Saturday 8 August 2009

It's not who you know...

There is a certain issue I have with people who spout the old adage about success being related to “who you know.” Nothing has prompted me to blog about it, other than the usual grumbling tums and occasional discussion – but I feel it’s necessary to highlight a few home truths about this belief that the entire arts industry functions on nepotism and an extensive ‘old boy’ network. Sure, there is a degree of that – as with any industry where you have established figures that have dedicated lifetimes to their work – inevitably they do look inwards to people they know, rather than trying to pull up the young sprogs. The reasoning behind this may not always be fair, but it’s no different from working in HR, or architecture, or town planning, or being a chef, or – well, you get the point. The truth is, the world is not like the Apprentice – you don’t wander into an office as an unknown and suddenly find yourself a career. Sometimes it’s blind luck, sometimes it’s hard work and sometimes a friend gives you a boost. Creative practitioners have a tendency to feel the world owes them a living, and consequently that every events organiser, publisher, agent or drug dealer should bow down in awe of their talent. If they don’t receive this immediate praise they tend to reach immediately for our old friend, “oh, of course – it’s who you know.” Consequently they tend to go one of two ways: complete unhinged resentment of “the system”, or alternatively debasing themselves in order to get ahead. The latter of the two is sometimes harder to stomach than the former, though it is more consistently entertaining for the casual observer. I’ve seen some wonderful displays of forlock tuggery – but it’s unfair to relate them, as I’m sure I’ve done a fair bit of it in my time too. First stone and all that eh?

Yes, it’s true that we all need to network and make strong contacts. I’m not totally throwing out that idea, and please don’t feel that my conscience is clear when I talk about people dismissing others out of hand on the basis that they know the ‘right people’. I’ve done it too – but I hope I’ve done it with a sense that some of their success is as much down to talent and enthusasim for their work. Knowing some-one with connections is only half the story – in truth, if you are good at what you do then people will want to help you – and if they don’t? Well it’s no reflection on you or them. Perhaps they are busy, or preoccupied with their careers, perhaps they don’t like what you do. If that really is the case then don’t force the issue, move on – this unhealthy notion that there is only one gatekeeper who holds all the keys is not going to get you anywhere. It’s a sad thing that people take such a mentality where they must either force themselves into a situation or onto a person in order to succeed. The world of performance poetry I come from has always been pretty kind to me, but I’ve never really felt that I’ve needed to turn a trick to proceed further. The friends I have made have been friends first and foremost, and while I may benefit from the occasional advice and support, I like to believe that it’s done as a kindness rather than a sense of duty.

So to those who rage about the old boys – well, one day those old boys might do you a favour – with no askance of compromise or sexual favours. What then? Will you flatly refuse? Course not. It’s flattering when people want to help, why would you slap them down? Yes, the whole industry is biased, flawed and messy – but when a hand reaches down and tickles your tum, have the good grace to roll over and enjoy the compliment. If it doesn’t? Well there will be other hands and other times, enjoy what you do – don’t look for favours to do all the work for you.
Ah, I’ve not made quite the coherent, centred argument that I’d hoped for. Perhaps we can discuss it some more?

1 comment:

  1. I think your argument is coherent, but that the number of people that are so bitter that 'they tend to go one of two ways: complete unhinged resentment of “the system”, or alternatively debasing themselves in order to get ahead' is relatvely small. In my experience most people tend to be somewhere in the middle: they will sometime grumble and sometimes lick arse, but most of the time they just get on with it.
    Maybe I've been lucky in the friends/contacts I have made, or maybe it's discernment - I tend to form attachments with like-minded people and insinctively steer clear of bitter bullshit.
    On a personal level, I have played the system before, and will continue to do so - I have no problem with people getting a helping hand - my beef is with those in a position of power who abuse that power to advance their 'friends' to the detriment of others.
    Of course we will always favour our friends over others, it's part of what being a friend is, but it is, or should be, a two-way process with a view to the wider picture.
    Finally, I whole-heartedly agree that the friends I have made are first and foremost friends, not simply contacts: when we help each other it's because we want to, not because we think we must or in expectation of return. At least I hope so :o)