The phrase, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” is so irritating to me that I recently started thinking about what type of person uses that phrase. Follow along with my thought process, and I think you will agree with my conclusion:
Who Does Not Use That Phrase?
Think of the person least likely to use that dreaded phrase. For me, it’s Albert Einstein.
EINSTEIN: I am pleased to have discovered the general theory of relativity, but of course… [he leans closer and winks with one eye] … it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
I simply cannot imagine Einstein ever saying this. Ditto for Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton, and Copernicus. But it’s not just famous physicists who don’t use that trite phrase.
I cannot imagine anyone who knows a lot using that phrase. The reason is obvious: If someone knows a lot, he/she typically believes that knowing a lot is very important. And I’m not just talking about intellectual knowledge.
TIGER WOODS: Yeah, practicing golf is important, but in the end it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
Anyone who has succeeded on his/her own merits would, I believe, have to smirk at the idea that personal connections are an adequate substitute for personal knowledge.
So Who Does Use That Phrase?
After you take away all of the people who have succeeded on personal merit, who is left? Two groups of people: Those who have failed and those who have succeeded despite their lack of merit.
I believe the phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” appeals primarily to people who don’t know much. It’s obvious if you think about it. The phrase is simply an optimistic way of confessing one’s ignoriance:
PERSON WHO DOESN’T KNOW MUCH: It’s not what you know (thank goodness, because I don’t know much!), it’s who you know (at least I hope it is – maybe if I make friends with successful people, I will be successful, too).
That annoying phrase is the fanciful motto of people who want to succeed without meriting success. It represents the entire life strategy of the Peter Keatings of the world – those who inspired Ayn Rand’s descriptive label of “second-handers.”
Why Does It Matter?
Unfortunately, the phrase is repeated so frequently that it is possible for someone who could succeed on his/her merits to start believing the phrase is true. If that happens, a person with potential to really accomplish things might divert his/her efforts from succeeding on merit to networking/schmoozing those who have already succeeded.