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Guanxi: what Harvard didn’t teach us

March 10, 2011

I loved college the way just about everyone loves college. College, in US and even in China, has fast become an almost obligatory rite of passage. Everyone acknowledges that much of what you learn in the classroom–especially at a liberal arts college like Harvard with no practical majors–will be totally useless for the rest of your life. But material aside, you take away skills like critical reading and analytical writing, which you can use in any career.

True. But college missed one giant truth: it’s much less about your skills and much more about your network. We like to pretend it’s about skill and talent. And granted, your skill, experience, and talent do matter, and will affect your career. But ultimately, it’s of minor importance compared to who you know and how you leverage those relationships.

In China, everyone–and I mean everyone–fully understands this concept. It’s called guanxi (关系), and it vagueley translates to “relationship.” It actually means much more than relationship. It means the power and utlity you gain through your relationships. It also means to care–implying a deep kind of relationship, not the aquintences we label part of our network in the states. And in business in China, your guanxi matters a whole lot more than, well, just about anything else.

Education is so important in China, though! you might be thinking. Well, yeah – inasmuch as where you went to school refelcts your family’s guanxi (and money and power) before you were admitted, and reflects your growing guanxi from people you met in school. Education is more important as a status marker, a symbol of your network, than anything else.

In the US, although we pretend it’s so much more fair–that we’re a magical meritocracy of social mobility–it’s really the same. Half of why Harvard is so damn prestigious is because it’s so damn prestigious. The U.S. World Report that ranks the schools makes no secret of this. Reputation is intoxicating. It draws in connected people, and once you’re in that web of connectivity and other people know it, you’re set.

But in the US, so many forces try to keep the myth of merit alive, especially colleges. They spew this stupid line at you, “You can do anyting you want!” as if your intellectual achievements have opened all the doors. Bollocks! It’s not our minds; it’s our friends that open all those doors. Yet the myth is perpetuated.

No one at Harvard ever taught me that relationships above all else are critically important for my future–at least, no professor, no mentor. No one wants to admit it out loud. It’s all around us, but we deny it. It’s taboo to talk about the power of relationships. Something seems so dirty about it.

I resisted the notion of guanxi all my life (before I even knew the term guanxi). I wanted so much to believe that hard work could get anyone anywhere, that, independent of our relationships and associations with others, we could through merit rise above it all to the top. Now, that idea just seems plain silly.

Finally, I, like the Chinese, am willing to embrace this reality, even while part of me still hates how unfair it is. It just is. Relationships are the driving force of everything in our lives. Why do we keep denying it? Let’s embrace guanxi like the Chinese do. We’ll start feeling a lot more honest once we do.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2011 1:29 am

    For a Harvard graduate, you should understand the concept of spell-checking and proofreading. The commentary is interesting but it’s hard to take someone seriously if their copy is rampant with errors.

    • April 7, 2011 6:47 am

      I have the worst habit of rushing to post my thoughts right away, without proofreading. Until now, only my father heckled me about it. I didn’t know anyone else had noticed. Your comment has convinced me to be more careful. I don’t want to give Harvard a bad name, after all. (I also went back through this entry to clean it up. This entry in particular is very stream-of-consciousness ramble-y, which I believe contributed to its lack of coherence.)



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