I spent the last few days in West Virginia, visiting with friends, eating lots of good food, and hiking along the New River Gorge.
It’s always a bittersweet visit.
I love the forests and mountains. I love the people and the rain. West Virginia is a beautiful state.
The towns are obvious rivets in the Rust Belt, but even the industrial decay of old machinery and factories holds a hipsterish appeal – wilted roses of rust and slowly growing coats of moss & lichen.
Those elements are historically distant enough to be somewhat romantic. The more recent scars, less so.
We drove to an area outside of the capital where we used to live and passed by a housing addition that broke ground roughly five years ago. Six of a potential 100+ houses had been completed. Two of those half-million-dollar homes were abandoned, covered in ivy and encroaching weeds.
Very few of the office buildings we passed were without for-lease or for-sale signs in their windows. Some had been vacant since we moved away.
There are pockets of resiliency and growth I don’t quite understand (How downtown Charleston, WV supports the great restaurants and bars that it does is a mystery to me. And I dare you to name a city with a better farmer’s market.) But the death of the coal industry put the eastern part of WV into a coma.
Everything dies, everything changes
I started my career during the dial-up revolution. I watched a thousand little companies pop-up out of seemingly nowhere and then shutter almost overnight when cheap broadband came to town.
I worked in the PC industry as it raced to the bottom and was at Gateway when it was dismantled by former rivals. I watched the mid-end market completely dry up until there was only the sub-1%-margin low-end and the high-margin top-end that Apple now dominates.
And I watched Appalachian coal make a stubborn last stand against what appeared to almost all outside observers as inevitable doom.
“You guys need to be planning for something else. This putting all your eggs in the basket of the coal industry thing is running out of runway.” – Everyone
“Nuh uh, you can’t tell me what to do. You aren’t my real dad.” – West Virginia
This is the cycle of things. Industries are born, they are disrupted, they die, and occasionally are re-born.
I know I hammer this gong a lot, but this is why. I have seen friends and family thrust into unfortunate situations because either they or those around them had a philosophy of adaptation that amounted to maintaining the status quo plus one percent.
Sometimes that’s because day-to-day survival is suffocatingly hard and a person can’t spare cycles to think about the future. But if you’re reading LinkedIn, that’s not you.
So go learn something new, teach people about it, and figure out how it’s going to affect your life and career. Prep for change and help others.
If others don’t care, that’s fine – I’m sure our future robot overlords will find some use for them – maybe as fuel.
Image credit: Jon Diez Supat