“It’s Not What You Know; It’s WHO You Know” … Fact or Fiction?

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

So goes conventional wisdom. This statement summarizes the dominant idea underlying many of today’s widely acknowledged social and psychological problems.

To place an emphasis on who you know instead of what you know is irrational for two major reasons. First, it sets up an unjustified false alternative. You do not have to choose between knowledge and people. Why live either in an ivory tower, detached from the real world of human relationships, or compromise all intellectual integrity and dispense with independent thought altogether? Intelligent, independent individuals can choose to interact with other intelligent individuals.

You need not choose between ideas divorced from reality, on the one hand, and reality divorced from ideas, on the other.

Secondly, and even more fundamentally, this statement implies a dreadfully anti-human, anti-life idea: that there is no such thing as knowledge, so you might as well just get through life by being popular.

Just imagine if Albert Einstein had thought this way. Or Galileo. Or Aristotle. Or Jonas Salk. Or Henry Ford. Or Bill Gates. Or Thomas Jefferson. Imagine if any creative genius or innovator in human history had stopped his work and decided, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Forget about knowledge; it’s not possible anyway. Besides, being an innovator makes you unpopular. I had better check my opinion polls and see where I stand today. I cannot tolerate being disliked.”

Perhaps more frightening: what if some potential discoverer of a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s is at this very moment deciding to give up on excellence or the pursuit of knowledge, in exchange for social satisfaction and acceptance?

Whether a far-reaching scientific discovery or ordinary achievement in your own life, you will experience neither happiness nor self-esteem if popularity and social status represent your primary motivations.

If you are presently unhappy with the state of your life, then ask yourself these questions:

Do I try to be popular, or do I try to be excellent?

Do I set goals based upon what is socially appropriate, or on what I, personally, judge to be desirable and achievable?

Am I trying to please others, or am I trying to please myself?

In short: Am I operating on a philosophy of mediocrity or a philosophy of excellence?

A philosophy of excellence does not mean sacrifice of others to yourself. It obviously does not mean robbing, lying, cheating, or acting in what feels like your interest in the short-term without reference to any sort of externalized, abstract principles.

A philosophy of excellence does not imply sacrifice of yourself to others. This is your life. It is up to you—not your family, not the government, not “society”— to decide what you want to do with it. Yes, you do have an obligation to leave others alone to pursue their own goals and values free of violence and coercion. But your duty to others stops there. Nobody has a right to tell you what career to choose, how many children to have, whether or not to have children, what shows you may watch on television, what books you may read, whom you should marry or have sex with, what you should do with your money or how much of it you may keep for yourself. The facts of reality—of existence—represent your only absolute; not the will of others.

Freedom demands profound respect for yourself, but it also requires responsibility. Not the sort of responsibility that you normally hear about, such as blind obedience to Church, country, government, society, or the poor. Rather, it requires a responsibility to yourself—to live rationally and by a set of moral principles which are possible to practice: to take what you want out of life, provided you are willing to pay for it. You have a right to happiness—provided you are willing to take responsibility for pursuing and achieving it. You have a right to life—provided you are willing to find a way to make a living for yourself without forcing others to make that living for you. You have a right to total control over everything you do and say on your own private property—provided you grant that same right to others, and provided you do not impose force or fraud on anyone.

People suffering from various forms of depression, anxiety and other psychological maladies usually overlook the “provided” part of the equation. Consciously or subconsciously they often believe that, “I have a right to happiness—so where is it?” When happiness does not simply appear to them, they displace their anger onto other sources. They may displace their anger on “God” for not bestowing happiness. Or they may displace their anger on “society,” or the government, for not sufficiently legislating or mandating universal happiness into existence. Or they may displace their anger onto family members or children, for allegedly getting in the way or not sacrificing sufficiently for them.

Whatever or whomever the source, such displaced anger eventually festers and becomes psychological disorder. Very often, people with emotional problems believe that they can go to a psychological expert for purely passive “treatment” the same way a medically ill person goes for treatment and gets cured. In reality, quite the opposite is true. Sometimes, in fact, psychotherapy can become part of the problem rather than part of the solution because many therapists simply tell the client, over and over, “Yes, you do have a right to happiness, and you should be angry. Get in touch with your anger, and you’ll be better.”

Well, the client certainly “gets in touch” with the anger; but to “get in touch” is not necessarily to get better. No real cure exists for such mental maladies, except the one that nobody ever wants to hear (but usually, upon honest reflection, everyone knows is true): Take responsibility for your life. Demand freedom, and then live up to that freedom. Set goals. Choose them for yourself, and only for yourself. Yes, this means being selfish. Be selfish. Being selfish, in the rational sense, also means being totally responsible for yourself. Responsibility is scary.

There are many ways to make responsibility less scary. But there is no way to escape it. All attempts at escape lead to the volumes of psychological diseases, syndromes, and addictions so well documented today.

Adopt a philosophy of excellence. Discover knowledge and experience in whatever field is of interest to you: science, the arts, business, or raising children. Whatever you choose, be obsessive—yes, obsessive—in your pursuit of excellence. This is the only genuine path to self-esteem.

Above all, do not give a moment’s thought to what anyone else thinks. Everyone else can be wrong, and sometimes they are. And if you turn out to be wrong, so long as you used your honest and most conscientious judgment, then at least it was your own mistake. Your only obligation to others is to leave them alone, to not impose violence or deceit upon them. You were not born to serve others. People who live exclusively to serve others will never achieve the kind of happiness most of us claim to want.

Your obligation to yourself—which is far more challenging than taking care of others—is to use your senses, trust your logical reasoning abilities, acquire knowledge in all fields relevant to your life, and to never put random emotions before your reasoned judgment. Think before you act, but do not be afraid to act once you have spent enough time thinking.

Do not worry too much about loneliness. Indeed, to consistently follow the ethics and psychology of self-interest, rationality and responsibility represents the road less travelled. But people who travel this road manage to eventually find genuine happiness—and each other—if they persevere and stay true to their approach.

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