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The Hillbilly Elegy, Social Capital & Your Job Search

In his NY Times bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance speaks about the idea of social capital. This refers to aligning yourself with institutions and people that can quickly close knowledge gaps and leapfrog you the front of the line. He offers the example of how going to Yale Law School gave him access to thought leaders, career opportunities and experiences that otherwise wouldn’t have been afforded to a poor kid growing up in the country’s destitute steel towns. He describes Yale — and his time in the Marines — as being a crash course in practical life skills that he didn’t learn during his upbringing, e.g. How to finance his schooling, how to shop for the cheapest loan, to wear a suit to an interview, etc. There’s no central repository or program you can download to acquire these skills. You just have to surround yourself with the right people and watch and learn from them.

In addition to teaching you valuable life skills, keeping the company of the smart, successful, influential people can connect you to opportunities — especially career opportunities. Vance illustrates the advantages of social capital in terms of how people go about their job search: “Successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don’t flood the job market with resumes, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend to make sure their resume gets the look it deserves…” (Even working with a recruiter is a form of social capital. I’m leveraging my reputation and relationship with an employer to recommend you for a job.)

Unwittingly, my recent reading has orbited around this concept of social capital. It’s closely related to sponsorship, which I wrote about in my last blog post. No matter how self-sufficient you are, it’s important to attach yourself to sponsors, e.g. people that can open doors for you. Otherwise, as Vance says, “you’re going it alone… and not knowing things that many others do often has serious economic consequences.”

So, if you didn’t go to a fancy school or get an MBA, and generally lack powerful connections, how do you get there?

The simplest answer — and this is me talking, not Vance — is to start being social. Social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook have collapsed the conventional barriers and made everyone more accessible. If you weren’t part of the club, didn’t go to the same school, don’t have the right connections, you can quickly find them and make them. As long as you’re sincere and patient; trusting that relationships will blossom over time if you’re thoughtful and willing to reciprocate.

But any recluse can stalk people on social media. It’s important to get out and make friends in the real world. Sign up for activities that will take you out of your comfort zone and introduce you to new people. My good friend, Melissa is the hyperbole of this. In addition to her work and family, she’s an adjunct professor at Drew University, actively involved in non-profits, including Dress for Success, a member of two triathlons clubs, vocal in both town and school committees, etc. As a result, she knows everyone and always knows the shortcut for getting stuff done.

Tony Hsieh of Zappos would call this maximizing serendipity, “creating the opportunity for meaningful collisions… Meet lots of different people without trying to extract value from them. You don’t need to connect the dots right away. But if you think about each person as a new dot on your canvas, over time, you’ll see the full picture.”


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