With so many people all wanting to get to the top, there simply isn't room for you in the winner's circle if you're not willing to push hard, pull a Lady Gaga and persevere for the long haul. You need real grit, which means having not only courage, but also unshakable character.

But for every Lady Gaga, for every Musk or Bezos or Winfrey who fights and makes it, there are hundreds of others who fight and don't. These people aren't any less talented or deserving or dedicated, so how come they aren't household names, too? How come they don't enjoy the fame and money and respect all the familiar idols do?

It often comes down not to what you do, but what the individuals in your network do. It's when they stick their own necks out to bring you to the next step that things really start to move. That sometimes means mentoring, but usually it's bridging, that moment when they not only introduce you to the "right" person in an inner circle, but also laud you to that person so that individual feels comfortable taking a chance on you. Unless you've got people who go to bat for you like this, doors can stay impenetrably locked no matter how hard and persistently you knock.

As an example, there's a wonderful story of famed American composer Aaron Copland. In 1942, Copland, himself established in the musical world, typed up a letter to his colleague (identified simply as André). In this document, Copland noted the talent he saw in another young, aspiring musician. Copland thought this young man deserved an opportunity to work and prove himself.

"I am certain you need no further convincing," Copland wrote. "You know I wouldn't write this way about anyone if he wasn't the type."

In other words, you trust me and know I wouldn't recommend a dimwit, so listen to me here and give this guy some help.

For perspective, that'd be a lot like Warren Buffet telling everybody at Berkshire Hathaway that you had a knack for investing and should be taken seriously.

And who was the young, aspiring musician who had earned such a coveted recommendation?

Leonard Bernstein.

So the old saying that who you know matters is true.

But what if Copland hadn't written the letter? What if he'd looked at the mountain of papers on his desk or stressed out at the ticking of the clock and thought, "I just don't have the time for this!" Or what if he had thought, "If the kid really wants it, it's up to him. It's not my responsibility to give someone a handout." Or worse, "I've got my own career to think about."

Bernstein didn't succeed because he had 500+ connections on LinkedIn. He succeeded because he had one connection--the connection--who understood that sustaining a craft or industry is about caring just as much for the next generation as for your own progress. He had grit, but he also had someone who took action, who did more than look at Bernstein's capabilities, shrug and say, "That's nice, good luck."

The lesson, then, is first that, as someone who wants doors to open, don't just throw a dart at the wall. Be selective about the people you try to form relationships with and don't waste your time with individuals whose sway doesn't sit with what you want to do. It's about relevancy and quality, not fuzzy maybes and quantity.

But secondly, as a leader, don't sit on your hands when you see talent. The world is unfair, and because of that, deserving, hardworking, integrity-filled people need advocates. Be willing to write letters (or emails) even before they ask you to, because they can have capability and skill without also having a ton of confidence or a particularly assertive personality, and because they can't possibly be everywhere or be omnipotent about the opportunities they're close to missing. The people you help along will be part of your legacy, and building a legacy contributes to the sense of purpose you need to be happy in your own life.

You need grit to have a chance. But success requires the action of others, too. Be realistic and give it everything you've got, and be bold if you can about requesting a recommendation. But don't come down too hard on yourself for the unwillingness and egocentricity of others. Sometimes, you've already taken all the personal accountability you can and it honestly isn't your fault. And if you do find someone who will speak for you, then pay it forward when the time is right. Work for someone else as much as you work for yourself, and you'll achieve something that's much more precious than your own title or bank account.

Published on: May 23, 2019
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