The Hard Facts: It’s What You Know, Not Who You Know

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“It looks like the American Dream – which promises that if you work hard and use your brain, you can find success – is alive and well. After a 25 year study that followed over 2,000 Americans, researchers have demonstrated that it isn’t your connections that determine your professional trajectory, it’s your intelligence.” (“Research Proves It’s Not ‘Who You Know,’ Intelligence Is The Key To Success” ; 3/31/2011)

One of the great things about making lots of connections and having lots of friends is that you might know people in various different fields. In my year of making friends I met consultants, teachers, bridal consultants, caterers, writers, actors and more. In a job market like this one, having a vast network that spans industries comes in handy. If I have a friend looking for a job, I almost always have another friend in the same field who is willing to at least answer some questions or make an introduction.

But if you’re still starting your BFF search, or it’s a bit slower going (after all, who else in their right mind would go on 52 friend-dates in a year?), never fear. The latest research says that whether you have lots of connections or not, they whole “who you know” mantra is a myth. Even being a Trump or a Wayans doesnt guarantee you success: “The researchers found that while a well-connected and socio-economically stable family could help young professionals score a high-paying entry-level position, it couldn’t help them move through the ranks of their company.”

I used to hear especially connected people who wanted to prove their own merits say, “I don’t want to use my connections, I want to get it on my own.” I’ve always thought that was silly. In a world where jobs are scarce, reaching out to contacts is part of life. My response is usually this: Having contacts won’t get you a job, it will get you an interview.

Companies aren’t going to hire someone who is incompetent and lose a lot of money. They are willing to spare the time to meet someone, though. At least that’s what I’ve always thought. It’s always nice to get this kind of scientific confirmation. “Once working, brainpower was the true indicator of a person’s advancement. Those who scored highest on standard Army intelligence tests were promoted quicker and reached higher pay levels in the end. Their abilities helped them to leave even their well-bred peers in the dust.”

Obviously nepotism, or being the boss’s best friend, can come in handy sometimes. But the good news is that overall, connections aren’t the whole deal.

Of course, with this, as with pretty much every other aspect of life, having more friends and social connections is more likely to help than hurt. If you ask me, it’s what you know and who you know.

What do you think? Is being connected the fastest route to getting ahead? Or do you agree that “who you know” can only get you so far?


Filed under The Search

20 responses to “The Hard Facts: It’s What You Know, Not Who You Know

  1. My husband got his start from having a great education, basically got his foot in the door because of it. In the end of it all, he has had job opportunities because of not only his great work ethic but his endearing personality. People want to help him out. That made him a great supervisor and manager. He cared about people professionally and they care back. However, he also knows what he is talking about. He works in his field of expertise and so I would agree with you it is a combination of the two, plus a little luck and hard work thrown in there.

  2. gaiabathtime

    Being really really good at what you do is really important… being consistent in that is the next step… to know how to work hard ….to be nice and considered to the people you work with is also very important as they will go that extra mile for you when you need them…the support of your friends and family in what you do is what makes you go for it… so I can say that couldn’t have done it without them.Were would one be without those BFF s that are your sounding board and never tire to listen and offer help and advise?

  3. caro

    Not buying it. If it were true at my office, then I would have to believe that white males who are practicing Catholics have vastly greater brain power than everyone else. Possible, but not a statistical probability.

  4. I agree with here: “Having contacts won’t get you a job, it will get you an interview.”

    It has been my experience (and that of most of my social network) that 90% of the time, you need to know someone just to even get an interview. Sad but true. So while knowing someone isn’t necessarily more important than being smart, you need to know someone just to even have the opportunity to go after the job.

  5. I do a lot of work with hiring managers and it’s true that having a (good!) personal referral will move a person up in the process. But almost never will it turn the decision as to whether a person will receive the offer if another more qualified person is in the running. Along the same lines, many businesses develop new clients from referrals only, but if you can’t deliver, your business won’t survive. Competency trumps in my mind, but networking makes it all easier and more enjoyable.

  6. I think that often ‘who you know’ would present opportunities that may have been impossible to score otherwise. Meaning that if you don’t have the ‘who’ on your side, even if you’re brilliant, no one knows, and those who count may never find out ‘what you know’.

  7. I think there is always going to be that person that makes you wonder who the hell they know because they sure aren’t smart enough to be where they are…BUT, I believe the cream always floats to the top, most of the time. Intelligence is going to shine through, if it is paired with some direction, some willingness to learn, some work ethic- and a good personality NEVER hurts, either!

  8. Thank you very much for your valuable article.

  9. Who you know can definitely only get you so far. I recently read a book called “48 days to the work you love.” In that book the author talks about how connections make up a small percentage of successful job searches. In actuality the people who got jobs were the ones you called the company and set up an appointment regardless if there was a job posting or not! I think it definitely has to do with one’s creativity and intelligence as far as making friends, finding jobs, being successful, etc.

  10. I thought of this post when I found out my friend (once a BFF, I guess he still is) is “the Boss” (how he described it) of a new business he is starting with someone else in California. My thinking is that maybe in a few years, when I finish college and the business is established, I can get hired by him and move to California. It would be “who I know” that would get me the job, and I have no doubt that my skills and abilities will keep me working “for the man.” I would still do writing until I can make a living exclusively from my writing. And who knows? Maybe California would be the perfect place to write screenplays for TV and Movies. I would be near Hollywood, after all. 🙂

  11. I tend to think its a combination of the two..intelligence and who you know. But more than simply “knowing” someone is having things to share that others respect and the ability to make other people feel important, liked and respected is a rare and essential component to not just “knowing” people but to knowing them in a rewarding way. I think I am intelligent and I definitely know a lot of people but I have been working on my social skills…whether how I feel inside is what I am presenting to the world. Make sense? Great post!

  12. All I have to say is Thank God I’m Retired. I have seen it leaning more on who you know.

  13. I think that our connections will get us so far as having opportunities open to us. However, if we rely on them too much and not bother perusing our own skills and know-how, then our friends won’t save us from getting kicked out.

  14. Dear Rachel, thanks for the inspiration
    recently, I was confuse to make a decision about what is more important between build connection with friends but I loose my time to study, or study but loose time to build connection. well I proudly to say, now I choose to study first, but I still try to manage my friendship 🙂
    once again, thanks

  15. Hi Rachel

    I was never good at asking for favours. Though there were times when I had managed to sneak in because a professor recommended my name or because I was my dad’s daughter, but somehow those things didn’t end well. Some didn’t even start!

    You’re absolutely right when you say having contacts can get you an interview.

    Also, when contacts get you a job, people assume that you don’t have what it takes to be in that position where you are at. So they don’t consider you talented enough for the job. A friend faced a similar situation at her work place as an intern!! Wonder how bad it is out there in the real job.

    But I guess, being right for the job and knowing people is a good combination. Cynics will always find a way to criticize.

    • Nithya,

      It is bad out there on the job. When people receive promotions or advancements because of who they know, along with myself, several of my co-workers feel that the individuals, most of them, didn’t deserve it.

  16. Phoebe W.

    Isn’t “getting your foot in the door” key to future success? The article you quoted here claims that the American Dream is alive and well. But study after study show that economic mobility in the US is stagnating, and that Americans are far less likely to ascend the rungs of socioeconomic status than their Canadian or European counterparts (

    Also, the study used a measure of intelligence similar to IQ. There are known IQ disparities by race and by socio-economic background, so unless one think that intelligence differs among people along those lines, then it stands to reason that the measure of intelligence used here is itself biased.

    Main Point – By using the headline of this piece of research to declare that intelligence is key to success once one is employed, the myth of poor people as lazy and rich people as smart and hardworking is propagated. At a time when movements like “Occupy Wall Street’ can gain mass popularity, I don’t think this interpretation of the research has much traction.

    • Meemsu

      Phoebe, Well said. Also, considering this is a longitudinal study, I’d hesitate to apply the findings of data tracking the last 25 years to the next 25 years. Too much has changed for this study to be meaningful, unless we consider it a historical snapshot of how it used to be for a certain group of people.

  17. Beautiful read. I work for the government and I always feel that, “it is all about who you know.” Advancement and promotions are based on an evaluation system. If it happens to be that your best buddy is writing your evaluation, yours will make it to the top. Although, there may be someone that is ranking next to you that has shown greater potential, their evaluation won’t reflect it. Now, I will throw in that as long as the person who is writing the evaluations or doing the promotions is a neutral, unbiased person who does not know the individuals, then the system might work.

    I do agree that being connected is the fastest and will get you ahead. It does get your foot in the door and gets your name and information to those who matter. You also are the first to learn when the positions become available.

    I can’t speak about other organizations but I can speak for mine and I say that if you know the right people, the more money you will make!

  18. Timothy Judd

    Being connected will help advance a Sales and Marketing career (or an Entrepreneurial endeavor), but not a Science / Engineering / Mathematics type job, where intelligence is imperative. IN those professions, the more people you know could actually slow your career, if they all know you are lacking in intelligence…

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