What Color is Your Parachute? Interview with Career Guru Richard Bolles

richard bolles'What Color is Your Parachute?', by Richard N. Bolles, is the best-selling job-hunting book in the world with over 10 million copies sold to date. Bolles has often been called a career guru, and his book -- first commercially published in 1972 -- is considered the job hunter's bible. He coined the terms "informational interviewing" and "transferable skills."

'What Color is Your Parachute?' is still going strong; the 2011 revised edition of the book was recently released. AOL was fortunate enough to interview Bolles to learn more about his personal career journey, his career wisdom, and the incredible success of his book.

What was the original inspiration for 'What Color Is Your Parachute?'

Many years ago (40 to be exact) I was let go from my position as canon pastor at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco due to a budget-crunch at the cathedral. (I was an ordained Episcopal minister at the time). I quickly found another position within the Episcopal church where I was in charge of visiting Episcopal ministers doing ministry on any college or university campus in the nine western states. As I went from campus to campus, I discovered that the budget-crunch was nationwide, and they were, one by one, losing their jobs as well. They assumed I would have some advice on what they should do next. I didn't have a clue. But I did have a generous travel budget, and moreover, how I spent my time was entirely up to me. So I criss-crossed the country, asking two questions of everyone whose name was given to me as an expert: "How do you change careers, without necessarily having to go back to college?" and "How did you find a job, if the traditional methods -- resumes, employment agencies, and classified newspaper ads -- don't turn up anything?" Eventually I added a third question, "If you don't know, who do you think would know?"

what color is your parachuteThis search led me eventually to two men, Richard Lathrop (author of a periodical for the military entitled 'Who's Hiring Who?') and John Crystal, a private career counselor in McLean, Va. John had been a spy during the second World War, and had a degree in finance from Columbia University in New York. John had kept a voluminous clipping service of sorts, for years, of every article he came across about clever ways to job hunt or change careers, plus his own writings on these subjects for The Air Force Times. He shipped all the clippings to me, day and day, week after week. From these, and Richard Lathrop's writings, I finally had the answers I was looking for so I typed out a 128-page book which I titled 'What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers.' The parachute metaphor was a play on the words people used in those days to announce they were changing jobs or careers -- they would say, "I've decided to bail out..."

The book was self-published Dec. 1, 1970. Two years later a publisher named Phil Wood approached me about publishing the book commercially. He wanted to publish it "as is," clearly for campus ministers, but I wanted to broaden the book to be for the general public and he agreed we could do so. The first commercial edition was published in 1972 and it soon hit every best-seller there was, staying for five years on The New York Times Best Seller list. I wanted to revise and update the book every year if it became popular enough, and within two years Phil agreed to that plan. The rest is history. Ten million copies have sold thus far, it exists in 22 languages, and is used in 26 countries around the world.

What career lessons remain the same as they were 40 years ago when the book was first published? What lessons have changed?

That's easy. Job-hunting is a repetitive activity in the life of each individual. No one is coming to "save you." You are the one who is in charge of your job hunt, with whatever allies you may enlist to help you. You must take yourself as "the given" and find work that matches you -- your gifts and passions, not (as is commonly done) taking the job market as "the given" and trying to contort yourself to fit. And you must ask yourself not what do you do well, but what do you most love to do, because love gives birth to passion, passion gives birth to enthusiasm, and enthusiasm gives birth to energy. Every employer is trying to hire focused, committed energy, regardless of the field or job.

Hence, your job hunt or career choice must begin with homework on yourself:

  • what do you most love to do,
  • where would you most love to do it, and
  • how do you find such a job and persuade those employers to hire you.

None of that has changed. What has changed, over the past almost 40 years, is the fact that job hunting has become a survival skill and most people's job-hunting skills are rather elementary -- good enough to find work when times are good, but failing woefully when times are bad. A recession may be best thought of as a time when people's job-hunting skills prove to be elementary and need urgent upgrading. Marshall Goldsmith has a wonderful book title, 'What Got Your Here, Won't Get You There.'

What are your top three career tips for people just starting their careers?

It's the same advice I give everyone.

  1. You have to work smarter at your job hunt. A lot of research has been done about the job hunt; you need to know everything you can about what works and what doesn't. Just setting out blindly, without knowing the research, is going to cost you time, energy, and money.
  2. You have to work harder at your job hunt. Research was done this past year on college graduates who were having difficulty finding work and so went back to live with their parents for a time. The question: "how much time do you spend on your job hunt?" The answer was on average, one hour a week. (Oh, come on! You couldn't even find a lost dog if you devoted only one hour a week to the task.)
  3. You have to work longer at your job hunt. It may take you half a year to find a job. You've got to understand you're going to face a lot of rejection before you finally hear that "Yes, we want you." And your corresponding "Yes I'd really like to work here." When you start your job hunt, you must settle in for the long haul.

What are your top three career tips for people older than 50 searching for their next job?

  1. You must decide what work you are passionate about doing, either as a volunteer or as a consultant or full-time worker. Just "settling for" a job and then marking time until you die is foolish. You may live a lot longer and stay a lot healthier than you think. Read 'Learned Optimism' by Martin Seligman. Think of this time in your life as "starting over" or as a second chance to live a meaningful life.
  2. You must keep your brain tremendously active, feed your curiosity daily, and push the horizons of your mind further and further out. Browse a new subject on the Internet every day, read voraciously in newspapers such as The New York Times, listen to informative radio (especially NPR), and watch educational programs on TV, particularly on PBS.
  3. When it's time to go job hunting, do not buy into such myths as "employers don't hire someone my age." There is no such thing as "employers." Every employer is different, and broadly speaking, they divide (for your purposed) into two families or groups -- those who do not want to hire someone your age and those who do because they value your wisdom and experience. Even if the first "family" is larger in numbers, keep going until you find the second. They are most likely to be small employers, those with 50 employees or fewer.

What are the three top things someone thinking about a career change should consider?

  1. Your partner.Your decision will affect their life, as well as yours. Make them a part of the decision team from the get-go. Don't just bring them in when your mind is all make up so all they get is an up or down vote. Take advantage of their two eyes, their two ears, their brain and wisdom from the beginning.
  2. Your God. If you are a person of faith (and a huge percentage of the U.S. population are), your career decision should take into account your deepest values and most cherished goals for your whole life. You don't just want to live a life that keeps you busy; you want a life with purpose and meaning -- and your career decisions need to reflect that.
  3. Yourself. What you want for your life, not just what your parents or friends want for your life, is crucial. Listen to your own inner guidance system, your hunches, your impulses, your intuitions, your wishes. You have but one life to live on this earth and you need to remember this isn't a rehearsal for the life you want to lead; this is opening night.

Do you have any other advice for our readers?

Of course. Just what you'd expect an author to say: Read my book. I've only covered the highlights of what you need to know. Knowledge is power: knowledge first of all about yourself; knowledge secondly about what constitutes advanced job-hunting skills; and knowledge lastly about the job-market. With such knowledge under your belt, you have more control over your life than you imagine.

Next:Publishing a Book is Easier Than You'd Think >>

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