Newsletter 107: Coal Mining, and Dream Jobs

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from May 2018, about finding your dream job, wherever and whatever it is.

There’s a fantastic podcast by my old Daily Illini colleague Kelly McEvers, co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” called “Embedded.” It has covered several topics over the last few years, from the opioid crisis to the history of Donald Trump’s business practices to this season’s topic, the coal industry in rural Virginia. The show is inquisitive and open-hearted and ultimately pretty devastating as it looks at an area of the country, and an industry, that is falling apart for reasons that are absolutely not their fault but are made worse by their inability to accept the reality of the planet as we currently live in it. There was a time that being a coal miner was a honorable, stable job that you could comfortably raise a family doing; my great uncle Lotsi worked in a mine in Moweaqua, Illinois, most of his life. But that time is gone. That’s a sad fact. But that it’s sad doesn’t make it any less true.

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The most fascinating person in “Embedded” is a kid named Kyle. Ever since Kyle was a child, he wanted to be a coal miner. He talks about how he actually watched documentaries about coal mines in high school when he was supposed to be studying. It was inspired by a trip he took to a coal mine museum as a kid, where he simply fell in love with the concept of being a coal miner. It was his life’s dream in the purest way possible. It was all he ever wanted. Now, maybe this seems foreign to you; maybe coal mining looks like the opposite of a dream job. That’s fine: It doesn’t strike me as particularly appealing either. But my job probably isn’t appealing to a lot of people, and I bet yours isn’t either. It is all about one’s personal perspective and one’s personal aspirations, and what matters is that Kyle found his calling in life at a very young age and pursued it with a single minded persistence.

This is anyone’s goal, right? To figure out what they want to do and then do it for the rest of their life? I was fortunate enough to know I wanted to write for a living at an extremely young age, and I thus was able to focus on that solely, pretty much from middle school on. This is why I never sweat the day-to-day competitions that sometimes fuel my particular industry; I’m writing all day, as my job, every day. I don’t have an overpowering desire for more than that. I just want that. As long as I get to keep doing that the rest of my life, I will be happy. I know this I am extremely lucky both to have always known what I want to do and also to get to do it, and I try to remember it every day.

Kyle is a good reminder. “Embedded” looks at the state of the coal industry, President Trump’s promises to those connected to the coal industry and how those promises are turning out, and how “frank talk” about the future of the coal industry has probably made things worse for everybody, on every side. But it’s most powerful when it focuses on Kyle. Kyle spends all day, two days a week, driving from coal plant to coal plant — some of which have been shut down, some of which are barely subsisting — with a truck full of resumes, trying to find something, anything. Perhaps predictably, he finds nothing. He chases down empty leads, he begs for jobs that don’t exist, he takes the tiniest bit of good news and believes it means his dreams are finally coming through. His best friend, who has known about his passion forever, works an office job and is constantly telling him to stop, that he’s kidding himself, that there’s never going to be the kind of coal job he wants, that so many coal miners have been laid off that even if there were new jobs, it would go to them rather than someone just starting out. Kyle listens to him, but he doesn’t hear him. He has his dream.

And what can you do? It’s his dream. Back before I was able to write every day for a living, people had similar conversations with me, often, considering the vagaries of the media economy. But I never too any of them seriously. They just didn’t know. This is what I was put here to do. Doing the work I do is as calm and relaxed and confident as I am on this planet. I’ll wait forever if I have to for something to break loose. I’m reminded of the conversation I had with Daulerio when we were both unemployed and struggling, documented in my roast of him way back in 2012.

“Are you gonna stay and do this?” I said.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“I mean, if it never works … if it never happens … if it turns out that we’re 45 years old and pathetic and still trying to make a living at this … will you keep doing this?”
“What else would I do?”
“I dunno. Give up. Move home. Go to law school or something.”
“F — k no.”
“Even at 45?”
“Especially at 45. This is it, whatever this is. We’re f — ked now, it’s all we can do.”
“I agree. Thank you,” I said.

I firmly believe you need this mindset to succeed in difficult fields. You have to give yourself no other option. This is what Kyle is doing. He knows this is what he’s supposed to do. You cannot tell him any differently. He knows it as well as he knows the eyes on his face.

But … Kyle wants to be a coal miner. That industry isn’t coming back. Does Kyle know this, intellectually, deep down? It doesn’t matter if he does; the heart wants what it wants. It is so hard to find the thing you are meant to do. But to discover that the thing you are meant to do not only doesn’t want you, it is soon going to go away entirely? That is cruel. Kyle was given one of the most precious gifts a person can receive: A purpose. And that purpose is evaporating a little bit more every day. It’s absolutely brutal.

A spoiler alert for those listening to the podcast: As NPR reported last month, Kyle now has a job on the overnight shift at a mine in Grundy, Virginia. He made it. His reward? He works long, hard hours in the dangerous mine and calls his mother after every shift to let her know he made it through the night. “It’s not an easy life here,” he says. “But I think it’s about the best life you can have.” That sounds like the worst job in the world. But I absolutely believe him, with every single fiber of my being.

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

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