If you have ever felt dread when the email subject line reads “Can I pick your brain?,” this new Saturday Night Live skit is for you.
In “A Frightening Tale,” comedian and talk show host Seth Myers is seated around a campfire telling a true ghost story: The horror of being obligated to mentor someone who does not offer anything in return.
“You want to be scared? I have a story,” Myers’ character Brandon starts. “About two years ago when I was still at the ad agency. … I got a call from my dad. … He asked me if I could get a coffee with his friend’s son.”
“That’s no big deal, right?” one friend says.
“A 22-year-old recent college grad,” Meyers continues as the horror music plays in the background. The friends yell in fear at what he says next: “An aspiring filmmaker. His name was Connor and he had a lot to say.”
How not to be a nightmare when seeking mentorship
The sketch is effective at capturing how a bad mentee can come across from the mentor’s perspective. We watch Connor chatter endlessly about how he is going to advance his career in filmmaking. He does not seek Brandon’s input about his ideas and does not ask about his own experiences in the industry.
“He just can’t keep texting you and keep trying to pick your brain forever?!” one scared friend exclaims, unsettled at hearing Brandon recount the story.
But a person, well-intentioned in real life or completely oblivious in fictional Connor’s case, can. “Can I pick your brain?” is a seemingly innocent request, but it is vague and puts the burden on the recipient to figure out what exactly you are asking. To do better, be specific about what you are seeking in the initial contact and what you can give in return. If you want an informational interview or career advice, say so.
When you finally meet, make sure to listen and ask about the mentor’s professional experiences. The conversation should be energizing for both participants in the conversation. If you make the meeting all about yourself, it makes the relationship you are seeking seem transactional: the mentor’s knowledge for your professional gain. No one likes feeling like a brain leech for your career plans, whether you are in a comedy sketch or in real life.