It’s not what you know; it’s what you can pretend to know

By Dan Riley

Sean MacEntee/Flickr
(Sean MacEntee/Flickr)

When I was a young child, I dreamed. Some kids dream of travelling amongst the cosmos as astronauts. Some dream of being heroes and saving lives as firemen. Some thought that they could change the world as president. Like them, I had big dreams – I wanted to make barrels. Large barrels, small barrels, red barrels, blue barrels, barrels for kings and barrels for peasants. Not actually, because I was born in eastern Massachusetts in the 1990s, not 18th-century France. But had I been born a French peasant (a man can only be so lucky), and had I truly aspired to be the world’s finest barrel-maker (a man can only dream so big), I would have been out of luck. That’s because you had to be born into a barrel-making family to get into a guild. You had to know someone. It didn’t matter if you were a barrel-making prodigy, because it was not what you knew, it was who you knew.

“It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”

Fortunately, three centuries later we need not face such plights. We can be lucky. We can dream big. That is the benefit of capitalism, education and the American Dream. If you set your mind to something, if you become really good at it, if you know enough and work really hard, you can do it. It’s promotion through merit.

Except “it’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” This phrase is everywhere, and it is exasperating. When people tell me I need to start building connections right now, I find it intimidating. If it only matters that I know successful people, why am I paying tens of thousands to attend this university? Why bother working to get an A when I can settle for a D and brown-nose my way to success? Am I just here to amass connections on a LinkedIn account?

Maybe I am missing something, but I suppose I am just not content to piggyback on someone else’s success. This is not sustainable. If the ability to have a career is based more on one’s ability to network than their actual skill in their craft, the quality of the work-force is going to dramatically decline. If everyone is faking it until they make it, it is only a matter of time until no one knows what they are doing and it all falls apart.

I hesitate to bash this academic system further because I have been a part of it for just over a month, but I do think it has strayed from the path it originally set out upon. Some students criticize the University’s requirement that we take General Education courses, and for good reason. But the existence of the gen-ed classes demonstrates that we are here to learn, not schmooze. In addition to honing the skills we are particularly interested in, we are supposed to grow as people and learn more about our diverse society, our beautiful world and the awe-inspiring universe. We are here to really free ourselves through education, not just to appear learned to our potential employers.

Being social is good. Knowing people is good. Getting to build relationships is a blessing of the human condition. But I am not a French peasant; if I want craft barrels, I shouldn’t have to know the barrel guild leader; my barrels should speak for themselves.  I am more than the sum of the people I know: if the only ability I have is being well known, I am simply not worth knowing.

Dan Riley is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]