Networks matter. The adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is indeed correct. A knowledgeable mind connected to the right network of people more probably yields favorable outcomes. For example, imagine if former Federal Reserve chair candidate Larry Summers did not attend MIT, Harvard, or become acquainted with the Clintons. He would be just as smart but much less connected and much less employable.
Networks are fluid. One’s starting point is a predictor of probable outcomes. It is not a guarantee of a certain end. There are three key events for young professionals: 1) high school GPA, 2) choosing your major, and 3) selecting mentors.
Your high school GPA indicates how well you memorized answers for state tests. (Yes, I said it.) Your SAT score is a barometer for your ability to adapt to systems. Neither is an impeccable measure of one’s intelligence. A weak GPA limits your options whereas a strong GPA gives you a fighting chance of getting into a selective school. This gives you access to networks of smart professors and students.
Today college is the new high school diploma. More young adults are graduating from college, making bachelors degrees less scarce. That means little until you are a recipient of such a degree. My advice: choose a major that provides you with multiple, lucrative professional opportunities. Economics majors are neither solely interested in money, nor too dim to focus on more research-oriented disciplines. However few people understand economics, much less excel in its related careers. Consequently, the free market places a higher value on holders of this degree compared to others who spent equal time in different disciplines.
Across majors two factors are constant. First, high achievers tend to know one another. Second, top tier schools contain strong social structures that allow the weak and strong students to have a higher probability of success. This is commonly done through alumni networks, student-led groups, and a great reputation among peer institutions.
Selecting good mentors corrects academic missteps. If you managed a rubbish GPA in the face of unprecedented amounts of free time to student and swizzle booze, the last tip, mentorship is your saving grace.
Kleiner Perkins sFund manager Bing Gordon describes several characteristics of a mentor in his October 2009 talk with then-Zynga CEO Mark Pincus. A mentor is:
- one generation ahead of you
- not a parent or bosses boss
- in the the same field
- one who receives no rewards for helping you other than joy
Networks matter. Think about how yours can work harder for you.