Most of us at one time or another has envisioned getting ahead in life. We try to work hard, do our best, and of course, make the right contacts. Having a work ethic is great and always working to the best of your ability is great too. So what is it about that last part, making the right contacts, that can never seem to always work out right, especially for those at the bottom rung in the corporate world?
Making contacts sounds like an easy thing to do – meeting the right people who you think can help get you ahead in the corporate world. Yet at the same time, many people who express an interest to get ahead do not have the key elements in what really helps them get ahead: the knowing of what will get you ahead, versus knowing who will help you get ahead.
Consider the well known Arthur Miller play, “Death of a Salesman.” Willy Loman, the main character in the play, winds up broken and bitter at the end of his life, not knowing what he did wrong in the pursuit of the American Dream. He worked hard for his employer as a shoe salesman, tried to be likable by everyone he knew and worked with but had nothing to show for it in the end. “Being liked by everyone” is the important phrase here, as that alone will not help one to get ahead, even though Loman actually believed that it was this and this alone that would help him succeed in life. His late brother Ben became wealthy during an expedition to Africa, making his profits in the diamond business. When Loman winds up getting fired from his job for incompetence, he attempts to commit suicide more than once. Loman worked too hard on getting himself liked and in reality, got nowhere in business or life. He even declined a job offer from a neighbor due to his own pride and is not very encouraging of his sons in getting ahead, either. Self growth is neglected and Loman pays the final price for it.
Not surprisingly, those who do get ahead in the corporate world, and life in general, are willing to take the time to pursue a positive self interest in growth and individual achievement. This means education, joining clubs and groups that will help enhance and develop individual talents. All of these things fall under the “what you know category,” not who you know. Getting by in life on “what you know” may seem next to impossible, but it really isn’t. We live in the age of information, where everything is readily available to us at our fingertips; looking it up is the only thing we have to do. “What you know” carries more value than “who you know” precisely because it provides the individual wanting to get ahead the advantage of knowing what it takes to get to that point.
Back to Loman for a second, perhaps it is because he does not fully understand human nature in “Death of a Salesman” but it could also be because he was not instilled with the right values of moving up the corporate and social ladder. August Hollingshead, a prominent sociologist wrote “A Study of Elmtown Youth” in 1949, which examines the influence that each social class has among its members, ranging from the upper class to the lower class of American society. Hollingshead describes how the values system is primarily formed during the teen years and how peers have the biggest influence on others in their own social class. This influence is what ultimately determines the values one will grow up to have as an adult. Peers who are more interested in remaining at the social level they were born into, particularly those at the lower levels, are those least likely to climb up the ladder. Hollingshead concludes his book with the tradition of the social class system of the western world and the American Dream. Very few at the bottom wrung will cross the track to a higher level but it takes a lot to leave the past influence behind. Naturally, those serious about getting ahead are those who take the time to invest in self development, versus just hanging out with other people at the same social level who can’t do much to help others in their own class to get ahead.
Corporations, and the higher social classes, consider people who have the right talents to climb up the ladder, not just contacts. People at the top who evaluate an employee’s performance do so on merit, not because of their being liked, as Loman would have put it. Likewise, employers and contacts who know the employee is serious about achievement, will be pulled up to reach that upper level.
“What you know”, then, definitely has more production than “who you know.” It is better to invest time in yourself than to invest time in those who can not help you get ahead or worse, hold you down. The old proverb “Birds of a feather flock together” rings true here. It is human nature to seek out others who share the same values and beliefs, and it is with these values and beliefs that can help one to get ahead in life, whether it is in the corporate world or social ladder.
Hollingshead, August. A Study of Elmtown Youth. 1949
Martello, Leo Louis. How to Prevent Psychic Blackmail. 1966.