For many years, I’ve held the phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” in special contempt. There are personal reasons why this is the case — I think it has to do with the Wall Street-friendly communities I grew up in, whose social structures placed lots of emphasis on being a good schmoozer and keeping up appearances. It also has to do with the fact that I’m extremely introverted, and took this piece of advice as an expression of extrovert entitlement (how’s that for alliteration). Fundamentally the phrase isn’t wrong — but to the extent that it’s true, it’s a shame and a tragedy. It’s not the kind of thing that people should say proudly.
I am finally getting this all down on paper and hope I will avoid looking like an unhinged madman when it’s over. In the meantime, an early excerpt…
The problem, of course, is that it’s never said with the resignation (or regret, or shame) that it deserves. As a description of what ails us, it’s actually pretty apt — in one pithy phrase, it manages to speak volumes about the myth of meritocracy, the devaluing of hard work, pervasive anti-intellectualism, the cheerleading of the Cult of Disruption, and the sense that we’ve had the rug pulled out from under us. It would be one thing to speak the phrase as diagnosis. But mostly people use it as advice, given out freely and indiscriminately to young people and yet still uttered as if it’s a secret pearl of wisdom we should be grateful to receive. For anyone who’s out of work in certain upwardly mobile circles, it comes almost like clockwork: The seasoned professional leans in, looks you in the eye, and says:
“Let me tell you something. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
In my more puckish moments, I’ve thought about responding to this “advice” with a straight face: “Wow, that’s such a fascinating piece of advice. I’ve never heard that before. Where did you come across it?” Unfortunately, my ability to deadpan is severely compromised by just how viscerally awful I find this phrase. After all, lots of career advice is annoying or clichéd, but ultimately harmless. But in our current economic climate, this one is downright pernicious. It fits everything that is awful about our current economic climate into one sentence. At once, it’s smug, cynical, and complacent. It’s permissive toward nepotism and serial schmoozing, and dismissive toward self-betterment and people who don’t have the “right” kind of education. And it represents a massive bait-and-switch pulled on the first generation in American history that’s expected to fare worse than its parents did.
There will be references to my childhood and mean jokes about the synagogue board. There will be stories about my friends in consulting. And yes, there will be references to Sarah Kendzior.