Who You Know Really Is As Important As What You Know

by William Ralston

Before I delve into the deep, dark truths about why who you know is so very important, allow me to clarify: By no means is what follows a valid excuse for missing school, flunking that degree or being late on that deadline, for what you know is of great importance as you mature in life.

At the grand old age of 25, I can now appreciate the value of all those classes I attended and all those hours I spent glued to my textbook in an attempt to cram a year’s worth of work into one solitary fortnight.

Sure, it was hard at the time and there were, without doubt, many occasions when I really questioned whether or not it was all worth it. As a freelance writer, author and lawyer in the city of London, I can now confirm that it was.

None — and I mean none — of my journey would have been possible without those numerous nights I spent alone in my room, desperately evading any procrastination-inducing thoughts.

But this is not the only thing I have learned.

The most successful people in this world are not necessarily those who have the best degree or the strongest education. Education, in simple terms, is not the single determinant of success.

While those lucky few who receive a first-class degree in law from Oxford University will most likely be favored against a pool of applicants with degrees in Harry Potter studies from Nottingham Trent, the first line on your résumé is not the only factor when it comes to failure and success. To which other factors do I refer, you ask?

Extracurricular activities? Most certainly. Positions of responsibility? That, too. Athletic ability? Indeed. Each and every one of these attributes is or should be encouraged at the institution at which you study.

But, while most major institutions will work around the clock to develop your algebra skills or athletic capabilities, there are two great attributes that almost all schools or universities fail to directly address: people skills and the art of networking. You cannot do one without the other.

The ability to converse with people, to spark up a conversation and hold it well beyond “Hi, how are you?” is a highly underrated skill. It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

Speech is one of the most basic skills we learn as tiny toddlers, and it is a skill that almost all of us practice each and every day of our lives. So, why do we need to proactively encourage it in the classroom? Frankly, we don’t.

Speaking is one thing; conversing — or holding a conversation — is entirely different. All of us can talk, but very few can converse. Those lucky few who can converse have a far greater advantages in life than the Cambridge bore with Ph.D.’s in Astrophysics who cannot string more than two sentences together to hold conversation.

Conversing with people opens doors. It creates opportunities we didn’t know existed. People enjoy helping other people; it’s warming and makes them feel good about themselves.

However, you must have an amicable, personable relationship with people in order for them to offer their assistance. As a great man once said to me, “The best jobs in this world are never advertised; you’ve got to go and find them.” Networking is the single greatest way to go about doing this.

This, my friends, is just a spec on a far larger landscape. The benefits of people skills extend far beyond those related to the job application process. In reality, they extend into all realms of life — from lifestyle and holidays to success at the job.

Knowing someone allows you to ask for favors, bend the rules or extend a payment deadline, for example. Work is work, but as you climb the hierarchy in your career, it is likely that bringing in new business or client relations will encompass a bigger part of your job description.

It is for this reason that companies spend a large portion of their budget on public relations opportunities -- those who can converse will climb further and faster.

Let us now drift back into the realms of education, and what you know, for this cannot be stressed enough. Meeting people and networking can only really be an exercisable factor in career success if you are working on a level playing field with your competition.

Don’t talk the talk if you cannot walk the walk. It is impossible to become a doctor without finishing medical school. However, once you complete your medical examinations, the number of influential people you have in your social circles  — on whom you can call for favors or for recommendations — can then be a fundamental factor in deciding who succeeds and who fails.

How do you develop these skills, you ask? For a fortunate few, they come as second nature — as easy as walking or talking. For others, such is not the case.

As with most things, however, the ability to converse and the ability to network can be learned, and one will almost inevitably lead to the other. Surround yourself with people who already have these skills. Put yourself out there. Chat with people. Make friends. Soon, you will be surrounded by new people and new opportunities.

Photo via HBO