Hillbilly Elegy provides life lessons for those seeking a career in transportation

Last week, while on a brief vacation, I had the privilege of reading the book, Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. The book tells the story of how the author, a self-described hillbilly, rises from a life of poverty and instability to graduate from Yale law school and join the ranks of the “elite.” It is a remarkably honest story in which Mr. Vance shares some very intimate, personal observations on the very significant challenges he had to overcome to achieve success in both his personal life and career.

Hillbilly Elegy has received a lot of attention from the media since the life it depicts is thought to be representative of many blue-collar Trump supporters. Mr. Vance was recently interviewed on several leading Sunday morning news shows.

I am not qualified to assess whether the Kentucky hillbillies that Mr. Vance depicts in his book are typical Trump supporters. What I can say is that this is an extremely well written book that is well worth reading for its observations about life. I would encourage anyone seeking to advance their careers in the transportation industry to read and reflect on the experiences of Mr. Vance. The following are a few thoughts.

J.D. Vance describes the hillbilly culture in detail. He explains how the decline in manufacturing in Ohio, where Mr. Vance lived for much of his early life, had a major impact on the community. A quirky culture characterized by a low work ethic, a low priority on education, particularly for males, and poverty, led to problems with alcohol, drug addiction and human relationships. Mr. Vance had a very challenging family life.

His mother, who had major substance abuse issues, married five times. He shuttled back and forth between living with his grandmother, mother, father and sister throughout his early life. An unstable and traumatic home life made it very difficult for Mr. Vance to build stable long-lasting relationships with both the men and women who were part of his life. This instability manifested itself in his attendance and performance at school and in such basic things such as eating and sleeping.

However, Mr. Vance was able to rise above this myriad of challenges. He did establish strong relationships with his sister and grandmother. While poor, his grandmother provided him with a refuge from the volatile life he had with his mother. After receiving an undergraduate degree from The Ohio State University, he realized that he was not mature enough to move on to the next stage of his life. He made, for him, the very wise decision to serve in the Marines for four years. This gave him structure and discipline that he so badly needed; it also had a major impact on his physical and emotional health.

He found some great mentors, his grandmother as a youngster, who gave him some very wise advice and a Professor and girlfriend (later his wife) at university who helped him navigate the customs of high end law firms and upper class society. He was smart enough to listen, observe and learn from them.

Key takeaways

Mr. Vance had the good fortune to have some people in his life who truly loved him and tried to help him. While immersed in a culture of poverty and drugs, he was able to find somewhat of a safe but poor haven.

As an undergraduate, he worked at some part time jobs to help pay for his schooling. Before rushing into the work force or to higher education, he immersed himself in a very structured environment that he so badly needed. He grew to understand that education is a stepping stone to a better life. He studied hard to achieve grades that would allow him to attend Yale, one of America’s top law schools. He sought out and took advice from several people whom he trusted who guided him at certain critical stages in his life. He was able to extricate himself from his hillbilly world and become a lawyer with a very positive personal life and career.

Hillbilly Elegy takes the reader on a very personal but enlightening journey. This is an inspiring book that I highly recommend.

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Dan Goodwill, President, Dan Goodwill & Associates Inc. has over 30 years of experience in the logistics and transportation industries in both Canada and the United States. Dan has held executive level positions in the industry including President of Yellow Transportation’s Canada division, President of Clarke Logistics (Canada’s largest Intermodal Marketing Company), General Manager of the Railfast division of TNT and Vice President, Sales & Marketing, TNT Overland Express.

Goodwill is currently a consultant to manufacturers and distributors, helping them improve their transportation processes and save millions of dollars in freight spend. Mr. Goodwill also provides consulting services to transportation and logistics organizations to help them improve their profitability.

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