“It’s Who You Know” – Really?

Have you ever encountered some new skill, seen someone demonstrate something to a class, and think to yourself “I can do that, but I need to disappear to a place by myself, perfect it, and return so that I can wow everyone with how good I am at it?”

I have. A lot. And the impulses behind that, the things to do to mature beyond those impulses, are the subject of a different post. What I’m interested in here is how this has influenced my strategy.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life prioritizing skill, developing my own ability. And to some degree, this has gotten some good results.

Let’s call the skill “What.” WHAT must I, myself, do, in order to do something awesome? What must I, like Bruce Wayne, learn in secret in order to emerge as the One who TOTALLY STUNS EVERYONE out of NOWHERE?

I dunno, maybe this perspective is a little…unbalanced?


This was made most obvious to me, as I look back on the way I started out my graduate program at USC. I got to know some wonderful people, and was learning at a rapid, sometimes painful pace. About a year and a half into the program I started to suspect that something was wrong with my approach to school, however. I wasn’t getting selected for things I wanted. I wasn’t even getting asked to help on projects. People would ask how I was doing, but generally I didn’t feel connected to the program, to the people IN it (with a few very special exceptions).

I realized that I’d isolated myself, in a sort of internal, competitive effort to become the best, to get “so good they can’t ignore you” – I, in turn, had myself ignored the possibilities of other people. I’d said no to enough projects in an effort to protect my own skill development, that I’d given people this subconscious message: I don’t have time for you.

But what is it they say about Hollywood? “It’s who you know”

I always thought of that phrase as sort of hollow. Shallow, even. But what if…I have laden the idea of short-term connections with a lot of negative bullshit?

So I started to help out more, to say yes to more people, to see if I could come on board someone else’s project and help move the needle for them.

And lo and behold, film school started getting better, more interesting, more connected. And yeah, I have let some of “my” projects slip to the wayside. But I started to realize that “who” is as important as “what.”

I’m still a lover of solitude, of creative loneliness and sitting by myself to toil something out of nothing. But if I think of the best times in my theater career, they were with great people. And the best results of that career came from the “who” far more than the “what” – and the who ultimately demands the what, demands the skill, demands the selection of great material, because you damn well BRING IT if you’re going to do something worthy of the great people you’re surrounding yourself with.

Do you want to raise your game? Being in the presence of people who demand the best out of me has always seemed to just pull that out of me. I didn’t have to demand it out of myself, I just had to respond to the excellence around me.

And you can be the most skilled and talented [insert job here] in town, but if no one likes working with you, if no one feels a sense of connection to you, how far do you actually think you’ll get?