I somehow had never read this book. Which is odd when you consider that it is typically one of the first titles people reference when talking about career change. I was reticent, though. I tend to be cautious of heavily hyped books, often finding them disappointing. And the fact that What Color Is Your Parachute? 2016: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career Changers, by Richard N. Bolles, was first published in 1970 certainly did not help. We are in a radically different world from that of 1970, and I couldn’t imagine how a 45 (!) year old book would be relevant for today’s job seeker.
And I was wrong.
Well, mostly anyway.
This book will be most helpful for career changers and job seekers who are given to and/or unafraid of self-examination and reflection. Or, if that’s not you, then individuals who are at least willing to engage in the book’s written exercises to help guide them through such a process. If neither of these things applies to you, feel free to move on. There are few other tactical tips here that you won’t find all over the Internets.
So, now that it’s just those of us who fall into the “touchy-feely” camp, the book is composed of 11 Chapters, plus hefty appendices.
Chapters 1 through 6 (the first 110 pages) offer a high-level review of the current state of the job market, tips for interviewing, negotiating salary, etc. There is little that is new here, though academics will appreciate the use of footnotes.
Chapters 7 though 11 (the next 150 pages) are the real sources of the book’s accolades. These are the chapters that take you through the introspective process of trying to better understand your own needs, interests, and preferences when selecting work and a workplace.
The crux of “Parachute” is that you start with an understanding of yourself and your innate strengths and preferences before looking outward to see where you might best put those strengths to work. Not only will the result be a happier you, producing better work, it gives you purpose and empowered incentive during a process that, for many, will be one of the more challenging periods of their lives. I find this to be particularly true for those of us trained as academics, where so much of an individual’s identity is tied up in professional affiliation and external validation. So for this population (us!), I think that the exercises can be extremely valuable.
The (unfortunately titled) “Flower Exercise” will lead you to a single-page summary (you can see what it looks like here), intended to help you visualize your strengths and desires for the following:
- My Favorite Knowledges or Fields of Interest
- My Preferred Kinds of People to Work With
- What I can Do and Love to Do (My Favorite Transferable Skills)
- My Favorite Working Conditions
- My Preferred Salary and Level of Responsibility
- My Preferred Place(s) to Live
- My Goal, Purpose, or Mission in Life
To be honest, when I first saw the Flower Exercise, I was unimpressed. My first thoughts were, “Here we go, another brainstorm exercise with jumbled outputs and little practical application.” The prioritizing grid removes that concern. Bolles provides you with an analytical exercise for prioritizing items by importance.
He then follows up with an exercise designed to reduce the content of the “Flower” page into 6 eminently applicable bullet points (page 192) based on your favorite fields of interest and preferred skills.
Now, you may be inclined to jump ahead to this point thinking you already know what those 6 points are for you, but I want to encourage you to take the time to do the exercises. The kind of discipline required to succeed in Academia often means we squash down personal interests and feelings. When suppressed for a long period of time, we lose touch with them. And when that happens, we start to answer questions like, “What are your favorite interests?” and “What are your preferred skills?” with what we think we’re supposed to say or want, rather than what we’re truly feeling.
The 6 bullet points derived from the Flower exercise become guideposts to help you brainstorm new career paths and determine whom best to approach for informational interviews. Bolles even provides a valuable script that keeps the focus squarely on the interviewee and learning more about their role:
- “How did you get into this work?”
- “What do you like the most about it?”
- “What do you like the least about it?”
- “Where else could I find people who do this kind of work?”
This is especially valuable for transitioning academics, who I find often spend too much time talking about their research and transition challenges. Take it from experience; it’s fine if you need to commiserate with others going through a similar transition, but a bad habit if you’re squandering valuable opportunities to learn about new careers and opportunities.
In summary, Bolles’s exercises are designed to help you determine which careers best suit you personally, to learn more about those careers, to determine what kinds of organizations have relevant jobs, and to learn as much as possible about an organization before approaching them. Well worth the time investment.
Now, for a note about the first 110 pages of the book… Personally, I’m not a fan. I kept finding myself looking at the pub dates in the footnotes, searching for evidence that there was a valid reason this book has been reissued each and every year since 1975. I’ll save you the suspense and tell you now that I couldn’t find one. It reminds me of academic textbooks that issue new editions each year with little more than chapter repagination. Not cool.
I’m impressed by the effort to keep the book current, and while it more-or-less succeeds in terms of broad themes, it fails in the details. There are references to LinkedIn, for example, but the vast majority of links and resources are decidedly outdated. Even the font seems misplaced, as if the book’s pages were visually trying to communicate “Hey, I’m hip!” It feels a bit like watching your grandparents figure out how to take a picture using a webcam. They are hip, just not for their mastery of technology.
The appendices cover things like how to deal with your feelings while out of work and exercises to help you select a career coach. There’s also a long treatise on Bolles’s religious beliefs and why he believes they are essential as one looks for new employment. You’re going either to love this section or hate it, and if that’s not your thing, just skip it altogether. The editors of “Parachute” have done an excellent job of removing religious language from the central text (minus one jarring moment toward the end). If you disagree with the religious beliefs expressed, it shouldn’t keep you from appreciating the valuable contribution and direction his exercises can provide.
“Parachute” remains relevant thanks to the exercises and guided practical application for personal inventory. After all, people don’t really change that much over time. And Bolles’s emphasis on personal awareness and the need to connect with others is spot on, a foundational mantra for the modern career changer.
I received a copy of this book for review. Opinions are my own.