Your adventure with me is complete.

Adventure 2: Be curious – stay with me on this as it’s a viable adventure – if you’re reading this article, I’m going to assume you don’t think I’m totally off my head. But you’re curious. You’re wondering if my potentially dramatic reaction is just my problem. You might be thinking, “Joanna reacts this way because she a giant mountain of passion and opinions about how people ask things of each other.” I do, I’ll admit it. So if you’re curious, then go out and ask people. Ask your advisors and colleagues how they feel when someone asks them this question. What sort of message does it send? Am I a little right, a lot right, or not right at all? I’m not here to write the rule-book of work in the 21st century; I’m here to get you to ask questions. The rule book is there to be questioned.

Adventure 3: Take a walk in my shoes and realize that you, too, think it’s a terrible phrase and vow to stop using it. That means you need to come up with other ways of asking someone to share their knowledge and experience with you. These are not limited to and could include the following:

  1. Hi xxx, I’m working on a project that overlaps with your area of expertise in (fill in area of expertise here). I have specific questions around x, y, and z. I was wondering if I could spend some time discussing them with you? Thanks so much, fabulous you.
  2. I heard you share an idea about X; what intrigued me was y. Would you be open to sharing more?
  3. My sources tell me that you have a unique perspective on x. I’d love to learn more. Why? Because I’m trying to xxx
  4. I’m struggling with x. Here’s what I’ve explored to date (fill in the thing), and I’m still stuck. Would you be open to helping me think through a solution?
  5. I’d like to borrow you and your brain for about an hour. But before I do, I’d like to offer my services to you. Here are a couple of things I thought you might find useful. (list them – FYI please DON’T just ask how you can help – lazy – do the research – and yes, everyone has something they can offer) Are any of these of value to you?
  6. I want to learn from you, specifically in the area of x. Is there a way of making that happen that’s easy for you? And just out of curiosity, what does success look like for you when you teach others?
  7. Is there anything I can subscribe to that you publish where I can learn more about your thoughts? And if I have specific questions, is there a better way of submitting them to you?
  8. I’d be grateful if I could draw on your experience in x. Why, because I’m trying to learn more. Would it be possible to schedule a time for me to learn from you?
  9. I’ve read the article(s) you’ve written on x, y, and z. I’m particularly interested in what you said about ……. Would you be open to spending time with me to discuss as I have questions? 
  10. What are your advising rates? I value your expertise, and I believe in compensating people for their time and knowledge. 

I know that last one might raise an eyebrow or two. We live in a knowledge economy. Your time, my time, everyone’s time is what we’re loaning to each other all day, every day. Just writing this article, I’m both lending my experience and ideas to you, and you’re loaning me your attention. 

So which adventure did you choose? If you picked the last one, I have a challenge for you. Test each phrase. Over the next few months, each time you find the need to ask someone to loan you their expertise, use one of the phrases. Figure out which one works best for you. Plus, what an adventure in communication curiosity would that be?

Don’t you think it’s time you went on an adventure to discover the Future You? I do.


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