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Rethinking a Classic | A Review of “What Color Is Your Parachute?”

A person sailing through the air on a parachute.

Wading through the sea of job seeker guides at the bookstore or online can be a daunting task. Add to that the numerous articles, assessments, and aggregate sites turned up by a quick Internet search, and you’ll find that learning how to find a job becomes a job in and of itself.

For many of us, it’s hard to imagine what a job search looked like before Google,, or, of course, Vacancies may still find their way into the classified ads these days, but that’s certainly not the only, or even the first place we look for leads. And it’s just in very recent years that social networking platforms emerged as potential leverage for launching your career.

Revisiting a classic: What Color is Your Parachute?

For a peek into the past, I searched the bookshelves of a nearby used bookstore (okay, I ended up using eBay) for the earliest available edition of What Color is Your Parachute?, widely regarded as a classic in the ever-growing field of self-help career manuals. I wanted to see what, if anything, has stood the test of time.

What Color is Your Parachute? was first published by the author, Richard Nelson Bolles, in 1970. In the 40-plus years since, the book has seen almost yearly updates with more than 10 million copies sold. There’s a What Color for Teens and a What Color for Retirees, there are even a few editions focused on the online job hunt, co-written by Bolles and his son, Mark.

The earliest edition I could find was published in 1978, already the fifth printing of the manual, yet still firmly planted in another era of job searching. Even without glimpsing the colorful cover illustration best described as groovy, the book manages to show its age citing now-dead industries and outdated state-by-state career resources. Along similar lines, today’s reader will notice the repeated appearance of the word “she” in parenthesis after “he” as if each time the author needs to remind us that women may indeed be hunting for jobs, too.

Even with the dated references and Bolles’ humorous, almost kooky, writing style (no doubt one reason the book has been so popular), what’s most striking about What Color is Your Parachute?, is that its core lessons not only still ring true, but also still challenge the way we think about the job search — or job hunt, as Bolles calls it.

When it comes to job seeking, what advice has stood the test of time?

Bolles’ philosophy is that the job hunter has just as much to offer an employer as the employer has to offer him (or her), upsetting the power dynamic underlying the entire job hunt, a dynamic still in place today. Let’s face it — as often as we are told that a job interview is as much an opportunity for us to learn about “them” as it is for them to learn about “us” it never quite feels like a fair fight.

He posits that by finding an organization you admire, figuring out what problems it is facing, and positioning yourself as the best person to fix them, that organization has no choice but to hire you, vacancy or not.

Bolles then shares “the paradoxical moral of all this” an interesting theory that again flies in the face of conventional wisdom: the more specialized a “skill level you can legitimately claim, the more likely you are to find a job.” No more presenting yourself as a jack-of-all-trades, someone who can apply yourself successfully to anything that comes your way; instead, you carve out the job you want and you determine the skills you’ll use. So, to extend the title metaphor (that doesn’t appear in the actual text), you not only pick what color your parachute is, you choose the size, the shape, and where it lands, too.

The nitty-gritty of designing your parachute

How do you decide what this dream career will look like? Bolles provides a litany of exercises to help you figure it out. Practical Exercise No. 8, for example: Start with 10 sheets of paper and write “Who Am I?” on top of each. Once you have ten different answers, go back through the sheets and list what most turns you on (Bolles’ words, not mine) about that particular identity. Then review the sheets one more time and see which favorite aspects of your different selves arise as common themes. Someone who considers herself both a chef and a writer, for example, may find that, in either scenario, what appeals to her most is creating things from scratch.

Taken as a whole, the method and the exercises laid out would require hours upon hours of thoughtful reflection and research, even with high speed Internet on your side. It’s not wholly practical, either, given that many organizations in the social sector or elsewhere may not be able to turn around and hire someone into a new position that has not been planned for or budgeted, even if that someone shows a lot of promise. This leaves you empowered, self-aware, and still without a job.

Bolles recommends supplementing this process with more standard job search techniques like tapping into your existing professional networks for leads and sending your resume and cover letter in response to job postings. I would go one step further in suggesting that you devote equal energy to “carving a job in the shape of you” and seeking out existing opportunities that will utilize your skills, appeal to your interests, and give you room to grow. Making a serious investment of your time in figuring out what skills and interests you want to spend the rest of your life utilizing seems a worthwhile endeavor, too, even if you forgo the rest of the book’s prescriptions or don’t find a perfect match in the job market.

Whether or not you follow him to the letter, Bolles’ approach to the job hunt remains nearly as relevant and just as radical today as it was in 1978, 1989, or any other year since he first shared it with the world decades ago.

Have you read What Color is Your Parachute? What are your thoughts? 

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About the Author | Kari Mirkin's underlying philosophy of work in the nonprofit sector is that we need to ensure equal and easy access to the things that make us who we are: the arts, culture, and lifelong learning. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, she received her Master’s of Nonprofit Organizations from Case Western Reserve University and spends her time as a Consultant with Grants Plus and member of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network's national board of directors. When she's not cheering on the Cavs or scouting out the nearest coffee spot, you can find her posting on Facebook,Twitter and LinkedIn.

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