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"It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know"

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Anthony Pica
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"It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know"

"It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know"

It's 400 years in the future. Humans of the starship Orville make contact with an unknown species. At the welcome dinner, the leader of the foreign planet asks, "Can you tell us more about your economic structure? I'm fascinated that there's no form of currency exchange."

"Our currency is reputation," replies the Orville's second-in-command officer. "An individual's wealth is determined by their personal achievements, not their monetary value. We decided a long time ago that forcing people to toil relentlessly in the pursuit of material wealth was an unnatural state for our species to exist in."

"So it really is a utopia? No societal burdens?" asks the planet's host.

The Orville's captain jumps in, "I mean, we still have in-laws and things like that..."

You've heard it before, right? That common joke about in-laws being bothersome and the bane of existence.

But, me, personally? I haven’t experienced that.

Realizing the importance of connection

I’ve been blessed with the type of in-laws you'd look forward to hanging out with.

When I was dating my future wife, I would visit her parents’ house weekly. I had just finished college, but she was still in her final semester, so she had to wake up early to travel to class. Upstairs she would go to sleep, but I stayed and talked with her mom, sometimes until 1 or 2 am.

I especially remember one of those late nights. Rachel, the mother of my future wife, was in her usual chair, dog on her lap, blanket around her even though it was summer. I was on the couch beside her, drinking the decaf tea she served me. At first the pleather of the couch chilled my skin, but it quickly warmed up as did our conversation. She shared with me a cliché that I heard for the first time: "it's not what you know, it's who you know."

It was then, many moons ago, that I was telling my future mother-in-law I wasn't good at networking at work conferences. It just didn't come naturally to me. I tend to favor deep conversations with a few familiar faces more so than shallow small-talks with random folks wearing color-coded name tags. I chalked it up to being an introvert, but she didn't let it slide. She encouraged me to meet people and exchange contact information. “It's important to make connections in the workforce", she insisted. I replied with silence, processing her welcomed advice, taking it to heart. Throughout my life I had been focused on building skills (the “what”) and she was suggesting I build relationships (the “who”).

That conversation happened in 2012, and her words stuck with me even though I didn’t fully realize their importance at first. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit, eight years later, that I consciously acted on her advice by joining online communities and connecting with more people, some in my field of marketing and technology, others with entirely different backgrounds and perspectives. It was the scarcity of human interaction caused by covid lockdowns that reminded me of Rachel’s advice. Covid was the first pivotal moment that made me realize the importance of her words.

The second pivotal moment that deepened my appreciation of Rachel’s advice and made me truly understand the importance of connecting with people was when Rachel suddenly left the physical realm on Aug 8, 2022.

The impact of an unexpected loss

When Rachel left us, it felt like I was sinking in quicksand. You know something bad is happening, but you don't quite feel the gravity and total despair at first. "Is this really happening?", I thought. "What are the chances of me, an average guy, getting caught in quicksand?"

My wife said to me, in a matter-of-fact way I’ll never forget, "she's gone." I froze, struggling to swallow the reality. I snapped out of it to tell our 2 yr old son dinner would be ready soon, as if nothing had happened, as if everything was okay. But it wasn’t: inside me it slowly became real that the world was caving in. Maybe because the loss was so sudden, so unexpected. Maybe because I loved my mother-in-law so very much. Or maybe it was the second-hand grief from the pain I saw in my wife's eyes, knowing that the one person on this earth who loved her unconditionally was "gone". A mother's love is unmatched.

I don't know what it's like to lose a parent. But I know what it feels like to see someone you love feel the pain of losing someone they love so dearly.

They say time heals all wounds, but there aren't enough seconds in eternity to dull the hurt I feel for my wife and her family.

I know I can’t replace my wife's mom, but I'll do what I can to add a shimmer of happiness—a beacon of light—in what I imagine for her has been a claustrophobic abyss. And build our marriage, our connection, and treasure what we have.

Treasuring authentic human connections

Sometimes there are pivotal moments in life, like the loss of a loved one, that resurface perspectives that had once gone neglected. For me, I’m reminded of another cliche: “you don’t know who you’ve got until they’re gone.” There’s an abundance of superfluousness, every day, that pulls us away from what we treasure the most.

In a world of blinking electronics, neverending web pages, more TikToks than we could binge in a lifetime, and artificial intelligence that’s becoming increasingly prevalent, it is our human experiences that make us feel alive and loved and fulfilled. Authentic human connection is to be treasured.

Upon my own passing, I don't think I'll regret not having more certifications or not reading more business books. I’ll regret the missed opportunities to laugh with my son and hug my wife, and have intimate conversations with my family, my friends (and even other humans I haven’t yet networked with). Let’s fill up the finite amount of time we have left in this physical realm with all the love we can. I want to forge deeper connections with people in the way that Rachel created a connection with me.

To get to really know people.

To tell them we love them before it's no longer possible.

To be true to ourselves and share with others who we really are.

Because what does it matter 'who you know' if they don't know your authentic self?

A life of unforgettable love

Rachel had a special talent for making people smile and laugh. She was the type of person that could hold a conversation for hours. Not because she talked a lot, but because she was so approachable and warm she would make you open up and pour your thoughts and emotions on the table in her kitchen while drinking coffee. With Rachel, you’d feel at home.

"Rachel would strike up a conversation anywhere with perfect strangers and make them feel loved and cared about," described her husband Jim. It's true, she connected with so many people—made them feel loved. Cashiers at the local BJ’s Wholesale Club. Neighbors. Her special needs students who hugged her tightly as adults years after graduation. Her family, too, of course: husband, sister, three daughters, five grandchildren. She made us all feel at home. (Even the telemarketers, to the chagrin of her husband).

It seemed like she knew everyone, or that everyone knew her. I had never seen so many people attend a memorial service. The parking lot was full. Even the funeral director knew Rachel. Perhaps a measure of one's life is the abundance of love at their funeral.

Maybe Rachel was ahead of her time. Maybe she was meant to live 400 years in the future when one's currency is their reputation. Because Rachel had a reputation of unforgettable love.

Building connection with big (or small) acts of love

When Rachel was just 19, my future father-in-law fell ill with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a disorder that paralyzes the body without a known cause. As a teenager, she took care of him in the hospital while he lay motionless for weeks. Could you imagine being 19 and staying by someone's side in the hospital every day, even Christmas eve? I’d like to think I would do the same at that age, but I don’t know if I could. But she did—a selfless act of compassion. With her at his side, he got better, and they remained connected, married for forty-nine beautiful years.

It’s not just grand gestures that build connection, but the small ones too. Calling old friends to say happy birthday (and singing into the voicemail when they don’t answer). Sending greeting cards on holidays. Offering tea to guests. Striking up conversations with strangers at BJ’s. Tiny moments of kindness and care coalesce to build connections with people.

It’s how she connected with me, before I married her daughter, and then maintained and deepened that connection over the years. First, her warmth was inviting, drawing me in to chat with her during those late night conversations on the couch. Then I got to know her, and she got to know me. Our rapport grew, and she was one of the few people who understood me, who knew me. She was the first to laugh at my bad jokes. Split-second eye contact was all it took for us to smile at each other. She fed me well, like a stereotypical Italian mother. "There's the doctor scrubbing in again," she would say, as I'd wash my hands thoroughly (like you’re supposed to). She'd tease me about the "germaphobia'' I supposedly have, but would then do everything in her power to make me feel comfortable, whether it was carrying hand sanitizer or assuring me the food area was clean. When others were annoyed at wearing a mask during the pandemic, she'd make them wear it anyway when they were around her infant grandchild, knowing it's what I wanted. She supported me. It meant a lot. It means a lot.

Rachel continues to be a role model to me–a beautiful human who managed to connect with so many people and bring joy to their lives. I’m lucky and grateful to know her. And I intend to pass her legacy of love and connection to my children, including her one grandchild she didn’t get a chance to meet in this physical realm.

Connections can be everlasting

Four days after Rachel passed, the night before her memorial service, I heard my wife sobbing in our bathroom. As I went to console her like I had done the few days prior, her tears turned to fleeting sparkles of joy. Despair, for a brief moment, turned to hope. And then she handed it to me: a positive pregnancy test. She was carrying her mother's next grandchild. I had never seen someone so happy and so sad at the same time.

To know someone is to love them, as the saying goes. This is why my wife and I will continue to talk about Rachel with our children. To show pictures, share stories. So that they, too, can know her like we do and be connected to her forever.

Even when we’re apart, even as time passes, the love and human connections we establish throughout our lifetime can be everlasting–if we so choose.

Thank you, Rachel, for being a one-of-a-kind mother-in-law. Thank you for the advice, love, and joy you brought to my life and the lives of so many others.

My next newsletter, inspired by Foster:

Thanks for being here with me. To write about my mother-in-law like this was not natural to me, just like it wasn't natural for me to network with people. I suppose it's fitting—I suppose Rachel would be proud of me for opening up like this, and virtually connecting with others who might have similar experiences. When I share my writing online, it's typically business articles on topics like strategy, collaboration, mental fitness–and blah, blah, blah. (None of that seems to matter as much right now.) I just finished Foster's modern online writing  program with dozens of other writers who are courageously exploring their true authentic selves. As part of the program, I wrote this essay to explore my feelings and let my wife know how much her mom means to me. I want to thank my friends at Foster, including Dan, Caryn, the program speakers, and the new writer friends I connected with. Thanks to Russell Smith, Jude Klinger, Lisa Dawson, Katerina Bohle Carbonell, and Daniel Sisson for the feedback on this memoir. for the feedback on this memoir.

Because of Foster Season 2, I’ve launched another newsletter on Substack at https://anthonypica.substack.com where I’ll post memoirs and personal essays like this one.

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