Mike Develin isn't your typical therapist. Mostly, because he isn't one.
He doesn't have a leather couch you can lie down on. He doesn't bill you hundreds of dollars per session. Business tends to operate during sunny weekend afternoons only, "when the weather is nice and I don't have other plans," he says. Oh, yes, and he's not actually a licensed therapist.
In fact, Develin is a former hedge fund manager, who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a Ph.D. in math. He quit a job in finance in late 2010 and was inspired by Lucy in the comic strip 'Peanuts' to develop his barebones business model: a one-man therapy shop set up on a busy pedestrian walkway, next to San Francisco Ferry Building, one of the city's top tourist destinations. His office comprises a small folding table, two folding chairs and a handwritten sign that beckons: "Free Advice, PhD".
This is how I came to meet Develin. On a stroll with my friends, we noticed the sign and thought it was a joke-perhaps, Develin was something akin to the Bushman (a man covered in leaves and twigs) who faux-attacks pedestrians further down the embarcadero (and expects a tip for it!)
Two people were sitting at the table, engaged in conversation: a middle-aged woman with a dog and a friendly-looking young man, who looked to be in his late 20s or early 30s. At first glance, I assumed the woman was the therapist, but when she got up to leave, in a noticeably chipper mood, we realized that the boardwalk therapist was the young guy.
Immediately, my friend decided to seek some advice. Her love life had been left in somewhat of a confused and painful state of affairs, and she desperately wanted to hear that reconciliation was on its way. I (and her other pals) had told her dozens of times that this guy wasn't the right guy, but she resisted the notion. Perhaps, the free advice guy would side with her.
We all introduced ourselves to Mike, and he greeted us warmly. The advice-seeking friend sat in the free seat while my other friend and I stepped a few feet away to give them their privacy-after all, it was still kind of a therapy session, right?
After about 10 minutes, I heard laughter and some bag rustling. My friend was thanking Mike profusely and trying to get her wallet out to pay him. He declined and said he was happy to help, but she insisted. I don't know what he said to her, but it seemed to put her in a good mood. Right before we left, I got his card and decided I needed to hear his story.
Jen: How do you get from studying math to providing free therapy?
Mike: I've always thought of myself as a generalist whose main skills involve intuition and thinking quickly, so I thought I might be able to pull it off. That first day went well, and I've been doing it off and on since.
J: What do you get out of this? I'm assuming that tips, when given, don't amount to much.
M: I get asked this question a lot -- plenty of people have accused me of being:
2) a psychology graduate student conducting an experiment
3) a performance artist
4) an author gathering stories
None of these are true. I also wouldn't cast myself as any sort of extreme altruist who places a ton of value on helping people, but I do enjoy the feeling of possibly having had an impact on people's lives and helping them. I also really enjoy the process of getting to know people and this is an environment where you get to know people really quickly. I guess it's kind of like what speed dating is supposed to be in theory (speed dating in practice is an utter abomination).
J: Speaking of dating... are there a lot of relationship and romance questions being asked?
M: I would say that there are three main categories of questions:
1) (romantic) relationships
3) what should I do in SF?
I get questions about a lot of different things though: investment advice, how to raise children, how to kill someone (this happened once and the person was totally serious), book recommendations, cooking, bridge, you name it. But I would say that the above three are easily the most common.
J:Killing someone? Geeze. It sounds like people have no problem confessing their deepest darkest desires to you, no matter how disturbing. Why do you think that is?
M: There is a certain liberation that goes along with knowing you're never going to see someone again; you have very little to lose if you make a fool of yourself. This is especially true with a stranger who presumably sees a ton of people and probably won't even remember what you say.
J: So, do you meet a ton of crazy people then?
M: When I first started this, I was worried that most people sitting down would just be cranks trying to mess with me. Occasionally I do get someone who is off the rails (I had a drug-addicted homeless man sit down and tell me about his problems for a long time once; another one of the hardest cases I've had), but for the most part the people who sit down are fairly normal. Well, I shouldn't say that; I think they're a lot more interesting than normal people. You have to be at least a bit offbeat to sit down at a random stranger's advice table; I realized at some point that in a happy accident, the table itself selects for the people I'd want to talk to anyway.
I do occasionally -- maybe once a day -- get someone who seems to merely be lonely and wants someone to talk to (this person is often making up an obviously fake story to purportedly ask me for advice), but for the most part people seem well-adjusted, smart, and interesting.
J: Maybe well-adjusted, smart and interesting people can't afford or don't want to carry the stigma of going to a therapist then? Do you think that what you provide and a licensed therapist's services are essentially the same?
M: The biggest difference is that talking to me represents much less of a commitment than talking to a therapist; I think many people don't consider themselves to be screwed up enough to need a therapist, especially if their problem is local. Actually, that might be the biggest difference; I get asked a lot of questions about local problems (like a current, concrete choice of job or significant other), whereas people see therapists as a resource more for ongoing problems in their life.
But in any case, from a time standpoint, obviously it's much easier to spend 10 minutes on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon than it is to spend 50 minutes every week. There's also still a stigma (as much internally as externally) that still goes with seeing a therapist, which doesn't apply to a one-time consultation with a random guy on the street.
J: But what makes you qualified to help me with my problems?
M: To be honest, I think this is the thing in the world that best combines my abilities. There are three skills involved, all of which I'm naturally good at and interested in:
1) intuitive cold-reading
2) quick thinking and reacting
3) being a generalist
The last is a big reason why I enjoy tabling. Unfortunately, there are very few jobs that really use all parts of your brain, where having breadth of knowledge is more important than depth. I get to do that over the course of an afternoon at the table, which is great. I know something about almost everything, from Miley Cyrus (dating Liam Hemsworth, birth name Destiny Hope Cyrus) to macroeconomics (where are we on the Laffer curve?), and I'm good at thinking on my feet and coming up with a reasonable answer to almost any question.
J: How many people have you talked to or advised... I don't know the word... helped?
M: Over the course of an afternoon I would estimate that I usually get about 40 to 50 people. I've probably done this something like 15 times, so maybe like 600 or so over the course of my life? I can only think of one concrete repeat customer, although I give my business card to people who I think might have follow-ups and occasionally I do get those.
J: And, do people generally seem satisfied with your advice?
M: People mostly seem very happy with what I tell them. I think they go into the process with fairly low expectations, and end up pleasantly surprised. Occasionally I'll get a question that is way out of my depth, but even then most people seem more happy to have stumped me than dissatisfied with it. (My hardest question last week was a five-year-old who asked me how to put on a good magic show.)
J: Do you have any plans to expand your 'business' or therapist career?
M:I would absolutely love to make this into a career, but I'm aware that this is really hard. For now, it's just a hobby, though it's been mentioned to me that this would make a good reality show. I think it's possible that someone (relatively) powerful will stroll by and be captivated enough to catapult me to an actual career, but I'm certainly not counting on it. Regardless, I enjoy it a lot in its own right, and plan to keep going with it as a hobby for the foreseeable future.
J: Thanks so much for talking to me Mike... Okay, one last question-- There's this guy I really like, but...
If you have questions for Mike, visit him next to the Ferry Building on sunny weekends or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.