First off, know that I want to help you. I do. I enjoy being a mentor. This is largely because I’m so inspired by, and thankful for, my past and present mentors. I credit most of my career (in publishing) to the five or six people who took the time and patience, and surely the occasional offense, to bother teaching me their business. Yet in our I want-I click world of ordering things up—no doubt made more frenetic by job crises across the board—the art of finding, courting and keeping a professional mentor has been lost.
I see this almost daily in the Mad Lib assistance-on-demand emails I receive. For the most part, they go something like this:
• It’s been far too long, much to catch up on!
• How are you/city/work/husband from when we were last in touch?
• A few words of I read/I saw/I liked flattery or interest in person/place/project/partner
• An invitation for coffee. Variations can be seasonal (iced!), sometimes more substantive (martinis, breakfast) or meet-cute (pie, vegan cupcake, bubble tea)
Then the inevitable phrase, verbatim, “I would LOVE to pick your brain.” Picker, please! Unless you’re a zombie or a surgeon, this is an appeal you should never make. It holds nothing but the promise of extraction and exhaustion—organ donation—for the person on the receiving end. Indeed, the phrase has become kind of a telltale for me. Its appearance is one that can actually put me off helping a person who’d previously had my attention, like a résumé from someone who “utilizes.”
Now The Brain likes martinis and maybe you a lot. But The Brain is also a busy professional—the very reason you seek its services—who gets a lot of these requests. You’re asking someone whose business you respect to take time and thought out of their workday and volunteer for yours. So if you’re going to email me or anyone else, in any industry, seeking advice, you have to understand there’s an artful way in. Here are some strategies for The Picker from The Brain toward establishing a happy, helpful mentor relationship.
TRY NOT TO SOUND LIKE EVERYONE ELSE
On average, I receive six to 12 requests for professional help a week. In high season, when the teenagers I work with need college letters or the college students I teach need jobs, it can be that many a day. And it’s not just the lots-to-learn kids, new to the work world, who are doing the asking. Sometimes it’s—let’s say—an actor who’s voiced a character for 23 seasons of “The Simpsons.” A recent 48-hour sampling is pretty typical, inquiries common to exotic: have I heard of any very senior edit jobs, what do I do for health insurance, can I help spring an assistant out of assistanthood, and do I know a French-speaking writer based in Toronto. What they have in common is that they all followed the template above.
So you’re competing for someone’s attention here—you want your email to stand out. First step: delete “I would LOVE to pick your brain.” Even if the phrase doesn’t bug you and you think me cranky, it appears with such frequency in my inbox that I keep a Brainpickers 2012 file—at the very least it’s unoriginal.
And originality is key here; it’s the rare person who’s moved to mentor action by a form letter. As Groupon does not yet make this kind of vendor available to you, you have to craft a request to which a human being—imagine a human being like yourself—might respond.
KEEP IT SHORT, EASY, HONEST
If you’re not in regular contact with The Brain—especially if it’s been longer than three months since last communication—come clean, and quickly admit that you’re reconnecting because you want something.
Important: What you want at this stage is not a read of your book proposal or an editor’s name at whatever publication or a research assistant or a food stylist. What you want is a brief conversation with The Brain, at the convenience of The Brain. I recently had someone tell me she’s “OK waiting” the two weeks until I was back from a trip to discuss what’s next for her in her career. Yes she is.
Here’s how to do it. You demonstrate that you know they’re doing you a big favor. You start by not making them leave their desk. Then, if it seems like The Brain is open and receptive, work your way up: “Is there a good time for you? I can send a few specific questions via email, or we can talk on the phone, whenever works for you. Or if you prefer, I can come to you, whatever’s easiest.”
The Picker should never make The Brain feel like a sucker. Better to admit your COBRA’s about to run out or layoffs approach and you’re panicking than to feign coincidence or that you were just thinking about The Brain’s pet project. Back to putting yourself in the recipient’s role, for all you know The Brain might have lost a job, a friend, even that husband since last contact.
THIS IS NOT A THIRD-PARTY SYSTEM
The Picker should never solicit The Brain’s help on behalf of another picker. It happens all the time: Here’s my girlfriend’s résumé, she’s building up a lot of clips as a music critic; or my son is moving to the city and wants to talk to you about digital media; or my therapist who has no writing experience wrote a book and do you have suggestions for literary agents? (Note: This book might be about eating babies for all the information provided The Brain here.)
If these proxy pickers are adults, simply ask The Brain if it’s OK for you to share The Brain’s contact information with them, or make an email introduction.
The Picker should be proving to The Brain that he or she will match—and far exceed—any efforts on The Brain’s part to help. Asking on behalf of a third party only shows that someone out there is lazy or disengaged enough to put two people to work for them without lifting a finger.
Also, do not ever use The Brain’s name without express permission when contacting another professional (i.e., an editor you pitch). The test is, if you’re not comfortable enough to cc: The Brain when mentioning their name, then don’t.
DON’T EVEN IMPLY THAT YOU CAN MAKE IT WORTH THEIR TIME
Again, in exchange for The Brain letting the The Picker inside the head, the coffee is usually offered. Whether of not coffee happens, The Brain is not in it for the money. So please don’t insult this person who was moved to help you by calling said latte or shrimp-and-grits a “bribe,” or in any way a fair exchange for their services. (These are services clients pay your brains for, people!)
They can buy their own coffee or have breakfast with someone with whom they have sex.
If The Brain is actually taking the time to meet you—unless you plan on writing them a check to cover their hourly rate plus transportation—no question, no fuss. Treat them to whatever you’d invited them to join you in and consider it a tremendous deal for you that they showed up.
KEEP IN TOUCH
A particular Simpsons character is now dead to me. His voice was playing at being a playwright, and I wish I’d been a little more “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script” about it instead of spending a solid afternoon reading and giving notes I never heard back on. The disappearing act is perhaps the most common and least forgivable way for The Picker to offend The Brain.
Inversely, human vanity—The Brain’s vanity—is such that you will never bother anyone by sending an email that thanks and shares credit with them for something good in your life. As soon as that editor The Brain connected you with accepts your piece, let The Brain know. Same if you get called in for an interview or sold a book seven years later based on your blog for which The Brain suggested names (whether or not you used them). If The Brain helped you to negotiate your salary, then The Brain should be the second or third person to know whether or not your boss went for it. Do not wait for The Brain to come across your story as a civilian reader on a Sunday morning.
Worse—and all too common—definitely do not wait until things go pear-shaped. They often do. The Brain is not going to be inclined to help you chase down your payment 30 days from that Sunday morning or when you’re ready to leave the job The Brain had no idea you’d landed.
Make sure you keep in touch, too, when you don’t need anything. Particularly when you don’t need anything.
Offer up something to The Brain, rather than asking for it. Tell them something they don’t know; recommend a movie, a restaurant; pass on positive gossip or a compliment if and only if it’s genuine: you did really enjoy their piece in this week’s whatever. Tweet it and “like” it. You recommend them for a project. Or, I met this person you work with and they think so highly of you, or you’d mentioned the Magnetic Fields, and tickets go on sale today.
HELP AND BE HELPED
That won’t-read-your-fucking-script piece, by the way, was sent to me by a Hollywood friend when I’d asked him to… read a script of mine. (Which he did, giving me brilliant notes.) For the same reasons I recommend that editors write sometimes and full-timers freelance, it’s good policy to try on both roles, The Brain and The Picker.
There’s the sunshine-y karma—someone helps you, you turn around and help someone else—but more important is the humility. It keeps you from acting like an entitled asshole.
Easiest exercise: Read your email before you send, and see what kind of action you’d be moved to take out of your workday if it landed in your inbox.
THANK THEM ONCE, THANK THEM TWICE
As soon as any level of picking has happened, send The Brain a proper handwritten thank-you note via the U.S. Postal Service. It’s the right thing to do, and if you need more mercenary motivation, it will set you apart from the email mob. The Brain will remember you.
This part is mandatory. The next part is largely circumstantial and completely optional.
If things work out splendidly for you, based on any initial introduction or advice from The Brain—meeting someone you’ve always wanted to meet, placing a $250 op-ed or selling a $250K book or $2.5 million screenplay—or even if they don’t and you can swing it, a small gift in the $25-$50 range is extra kind and will not go unnoticed.
Like picking up the iced coffee tab, it’s not about the money. It’s about appreciation, what really feeds The Brain. Without any thought at all I can tell you exactly who gave me a Gramercy Tavern gift card (martinis, but with a person of my choosing instead of with The Picker); Lady Jayne Ltd. tiger, leopard and cheetah notepads; an Alice Munro collection as soon as it came out; and a donation to the Lower Eastside Girls Club as thanks.
I gave that L.A. friend a gift certificate to Tavern for reading my fucking script.
Note that these gifts are tax write-offs—promotion or research or professional services, depending on your accountant. I have an excellent one, and I will give you his name if you ask me the right way.
Amy Goldwasser is an editorial consultant who specializes in launches and relaunches, digital and print. She is the editor of RED: Teenage Girls in America Write on What Fires Up Their Lives Today (redthebook.com), which she is currently adapting for theater. She teaches editing in the Columbia Publishing Course and writing with the Lower Eastside Girls Club. Drawing by Harold Cushing courtesy of Yale Medical Historical Library.