If Oprah can say "no," so can you.
Ah, a new year. Time for fresh professional endeavors, new side hustles, and bold career moves—as well as the deluge of requests for free professional advice that accompanies them.
To be fair, this kind of request doesn’t just come in January. Indeed, ask any person who is successful enough to have a mildly robust online profile or public-facing professional output—but not quite successful enough to have an assistant answering their emails—and chances are they can spot the “Can I pick your brain?” email from a mile away.
I should say that I’ve been on both sides of this inbox equation. In the early days of my freelance writing career, full of hunger but without many connections, I often reached out to people I didn’t know. Sometimes, they graciously responded; other times they didn’t. The ones that did often influenced my path in ways they probably don’t know. For that, I am still grateful.
It is with that gratitude that I often open these emails now. A believer in Robert Krulwich’s idea of horizontal loyalty and Seth Godin’s credo of embracing generosity—even when it takes effort—a large part of me wants to respond and often, I do. But recently, I’ve found myself explicitly declining.
The reason? First, it’s because I learned Oprah once said “No” to Stevie Wonder—and if she can do that, I can decline an email. But mostly, it’s because I’ve realized that this spirit of generosity can be more effectively channeled into different avenues. Ones where I won’t be infuriated when a stranger from Twitter who I spend 30 minutes writing a response to doesn’t bother to email me back to say “Hey, thanks for doing that.” Or where someone who I’ve given advice to in the past doesn’t keep popping up again and again as if I’ve entered a mentoring relationship I never signed up for.
So, if you’re ready to start politely declining requests for free professional advice, but still want to find ways to give back to your industry, here’s how to do it—and more importantly, what to say.
Step 1: Consider the Source
The first step in this process is to determine if you actually want to give advice to this person. Do you know them? If yes: Have they been generous with you or others in some way in the past? Are they a regular collaborator or someone whose work interests you? Or are they constantly asking and not giving in return?
If you don’t know them directly: Have they respected your time by providing a specific set of questions, offering to buy you lunch, or acknowledging you get paid to give this advice or do this work? Or have they asked for a break down of your entire life story, well-earned industry knowledge, or free intellectual labor just because they can?
Step 2: Define the Terms
If you decide you do want to give advice, do it on your terms. If they ask to meet for coffee and you don’t have time, send an email instead. If they ask a question that requires a novel-length answer, address one part of it, or send them some helpful links. Don’t fear being explicit that you didn’t have time to answer in full by saying something like: “Thank you for reaching out. Your question requires an answer that I unfortunately do not have time to fully address due to my work. However, you might find the following books/links/thinkers/YouTube videos helpful.”
If it’s a friend or relative who is asking for a significant portion of your time and labor, offer to do it at a discounted rate rather than for free, saying something like: “Unfortunately I’m not in a position where I can afford to prioritize free work. However, I’m happy to offer you a friends and family rate of X.”
If it’s a stranger simply asking you to do for free what you get paid to do or sell as part of your business, that one’s easy: “Thank you for your interest, my full rates are listed on my website. If you have any specific questions about how I work with my clients, please let me know.”
Step 3: Start Saying No (Nicely)
So, now comes the hard part. In an informal poll of friends (and my ghost of inboxes past) the most common reaction to the heavy “pick your brain” email is to ignore it. While that’s one tactic, it tends to be accompanied by guilt as well as wasted brain and inbox space, hoping you might one day get to it—which you never will.
The best course of action here is to simply acknowledge the truth: You don’t have time. A recent email I received included a request for expertise that any number of PR consultants would happily do for payment, so I politely declined—”I’m sorry, I’m unable to provide an answer to this due to my work demands”—and suggested the emailer hire one.
If you’ve done a person one favor, and that person then asks for another one in quick succession, you can simply say “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I can’t devote any more time to this due to other commitments. Wish I could help further.” Be direct, be polite, and be honest—and it will be hard for others to hold it against you
The lesson here is simple, but powerful: Creating boundaries in work is as important as it is in your personal life—and it feels good, too. As the perennially chirpy and always practical Marie Forleo says in her helpful advice on the “pick your brain” topic: “If you want people to value your time, you have to put a value on it.” She’s right. And the bonus to doing so is that you will have more time to do good work.
Step 4: Give Back Expansively
Once you’ve created boundaries around when and where you’ll provide help on demand, you can begin looking for other, more expansive avenues for giving back. This can include devoting your time speaking on panels, at schools/universities, on podcasts, or at workshops for free if it’s a cause or audience that would benefit from your knowledge. Though beware of the requests that can often follow on from such engagements, and refer to the third step when answering them.
You can also organize dinner parties or meet-ups twice a year with people in your industry or creatives looking for collaborators. You can write an explanatory blog post including your tips for how to get started in your industry, which can be easily shared next time you get an email. Or you can set aside a certain amount of hours each quarter or year that you devote to good causes, worthy favor-askers, or pro-bono labor.
Once you set aside ways that you give back in your field, you will feel less guilty about telling people that, no, they cant have your time for free. And that, yes, they should recognize what they are asking for is something that has value.
Give it a try. Oprah will be proud.