Hillbilly ElegyLessons from a Hillbilly…

We seem to think that there’s one way and one way only to get a job, right? Go online, check the ads, send in the requested documents, await a response.


The successful people that I have met in my work rarely do this, if ever. They rarely stay in a job longer than they want to. It has to be a two way street: they have to be able to give their all and thus get what they need in return. What do they need? Successful people are content when their job offers challenge, responsibility, a sense of achievement, interesting work and, personal and professional growth. They care more about their career and less about their pay packet. They care more about who they are working for and less about the name of the company. They care more about the nature of the work and less about fringe benefits.

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance outlines a colourful – think dark, sinister colours – upbringing in the care of his Mom and some male interlopers before  eventually being saved by his slightly less dangerous (primarily because they have grown old to fight, drink, shoot the place up) hillbilly grandparents. It is a rollercoaster ride of a childhood and just about as unsafe an environment as a human being could survive before falling into the abyss.

As a result of this uncertainty and lack of safety, Vance’s education and career takes second place to survival. The fact that there aren’t really any role models in his home town to show him another way of life further compounds his situation. Nevertheless, he is smart and his grandmother emphasises the importance of education to him just enough to ensure that he puts in a final effort to be able to apply to Ohio State.

Vance takes a circuitous route to Ohio State, signing up for four years with the U.S. Marines to help with college expenses further down the road, and to allow himself to grow up a bit before entering the non-hillbilly world of college, and this strategy pays off. He initially struggles in the Marines before going on to have a very successful communications role and then sails through his undergraduate degree in double quick time.

Vance then lands a place in Yale’s post-graduate Law program. He’s made it! He’ll never be poor again. And, he has the added bonus of not having to worry about a multiple zeros debt incurred during his Yale years due to significant financial support from the University.

But, there is one last hurdle with which to contend: getting the job. Not a job but the job. And, before he gets the job, he has to figure out what the job is: what is the smartest career move for him; not for anyone else, just him.

It was pretty clear that there was some mysterious force at work, and I had just tapped into it for the first time. I had always thought that when you need a job, you look online for job postings. And then you submit a dozen résumés. And then you hope that someone calls you back. If you’re lucky, maybe a friend puts your résumé at the top of the pile. If you’re qualified for a very high-demand profession, like accounting, maybe the job search comes a bit easier. But the rules are basically the same.

The problem is, virtually everyone who plays by those rules fails. That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend to make sure their name gets the look it deserves. They have their uncles call old college buddies. They have their school’s career service office set up interviews months in advance on their behalf. They have their parents tell them how to dress, what to say, and whom to schmooze.

That doesn’t mean the strength of your résumé or interview performance is irrelevant. Those things certainly matter. But there is enormous value in what economists call social capital. It’s a professor’s term, but the concept is pretty simple: The networks of people and institutions around us have real economic value. They connect us to the right people, ensure that we have opportunities, and impart valuable information. Without them, we’re going it alone.

He continues later:

It’s hard to put a dollar value on that advice. It’s the kind of thing that continues to pay dividends. But make no mistake: The advice had tangible economic value. Social capital isn’t manifest only in someone connecting you to a friend or passing a résumé on to an old boss. It is also, or perhaps primarily, a measure of how much we learn through our friends, colleagues, and mentors. I didn’t know how to prioritize my options, and I didn’t know that there were other, better paths for me. I learned those things through my network–specifically, a very generous professor.

We often talk about the lucky ones; usually though, they have made their own luck through grit and perseverance, and through asking for help and guidance.