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.