A Story For Systems Thinkers and People Who Like to Laugh

The Hillbilly Elegy  is a book I’d shuffled to the bottom of my pile a few times.  The title did little to inspire enthusiasm to read it.  But it seemed to be the one book that always managed to  float to the top, stick out the side or fall off the shelf.

So I read it.  And I’m glad I did.  It’s brimming with examples of how systems impact the lives of people and the choices they make.  

To be clear this is not a book about systems thinking.  It’s compelling ‘beating the odds‘ story about a family trying to escape the poverty-stricken hills of Appalachian Kentucky and ends with the author’s graduation from Yale Law. 

Looking a bit deeper, the story reveals how the ‘odds’ are calculated and the ways in which they systematically work against people like J.D. Vance and his family.

He grew up in a place filled with stories of addiction, abuse, mental illness, imprisonment, trauma, extreme poverty, broken families and death.  Most astonishing are the many ways systems reinforce these stories rather than ameliorate them.

Formative experiences like Vance’s very rarely lead to Yale Law or even a community college diploma.  On the day he was born, the odds favored addiction, mental illness, jail or dying young.

Despite all contrary forces pushing against him, he beat the odds.  How does that happen? How can we make it happen more often?

Vance explicitly points to influences intervening at crucial moments.  His grandmother (Mamaw) providing a safe place from his addict mother.  Teachers, professors, neighbors and other community members who saw his potential and wanted to do what they could.  

I suspect if we delved deeper into his story and explored it from various perspectives, we would uncover less obvious insights.  For example, when Vance graduated high school, he began the process of applying for college but realized he wasn’t ready and joined the Marines instead.   Where does he get the self-awareness at 18 years old to know he wasn’t ready for college and needed the lessons the Marines could teach him?

If you choose to read the book, I encourage you to keep a mental tally of the two things; the number of systems his story encounters and the number of times you find yourself chuckling at the way Mamaw dispenses her wisdom.