August 27, 2015


What Color Is Your Parachute? 2016: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career Changers. By Richard N. Bolles. Ten Speed Press. $29.99.

     If you even had a parachute, which you probably don’t, what color would it be? If you were a corner-office executive being ousted, and knew that “golden parachutes” for termination without cause were becoming less common even though they remain extremely rich for leaders of heads of major companies, would you care? How much would you care? The Wall Street Journal reports that nearly 60% of public companies in the Fortune 250 still have generous severance packages for chief executives terminated without cause – “without cause” being a notoriously fungible concept. But for everyone else? Who has “parachutes” anymore? People don’t even have defined-benefit pensions to fall back on in retirement, much less parachutes to lower them gently after job loss. So the redoubtable Richard Bolles franchise known as What Color Is Your Parachute? would seem to be in imminent danger of extinction.

     No chance. The no-longer-accurate (and in some ways now rather distasteful) title aside, Bolles’ annual look at the job market remains far too clear-headed and far too usefully instructive for readers desperate for work to focus on what the book is called. The focus instead is on, for example, “key employer prejudices” and how to overcome them. Bolles’ point here, as in many other places, is that employers are all different, and while some have one type of prejudice or another, others do not – or have different ones. Encountering prejudice because you have been “out of work too long”? Bolles says, “Too bad! Just keep going until you find employers who don’t have that prejudice.” What about age prejudice, which shades over into not wanting to pay a 50-plus person for his or her experience when it is possible to hire two twentysomethings for the same price? Well, says Bolles, approach “a small company” that does not “have to put you late into a pension plan,” and come in “with a positive attitude toward your aging,” and be sure to “convey energy” and “keep going on interviews until you encounter an employer or two who isn’t prejudiced about your age.” There it is again: all employers are different – just find the right one.

     The positive-thinking, positive-acting approach that Bolles advocates is frankly a little tired-sounding at this point, although no one has come up with a substantially better one (simply sending out applications electronically certainly isn’t it, as Bolles shows). Bolles is from the power-of-positive-thinking school, and that translates to the power of positive acting, no matter how you may feel about your personal, career and economic circumstances. It is difficult to argue with the notion that being upbeat and enthusiastic during a job hunt is extremely important, but it is a shame that Bolles pays so little attention to the downsides of job hunting and the very real levels of frustration and depression (usually subclinical, but sometimes at the clinical level) that the circumstances create. An example of the disparity between Bolles’ positivity and the real world comes in his discussion of shyness, which is an issue for many job-hunters and an especially huge one for people who are naturally introverted. Job hunting is essentially a sales task, with the job hunter as both seller and product. But introverts make very poor salespeople, and find cold calling – which is essentially how job hunts begin – to be genuinely unpleasant both emotionally and physically. Bolles will have none of this, pointing inward-focused job hunters to “a practical three-stage plan of action, to cure job-hunters of shyness,” a plan that Bolles says (without backing up the assertion) has given those who have tried it “a success rate of 86% in overcoming their shyness and fears, and finding a job.” Even accepting that dubious and unsupported percentage, what is striking about the plan is that its basic requirement is that people who are shy do more interviewing, of various types, so as to increase their comfort level with the interview process. That is, people who are naturally extroverted get Bolles’ guidance in ways to do interviews, but those who are introverted – for whom interviews can be excruciating experiences – are told to do more of what they can barely handle in the first place, because increasing their discomfort will eventually make them more comfortable: “If you’re not having fun, you need to keep at it, until you are.”

     This increased-interviews-for-introverts notion, whether born of naïveté or of a genuine belief that it will work, is just one example of Bolles’ tendency to oversimplify the job-seeking process and play down its negatives. Nevertheless, some elements of Bolles’ approach, which have remained largely unchanged over time, are worthwhile for anyone hoping to find a new, better job – or any job at all. “As I repeated throughout this book, Who precedes What,” Bolles writes at one point, and he does indeed repeat this admonition again and again. The basic notion of What Color Is Your Parachute? is that you have to analyze yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, who and what you are, what makes you unique as a human being, before you can find the right match for your talents and interests in the workplace. Thus, like previous editions of this book, the 2016 one builds from the start to “The Flower,” an illustration that looks somewhat floral and somewhat like interlocking Venn diagrams – and that includes information ranging from “what I can do and love to do” to “my favorite knowledges [sic] or fields of interest” and “my goal, purpose, or mission in life (or my philosophy about life).” Bolles’ point is to know yourself so you will know where you will fit in the working world – a laudable goal, albeit a difficult one to use at a time of vast under-employment (despite statistics that say the unemployment rate is in good shape).

     Really, what Bolles wants job seekers to do is not particularly revolutionary or even unusual. It is dressed up in some fancy diagrams and presented in a book filled with pithy comments, cartoons, charts, tips, suggestions, success stories, and so forth, but the approach comes down to some elements that many others involved in helping job seekers also recommend. For example, “you  need to learn as much as you can about a place before formally approaching them [sic]” is scarcely unusual advice; “you must send thank-you notes” is a standard recommendation, for all that Bolles dresses it up  by following the remark with “please, please, pleeze”; and “research has revealed that in general the more of a social life you have, the more people you know, the more time you spend with people outside of work, the more likely you are to find a job” is a “well, duh” comment – although scarcely a helpful one to those introverts who are ill-served elsewhere in the book. What Bolles primarily supplies is reassurance, a system that he tells readers will work for them as it has for many others, and a series of specific steps to follow to get from unemployment to employment, or from unhappiness in one’s job to a better, more-fulfilling position.

     The key element here is Bolles’ professed certainty about his approach, an indication that if you try it and it does not work, you are doing it wrong – there is nothing the matter with the recommendations themselves. This proposition is at best arguable and at worst a case of blaming the victim in an extremely difficult job market. So it is best to look at Bolles as a helpful but scarcely unique guide and to focus one’s job search not on a probably unattainable “parachute” but on something more realistic. Indeed, in the current economy, it would be useful to have a book called What Strength Is Your Safety Net?

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