#WhatImReadingNow : Hillbilly Elegy

It was at this meal, on the first of five grueling days of interviews, that I began to understand that I was seeing the inner workings of a system that lay hidden to most of my kind. Our career office had emphasized the importance of sounding natural and being someone the interviewers wouldn’t mind sitting with on an airplance. … Our interviews weren’t so much about grades or résumés, we were told; thanks to a Yale Law pedigree, one foot was already in the door. The interviews were about passing a social test—a test of belonging, of holding your own in a corporate boardroom, of making connections with potential future clients.

The most difficult test was the one I wasn’t even required to take: getting an audience in the first place. … 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 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.

I learned this the hard way … [The last interviewer asked a question for which I was laughably unprepared. My answer wasn’t the smartest thing I could have said.] The interviewer looked at me like I had three eyes, and the conversation never recovered.

I was certain I was toast. I had flubbed the interview in the worst way. But behind the scenes, one of my recommenders was already working the phones. She told the hiring partner that I was a smart, good kid and would make an excellent lawyer. “She raved about you,” I later heard. So when the recruiters called to schedule the next round of interviews, I made the cut. I eventually got the job, despite failing miserably at what I perceived was the most important part of the recruiting process. The old adage says that it’s better to be lucky than good. Apparently having the right network is better than both.

—J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (HarperCollins, 2016)

Some thoughts about this book:

• Vance is young and brave and admirable in every way. He’s just six months younger than my own son, so in some ways I feel like I know him. My son was raised by a single mother too. (Though I hasten to add I have never been addicted to painkillers or heroin.) Vance spreads around a lot of thanks for his good fortune (his grandparents, his sister, four years in the marines, one of his college professors, his wife), but I give him a lot of credit for his own success.

• It’s a very provocative book, no matter how you’d solve the socioeconomic problems that exist in Appalachia and surrounding regions, which is where Vance’s story takes place. And he certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the failings of his family or the people group from which his family emanates, raising questions about personal responsibility and hillbilly culture as well as economic insecurity. These are tough times, and what Vance perfectly describes is despair.

• Some of the copyediting decisions (or were they simply mistakes?) bothered me, including goodbye (which should be good-bye).

• I could have chosen the sad section about the poverty of Appalachian hillbillies, or the one about the white working class, how hard they work. There were several passages I thought about using. But I chose this one about social capital because I’ve seen it in action myself. It’s an intriguing concept. This book is full of interesting ideas and things to think about. Definitely recommended.

Tweet: J. D. Vance is young and brave and admirable in every way. Read the book.
Tweet: Hillbilly Elegy: Vance doesn’t sugarcoat the failings of his family or people group.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. Great choice. Someday, I’m going to read this book. When my brain is no longer quite as mushy as it is these days. Fatigue, grief, relief — all mixed up together.

  2. Art Coulson says:

    Haven’t read the book yet, but the copyediting decision to use “goodbye” instead of “good-bye” might have originated in the Associated Press Stylebook, beloved by journalists. I say this as a former newspaper writer, editor and copyeditor. The AP Stylebook is practically inscribed on my brain…

    • jamiechavez says:

      Interesting! I understand inscribed on the brain: for me it’s CMOS. Which is used by most publishers, I thought but perhaps they have a house style point for that word. Who knows!