It’s Not Just What You Know

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.
–African proverb

I recently learned that it often takes a year or more for a record company to court a new artist before signing them to a label. This confirmed a suspicion I had.

It's Not What You Know
Photo credit: Phillie Casablanca

It’s not just what you know that makes a difference; it’s who you know. In business and life, relationship is everything.

This is especially true, I’ve found, when it comes to getting your work discovered — whether that means a writing landing a publishing contract, a musician signing with a record label, or you finally getting your dream job. It’s all about who you know.

But you knew that already… didn’t you?

I mean, look at all that ends up in stores and on bookshelves. You didn’t think that it just had to do with being a good writer, did you? Lord knows that there are plenty of those out there, waiting to be recognized. No, the truth is that sometimes the only difference between you and a published writer is that they know someone you don’t. Same goes for actors and musicians and other artists.

It seems unfair, doesn’t it? But is it really?

It takes time to make the right relationships, to stick your neck out there and introduce yourself. It takes guts to withstand rejection after rejection until you make the right connection.

The next step in realizing your dream

The next step in your life’s work may not be to read another book or spend one more hour practicing. It may require you to pick up the phone, attend a conference, or buy someone lunch.

This is the really hard stuff — the art of pursuing your dream — what Seth Godin calls “emotional labor.”

Many writers and artists are uncomfortable with this relational side of the work. We’re hermits, misanthropes, and introverts. We tend to be a little shy. Sticking our necks out like this just feels wrong. It reeks of self-promotion.

I can’t speak for all creative professionals, but we writers tend to not always do well in front of people. Large crowds can intimidate us. New relationships frighten us. That’s why we pour ourselves into our work.

The reality is simple: We hide, because we’re afraid of rejection.

My experience with that evil word, “networking”

For years, I watched in envy as other writers would land publishing deals or gain platforms, not through the sheer quality of their work but also the relationships they had built. Their talent, it seemed, was the glue that solidified the already-existing relationship.

In bewilderment, I would observe this phenomenon from the safety of my desk, all the while wondering why this wasn’t happening for me. Slowly, I began to grow curious. And then frustrated. Until I finally did something.

I did things I never thought I’d do:

  • attended conferences.
  • invited Twitter friends to coffee.
  • went to local meetups and introduced myself to strangers.
  • cold-called influencers.
  • volunteered for speaking gigs.

All of this was stuff that was very uncomfortable for me. But I did it, anyway. And in so doing, I learned a lesson: Never underestimate the value of real human interaction.

Not only did I recognize the importance of connecting with people, I also enjoyed it. Once I got over my fear of rejection, I found that it was fun to meet new people.

Getting started is the hardest part

If this speaks to you, then you need to do a few things:

  1. Quit hiding behind your work (and computer).
  2. Use social media as the means to an end, not the end itself.
  3. Put yourself out there more (i.e. take strangers out to lunch).
  4. Sign up for meetups, mixers, and conferences.
  5. Start doing favors for people without expecting anything in return.

Forging the right relationships that lead to successful connections may be some of the hardest and (most rewarding) work you do as an artist. Remember: It’s not only what you know, but also who you know. And maybe it’s time for you to get started.

How has making the right connections benefited your work? Share in the comments.

22 thoughts on “It’s Not Just What You Know

  1. Great post Jeff.

    If I’m being honest, I struggle with how much “work” I want to actually put into “being discovered.”

    I am convinced that the “build it and they will come” mentality is not going to cut it, but at this point, especially as it relates to my writing, I’m still trying to figure out what “networking” looks like for me.

    But I know one thing is for sure, connecting with you has definitely been a start!

  2. It’s interesting how scared we are to simply ask. What’s the worst that could happen? People say no. Big deal. Move on. With my blog I’ve simply asked some cool people if they would contribute and/or give advice and it’s worked. Social media allows us to connect in ways that were never possible before.

    1. You’re right, David. I love that about this medium. I’ve been making some big asks, as well. Amazing what can happen if you just put yourself out there.

  3. I’ll be honest…I have a love/hate relationship with this post. I understand it’s more about who you know and how well you network. BUT doesn’t it sometimes seem like people only form relationships with people because that person can get them something? That’s what bothers me with the whole networking thing. This is a silly example but I’ve had people on facebook ” friend” me and come to find out there only motive was they needed more people to play Farmville with (I don’t play Farmville).

    I guess it just bothers me that so many relationship are formed with this “what can you do for me” attitude. I am definitely all for getting to know people but some times I think it is taken to the extreme.

    1. me, too, eileen. networking can’t have an ulterior motive. that’s why you need to do unconditional favors for people. BUT I believe that what goes around ultimately comes around.

  4. Nice! One of the best articles of yours I have read so far, Jeff – simply packed with meaningful calls to action and readily implementable suggestions.
    I, too, believe in using Twitter and Facebook, as well as blogging as a means to an end, meeting up with people in my general area who share passions and interests and, in some cases even, goals.
    So, yes, I agree, the key is to do your work then get out there and crush it! (in the inimitable words of @GaryVee!)
    Thanks for such a valuable contribution, Jeff!


  5. I agree with your statement. It is definitely about who you know, but I will also contradict myself and say that it is what you can do.

    What I have learned (and am privileged to knowing some great people) is that even if you know people you have to have something for them to want to publish, buy, share, etc….
    I know a lot of people who can do some big things for me, but what I learned from that is that I also had to have something to offer, something great.

    It is not like that all the time and I would say that in almost everyone’s story there was that conversation, person, or networking thing that happened that opened some doors. But, it seems that even if those doors are open you have to have something that will push you through them.

  6. amen amen amen…. I’ve found that Social Media has opened up an entire WORLD to me that I wouldn’t otherwise have at my fingertips–literally. 🙂 And, way to call us out on being afraid of rejection. ouch. Yeah, rejection has no legitimate grounds if I haven’t risked throwing it all out there. But there’s also that strange sense of self-promotion that I’ve just had to get used to. I talked to a very very wise mentor once who said we have to stop couching our terms. Just be me. And don’t sugarcoat it or put it in a shiny frame, but don’t hide it either. Just be me… That has given me *some* freedom.

  7. i have aspergers socializing is something i struggle with, yes ive noticed this concept yes its evil esp to me, think about it.

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