Time & Attendance
By Garry Kranz
Jan. 28, 2015
When Crown Publishing approached Richard Bolles in 1972 about publishing his book, “What Color Is Your Parachute?” Bolles
half-jokingly said his book would be a best-seller one day. Having sold more than 10 million copies, his prognostication was spot on.
Photo by Gregory Cowley
Richard Bolles never intended to be the guru of career guidance.
Before authoring what is widely considered the definitive how-to manual on job hunting — “What Color Is Your Parachute?” which has sold more than 10 million copies since 1972, been translated into 20 languages and saw its 43rd edition issued last August — Bolles was an Episcopal minister in New Jersey known for delivering his Sunday sermons verbatim.
All that sermon-writing would pay off big time when Bolles unwittingly found his true calling several years later. In 1966, Bolles was 42 years old and riding high, having landed a plum assignment as canon pastor at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Less than two years later, however, Bolles was abruptly fired in the midst of a budget crunch. Getting sacked turned out to be a blessing in disguise, clearing his path to become one of the world’s foremost evangelists for career change and alternative job-hunting strategies.
Bolles subsequently turned down a chance to pastoranother church, instead taking a job with the Episcopal Church as roving ambassador to counsel Protestant ministers residing on college campuses in nine Western states. The job required extensive travel, another blessing, Bolles said,because it proved instrumental in the birth of “Parachute.”
Despite emerging in the post-Watergate twilight of the anti-Vietnam War era, career experts say “Parachute” remains as relevant as when it first appeared.
“Maybe even more so, considering the structural changes in how work is organized today and the fact many people have a portfolio of multiple careers,” said Rich Feller, a professor of counseling and career development to master’s and Ph.D. graduate students at Colorado State University.
'Some people are very, very aware of how to use alternate ways of doing a job search, while others are still doing exactly what was done 40 or 50 years ago.'
—Richard Bolle, author of 'What Color Is Your Parachute?'
Feller, a past president of the National Career Development Association, added the book has “nudged the field to stay current every year, not only on how to do a job search but also the notion that career development is a lifelong experience. Dick has provided the framework for us to help people transfer their skills to new possibilities.”
“Parachute” has won accolades for its impact on the world of work. The Library of Congress’s Center for the Book names it one of 25 books that have shaped readers’ lives, a list that includes such literary classics as Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The U.S. Labor Department includes “Parachute” among books that shaped work in America since 1758, a collection that includes Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Time magazine ranks “Parachute” 22nd on its list of the top 100 most influential nonfiction books.
An Inadvertent Author
But Bolles did not set out to write the book. The idea evolved gradually as he visited with on-campus ministers in his capacity as a roving shepherd. Many of the ministers he counseled also had been fired from pastoral positions and forced to accept the campus jobs — akin to a military general being relegated to a far outpost, away from the action and with little chance of advancement.
“As I talked with them, I realized many were suffering from the same problem. I probably wouldn’t have been as sensitive to it, if it hadn’t already happened to me,” said Bolles, now 87, during a recent interview with Workforce.
Frustrated, most of the ministers wanted to move into professions outside of the church, but with young families to support, returning to college to train for a second career was not a practical option. They also didn’t have much practice pursuing jobs outside of their divinity training.
“They all knew about my situation, so they asked, ‘How do I go about looking for work in secular fields?’ I didn’t know the answer, but I had a handsome travel budget and decided to research it and find out,” Bolles said.
Thus began the initial legwork that would culminate in Bolles’ iconic tome. He spent the next year crisscrossing the country, logging an estimated 70,000 miles to interview academics, business leaders, guidance counselors, hiring managers, recruiters and others on how to change careers without returning to college. “I asked anyone and everyone I thought might know,” he said.
Among the scores of people Bolles peppered with career-related questions, two Washington, D.C.-area thought leaders were most influential: Richard Lathrop, the author of “Who’s Hiring Who” — a career guide first targeted at exiting military personnel — and John Crystal, a career planner who helped popularize the idea that career development is an individual’s responsibility, not an employer’s.
Bolles spent four months interviewing Lathrop and Crystal. Both men, who have since died, became close friends with Bolles, who credits them with providing the foundation for his work on “Parachute.” (Crystal and Bolles co-authored “Where Do I Go From Here With My Life?” in 1974. The 2015 edition of “Parachute” uses one of Lathrop’s refrains as an epigram: “He or she who gets hired is not necessarily the one who can do the job best; but, the one who knows the most about how to get hired.”)
Lathrop and Crystal “didn’t think in big umbrella terms or broad strokes, such as moving from being a mechanic to being an executive consultant. They broke down capabilities into three types: skills, basic knowledge and knowing the types of people you most like to work with or to serve,” Bolles said.
Although commonly accepted now, those ideas broke new ground in the tumultuous Zeitgeist of the 1970s. Bolles eventually summarized those and other findings and self-published “Parachute,” which debuted Dec. 1, 1970. The title stems from an off-the-cuff remark he made years before during a ministerial counseling session. A minister stood up to lament the fact that he and his peers were being forced by circumstances “to bail out” of the profession, prompting Bolles to ask the rhetorical question that would yield a best-selling title.
The inaugural 115-page booklet was aimed squarely at ministers and professional counselors. Not long after its release though, Bolles started to receive requests from unexpected sources, including General Electric Co., the Pentagon, the U.S. State Department and UCLA. He expected administrators and counselors to benefit from the book, but was “astonished to be getting orders from so many other quarters. That’s when I started to realize there was a wider appetite for the book.”
Other people took notice, too. Bolles published two editions of “Parachute” on his own before Ten Speed Press (now part of The Crown Publishing Group) approached him in April 1972 with an offer to publish and distribute it commercially. Half-jokingly, Bolles told his publisher the modest little volume one day would be a best-seller. The publisher’s wry response? “He said, ‘Yeah, sure it will,’ ” Bolles recalled with a chuckle.
But Bolles proved prophetic. By 1978, the book had earned its place in the catalog of career literature. By that time, many college and university professors added “Parachute” as required reading for business students, including Colorado State University’s Feller, who said he’s used it in every course he’s taught for more than three decades.
The book has expanded from its booklet size, with the 2015 version checking in at 368 pages.
Illustrative of how Bolles keeps his content fresh and relevant, consider this excerpt on how résumés have evolved since the first commercial printing of “Parachute.” A hieratic, paper-based résumé once was the accepted standard for getting the attention of hiring managers. Although paper résumés remain valuable, the rise of the Internet and social media has upped the stakes for job seekers:
On that paper was a summary of where you had been and all you had done in the past. From that piece of paper, the employer was supposed to guess what kind of person you are in the present and what kind of employee you’d be in the future. The good thing about this — from your point of view — was that you had absolute control over what went on that piece of paper. You could omit anything that was embarrassing, or anything from your past that you have long since regretted.
Short of their hiring a private detective, or talking to your previous employers, a prospective employer couldn’t find out much else about you. That was nice. But now those days are gone forever. Since 2008, and even before, there’s been a new résumé in town, and it’s called Google. (Bolles, “Parachute”)
Despite the seismic workplace shifts spawned by globalization and technology, Bolles said people’s habits can be slow to change.
“Some people still think about job titles. Others think the only training you need for job hunting or career change is to know how to write a decent résumé or conduct a decent interview. Some people are very, very aware of how to use alternate ways of doing a job search, while others are still doing exactly what was done 40 or 50 years ago,” Bolles said.
So do the skills career-minded people need today differ vastly from when Bolles first tackled the topic? The answer: yes and no. He breaks skills into three categories, first outlined by Sidney Fine in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles: 1. Transferable skills for managing data, people or things; 2. Character traits; and 3. Various types of specialized knowledge.
“The kinds of skills that change are the knowledge skills. The have to be updated endlessly and continuously to keep pace with the discovery of new technologies. People can acquire traits, such as learning, to be persistent. The transferable skills tend to be immutable — they are things you innately know how to do, and those skills don’t change,” Bolles said.
Feller said “Parachute” will continue to have broad applicability as people seek to find meaning beyond having a vocation. “The only stability people have is being able to look at their skill set and ask: ‘Where can I transfer them?’ And Dick has kept his finger on that pulse for 42 years.”
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