I’ve heard the complaint that success is predicated on “Who you know.” And I admit I’ve been one of those people, especially in my younger days when I was in pursuit of that elusive “record deal” that would purportedly propel me to stardom.
Certainly, there are “good old boy” networks and inner circles and conspiratorial groups that hold the power in many places. There is a politic to the game, whether it be the corporate ladder or the public sector or even the arts, and not everyone always gets to play. So we shake our heads in resignation and utter the cliche, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
But over the years, I’ve begun to see this in a different way. The reality is that art and industry and ministry and even life revolve around relationships. And relationships—at least the healthy ones—are built on acceptance and trust and mutuality. One naturally wants to advocate for people one knows and cares for and believes in. So much of what I do as an advocate for the arts is simply champion artists. So perhaps it is not a dichotomy but a duality—it’s not just what you know, but also who you know.
My good friend, Bob Kilpatrick, explained it to me this way once. He reasoned, Who you know is how heaven works.
But there’s a catch. I’ve had people approach me wanting to be my friend, but it’s apparent that they have an agenda for me. They want something from me, or they want to know someone I know, or they think that knowing me will help advance them somehow (by the way, I’m just not that important!). And I readily admit I have a tendency to keep people like this at arm’s length. Because they don’t want a friend, they want a stepping stone. As I said, relationships are built on trust and mutuality and acceptance. In my experience, the people worth knowing, are people worth knowing for real—as friends and colleagues and fellow artists of faith.
I’ve been blessed. There are many people in the world—talented and generous and ethical and influential—and I have the very special privilege of being able to call a limited few of them my friends.
So for those artists of faith who are trying to figure out how to move forward in their careers, or meet that publisher or record executive or art gallery director, or increase their reach and promotion, I offer this word: If it truly is about what you know and who you know, ultimately it boils down to who you are.
In other words, be a person worth knowing. Be unique. Be interesting. Be kind. Have substance. Have integrity and credibility and self-awareness. Because ultimately what you have to offer the world is not just what you do, but yourself.
- Don’t treat people as a means to an end. When you meet a person of influence, resist the urge to think of them as someone who can further your career. Simply think of them as someone. Period.
- Connect with your “connections,” simply because they are your friends. So much of what has turned into anything substantive in my arts life started as a result of a simple coffee with someone to get to know one another. Certainly, I do a lot of connecting in order to accomplish a goal, but generally speaking, I accomplish goals through the people I already know, people who I have already established relationships with.
- Don’t bug people. This seems like such a simple thing, but you would be amazed at how often this happens.
- Be generous with your connections. Recently, I asked a colleague if he would partner his non-profit with one that I am affiliated with to do a joint event. I connected a musician with a producer, and a visual artist with a gallery. And I’m always promoting other people’s arts events and blogs and podcasts on social media. Be a person who is generous with one’s connections, and watch the synergy and art that can spring from associations like that.
- Say “yes” more. When circumstances allow, I try to say “yes” to my friends—whether they’re asking for feedback on a song, or request for a book endorsement, or help with a website. I know that there have been many people who have said “yes” to me over the years, and it’s a good way to pay it forward.