It's easy to simply assume people are bitter or resentful when they say, "It's not what you know, it's who you know."
Especially when they're complaining about someone who apparently succeeded based on connections and not merit.
But science says we shouldn't dismiss that cliche so quickly.
The Hero's Journey
When I was young, I would sometimes dream about an outside occurrence or event that would transform my life. Something that do the work for me; that would make me do what I wasn't willing or able to do on my own.
Like Tarzan, whose parents' death and subsequent adoption by apes turned him into a pretty kick-ass guy. Or Kwai Chang Caine, taken in and raised by monks to become a Shaolin Priest and kicker of asses in need of social justice. Or Conan, a slave forced to work the Wheel of Pain and then to become a gladiator who became not just the king of ass kickers... but an actual king.
In each case, the hero had no choice but to become special -- which sounded incredibly appealing to a little kid who felt nothing about him was in any way special. Or ever would be.
Turns out I wasn't alone. That particular fantasy is a common theme in many stories Joseph Campbell called The Hero's Journey: A hero goes on an adventure filled with struggle and suffering, has a Tom Cruise "talk to me, Goose" moment and finds the courage to win a decisive victory over a seemingly insurmountable foe... and then returns home, forever transformed.
Stepping outside of your surroundings, of what feels comfortable... journeying to a far-off land... meeting strange (to you) people... having unusual experiences... and coming home with an amazing set skills -- or even superpowers.
Yep: Kid stuff.
Or maybe not.
The Top Predictor of Career Success
Ask anyone to list the essential characteristics for career success, entrepreneurial or otherwise, and you'll find the usual suspects.
Yet research shows that who you know is the most important factor in predicting career success. Who you know is a career superpower.
But not necessarily the individual people you know -- the type of people you know. And the types of networks you create.
As Michael Simmons writes (referencing research by Ron Burt of the University of Chicago):
Burt showed that simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is an extremely good predictor of career success. In an open network, everyone doesn't already know each other. As a result, you are in between many different clusters. In a closed network, everyone already knows each other.
... the further to the right you go toward a closed network, the more you'll repeatedly hear the same ideas, which reaffirm what you already believe. The further left you go toward an open network, the more you'll be exposed to new ideas.
No other factor was more important in predicting career success!
In short, the more open your network -- the more successful you are likely to be.
Creating an open network is a little like being forced to live in a far off land among strange new people. You learn things you wouldn't have learned. You experience things you wouldn't have experienced.
You're forced out of your comfort zone, out of your day-to-day, out of your "normal" existence... and then return "home" transformed.
An Open Network Is the Career Superpower
The average person's network is limited to people within his or her industry or area of interest. Retail people know retail people. Software people know software people. Restaurant people know restaurant people.
Fine: But doing what others do and somehow expecting to achieve different results is stupid. Whatever success I've achieved as a writer or speaker hasn't resulted from knowing the "right" people in those industries. It was only when I started meeting people outside those industries that things really took off.
Why? Focusing solely on developing relationships within your area limits your ability to learn, and grow, and make helpful connections -- and just as importantly, to connect people who can help each other.
Which means forgetting about building a "network" and just having a genuine curiosity to learn about other people.
Especially people who are different from you: Different backgrounds, different perspectives, different experiences...
Otherwise you only know people who are just like you.
Which means you'll be a lot less likely to succeed.
And, not incidentally, that your life will be a lot less fun.