Connections Don’t Build Things
This is a rebuttal to the oft-repeated notion that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
I’m going to make the somewhat scandalous point that no, it is in fact what you know. Connections are great. But they’re worthless without certain prerequisites in the skill department.
I’m going to journey through some cliches to prove my case. Sure, it can be argued that if Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t met Sean Parker or managed to get initial seed funding from Peter Thiel Facebook may never have become the behemoth it is today, but the fact of the matter is if Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t been able to build Facebook, it definitely wouldn’t be what it is today.
There are thousands of people who have met Sean Parker and Peter Thiel and none of them managed to build Facebook.
Taking another pithy statement that opportunity is the intersection of serendipity and preparation, we can make this point a specific case of that assertion. Opportunity is the intersection of who we know (serendipity) and what we know (preparation).
The reason I’m making this point is that recently I’ve noticed a bit of a trend where the value of connections seem to be greatly overvalued at the expense of the development of skill. Given the choice between developing their skillset or attending yet another meetup, I think a few too many entrepreneurs tend to opt for the latter.
We could be the most well-connected person in the world, but we’ll never build the next Facebook if we just can’t execute. We could know every famous publisher, agent, editor and author, but if we just can’t write, we’ll probably never be published. And even if we are, we won’t go far.
Moreover, I find that the right connections tend to come about naturally when we’re doing something that highly aligns with who we are and what we want to accomplish. I met my cofounder not at an organized entrepreneurial meetup, but in Antarctica on an expedition organized by one of our mutual friends. We instantly hit it off and meshed ridiculously well. In retrospect, this made perfect sense - we were both the kind of person that says yes to a trip to Antarctica on a whim. Where else would we meet but in Antarctica?
Another example would be building an open source piece of software. Someone pushes an early prototype to a repo and makes a little note about it. Other people notice it, find it interesting and valuable, and decide to contribute. Pretty soon there’s a nice little community and the key contributors get to know each other on an intimate level. A few of them realize they’re perfectly matched to start a company, get together, and build a product that gets massive traction and makes them all rich. Not an unlikely scenario.
Beyond that, I also find it to broadly be the case that the value of initial connections are vastly overstated in many instances. For example, some of my most valuable networks have been the Thiel Fellowship and Harvard. Prior to my affiliation with both, I had no connection at all with either. Thankfully, none was needed - both were invitation-by-open-application and accepted me into their world purely on the basis of my merits and presentation - not who I knew. They’re connections now, but they weren’t at one point. And ultimately, they’re to some extent the result of my fundamental skillsets - had I not been able to impress them with what I know, they wouldn’t now be who I know.
Of course, it’s also true that in many of these instances, it’s possible to slip through a backdoor through who we know. But is that really a good long term strategy? If we really don’t have the skills to succeed, at some point our connections will run out. Not so the other way around. And hence, if given the choice between spending time developing connections or developing skills, I’d choose skills.
So ultimately, the case I’d like to make is that perhaps the best course of action is to not look for the people that can make our dreams come true, but to just start working on those dreams. There’s a good chance that the right people that can help us realize our dreams will gravitate to and chance upon us naturally as a result of seeing what we’ve started.