Why I Charge People To “Pick My Brain”

It costs more than a coffee.

Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

Back when I was taking the subway every day and relying on other people to deduct tax money from my paychecks, I didn’t mind it so much. I even encouraged it, as a behavior. I think if you’re considering a career change, need professional advice, or are just simply a youth, you should reach out to people in roles like yours or like you hope to have one day, in order to “pick their brain.” Prepare a list of questions, meet for coffee, and in general get insight on what they did, and how they did it. I think these conversations are just as inspiring as they are informative, and they’re a smart professional move. If you’re the person being asked to coffee, it’s just good job karma. Unless you’re freelance, in which case, get paid.

A year and a half ago, I made the switch from constant meetings startup jargon kegs in the fridge all hands meetings annual reviews 3% raises and senior execs who felt like they were doing me a favor by employing me to a freelance lifestyle where I set my hours my rates my clients and my overall affinity for the life I live. It was a good decision, I’m quite proud of it. It was also a hard one.

Becoming a freelance writer was very, very difficult. It comes with a huge learning curve, in my case a huge pay cut, and in general a massive amount of changes that you don’t know are coming and take a significant amount of getting used to. In sum, I’ve learned an ocean’s worth of lessons in a kiddie pool’s amount of time. Top that off with over a decade of experience in copy and creative writing, and, to draw loosely from Nicki Minaj, this professional prowess pricey.

I often receive emails and LinkedIn messages either from young writers looking to grow their freelance income, or more seasoned professionals hoping to break free from their Midtown desk irons. Every time I hear from them, I’m thrilled. That means they’re already so far ahead of where they think they are — they’ve taken steps to put a positive change in motion. We don’t celebrate these moments often enough, and we should. I can’t wait to speak to anyone looking to feel more confident in their approach to freelance work and life, but those discussions contain a lot of information that I had to fight very hard to acquire, and as a freelancer I cannot give that, or my time, away for free.

I am happy to book one-hour Google Hangout/Skype sessions with anyone who would like to pick my brain on freelance editorial/creative writing, freelance copywriting, or freelance logistics in general. (Most of these chats are a combination of all three.) I charge an hourly rate for these calls, I prepare an outline of discussion topics, and encourage everyone to come with a list of specific questions they’d like to ask as well. I offer actionable advice, real resources, and my perspective on how to approach your freelance business and clients with a focus on self worth, and finding more professional and personal happiness.

To some, this might sound silly. Shouldn’t I just share what I know with people who know less than me, out of the goodness of my heart? I thought so, for a long time, and had a ton of “mentoring” sessions for free. And every single time I hit the hang up button, I felt weird. I felt used. Not because someone had used me, that was never their intention, but because I’d allowed myself to create an informed, inspiring lecture that I’d worked hard for without requiring compensation for that work. I’d just given away all my gems for free, and I was mad at myself for playing small and low-worth, precisely the opposite of the advice I give during these calls.

The other thing about freelance life? It’s lonely. You don’t have a manager or HR to one-on-one with when you have questions, or need coaching. Every lesson you’re learning (unless you’re talking to me), you’re learning alone. There’s a freelance vacuum where we all keep our methods and rates to ourselves because we’re scared. We’re afraid that if we share information, or “secrets,” other people will steal work that could have been ours. There’s a scarcity vibe to freelance work that keeps it isolated, and I give a lot of advice that challenges our lack mentalities so that they might just…you know, die. But these lessons I’ve learned by myself have value when I get to help someone else avoid the difficult way of learning them. Skipping the hard part costs money.

The first time you charge for something you’re not sure someone will pay for, it’s scary. We’re raised to think we’re not worth anything, that our work is worth as little as possible, and that we should feel grateful for every scrap of money people “give” us. (This is part of what kept me clinging to the startup ladder for so long.) So you have to show yourself that your work and your time do have value. People paying you what you and your work are worth will show you that, real quick—and the ones that want to make positive changes for themselves, will. What I charge for one hour freelance coaching sessions is, in the grand scheme of a career, a small investment in oneself, with potentially infinite ROI. People will pay to get smarter, to get motivated, and to get a new perspective on a situation that feels stuck. Careers need personal trainers, too.

I still encourage every professionally curious person to reach out to people they admire and are inspired by. I think brain-picking is a good thing. But if you’re freelance, brain-picking is an hour of your time, and those cost money. So much of what I discuss with curious freelancers is worth. How we define that for ourselves, and match that with actions to back it up. Before I could be of real service to other people, I had to demonstrate that worth to myself, too. I did, and I’m absolutely lit up by what I’ve learned as a result. I’d love to talk to you about it sometime.

NPR once called me a humor essayist, let’s go with that. Host of A Single Serving Podcast. shanisilver[at]gmail

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