Richard Nelson Bolles on Finding Your Mission

The author of What Color Is Your Parachute? explains how to figure out what you really want to do and then devise a way to do it

Back in the early '90s, the Library of Congress came up with a list of 25 books that, it declared, "have shaped readers' lives." The Catcher in the Rye made the cut, as did To Kill a Mockingbird and Little Women. And there, No. 24 on the alphabetical list, was the only business book of the bunch: What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers by Richard Nelson Bolles.

Bolles, an Episcopal minister, self-published Parachute back in 1970 to give career tips to fellow ministers who were losing their jobs on college campuses. Publisher Ten Speed Press picked up the title two years later. Today the book is in its 31st edition, with more than 6 million copies in print. It still remains on many best-seller lists (including Business Week's) and is available in 10 languages.

While Bolles, now 73, updates his book every year to address reader feedback and job trends, his basic advice hasn't changed much: Answering help-wanted ads rarely works. Employment agencies aren't much help, either. Instead, job hunters should figure out what they like to do and then seek out a place to go do it. Network with friends and family about possible opportunities, and approach companies that interest you, whether they have an opening or not.

Recently, Business Week Online Reporter Jennifer Gill spoke with Bolles about such topics as Internet job searches and career issues facing executives today. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: The first edition of your book came out more than 30 years ago. What has changed since then about how people approach their careers?


For one, people flee jobs much more easily now than they did 30 years ago. If you had a job history 30 years ago that showed you weren't in a job for longer than two years, you would have been considered an irresponsible job hopper. Today, it's considered a mark of intelligence that you've gone out and tried to acquire so many different experiences -- and that's the second marker that's different. Jobs today are regarded very much as learning experiences, almost indistinguishable from taking a graduate course. The more jobs a person has had, the greater the asset. There is the illusion that the nature of the job [search] has changed because of the Internet. I don't agree.

Forrester Research in April said that 4% of job hunters who went on the Internet to find a job actually succeeded. Those are terrible statistics. But that's been true as long as I've been in this field. I once was at a party with a drunken ex-head of an employment agency, and I said to him, "The latest survey out of Washington says that only 5% of people who go to an employment agency find a job as a result." And he said, "Five percent? That can't be right. It can't be more than 1%."

The essential mechanisms of the job hunt haven't changed. In the old days, it was employment agencies, want ads, and resumes. Today, it's exactly the same mechanism, [but] job listings -- they used to be called want ads -- and resume postings have moved on to this electronic thing.

Q: But don't some professionals find work online?


For some industries -- like technology, health, finance -- the Internet's acceleration of job postings and resume postings tend to work greatly to the benefit of employers, as well as job hunters. The odds [of finding a job online] do increase when you're in one of those fields, but not necessarily to 80% or 90%.

Q: How do you think the relationship between employers and employees has changed in the last few decades?


In too many companies, employees are seen much more as part of the bottom line. They're just seen as another cost. Of course, the countertrend is that in some organizations, there's much more care about employees than there used to be. There's provision for day care. There's willingness to let an employee go out for an appointment with the dentist. I go to my bank, and I find employees [there] are allowed to go pick up their children from school. I never saw that 30 years ago.

Q: What advice do you give people who may be considering a career switch?


The first step, obviously, [is] to figure out what it is they really want to do, and what is fitting for the talents and skills that they have been given and that they most enjoy using.

The second step is the one most commonly overlooked: Go talk to people doing the work you think you would like to do. Most people don't do this. I remember a librarian who decided to change careers and make homemade candles and soap. She set up a shop -- and went bankrupt within about a year. I heard her speaking at a convention of librarians and listened to the questions [the audience] asked her. [She told them that] she had never gone out and talked to anyone running a similar shop.

That kind of reinventing of the wheel seems insane when there's such an easy way to pick up information about the traps that await the unwary as they are setting up a particular kind of business or career.

So, I always tell people: Don't just think that a career looks great on paper and, therefore, that's [how] you should spend the next 10 years of your life. Go talk to people doing it, and see if it's as great as it sounds. It may not be. Ask them questions like: What do you like best about this career or this job? What do you like least about it? How did you get into this field? Who else would you recommend that I talk to?

Q: What's changed about Parachute over the years?


There are certain concepts that you can explain until you're blue in the face -- and get more eloquent about year after year -- but people still don't get them. You realize that it's not a problem of understanding, but a problem with the safety system of the individual. The safekeeping [side of one's self] feels safe in the old situations, no matter how bad, because at least it knows what it is and what's involved. The experimental [side of one's self] feels safe going out into the new world because it wants to have adventure. We're all torn between these two.

[One of the chief concepts people have difficulty with] is the idea of special knowledges. Everyone wants to say, "I have many skills. I know C++, I know how to use a PC," and so on. But these are actually special knowledges -- not skills, per se.

Skills are the ability to listen, the ability to analyze, the ability to synthesize, and so forth. They are transferable from one field to another. If you're good at organizing in a career that you have today, and you decide to change careers dramatically five years from now, you're almost certainly going to be able to use your organizing skill in the new career, just as well as you did in the old one. Whereas, if you know C++, you may not be able to use that in your new [career]. That's the difference between skills and special knowledges.

You'd be amazed at how much a person balks at understanding this when they're thinking about moving their life from an old career to a new career. We've tried saying that [special knowledges] are your interests, the subjects you love to talk about, and so on. Still, we have trouble. So, one of the things that has changed about Parachute is that I have tried so many different ways to explain the concepts that I know people have particular difficulty with.

Q: What are some common career problems facing executives today?


Many of them are accustomed to being sought after. [But] they often get to a particular age when nobody is coming after them -- and they don't know how to go about the job hunt because they never had to. They really don't know how to sit down and figure out what their skills are.

I've been talking to one of our U.S. ambassadors who's going to be out of a job very shortly. He has several offers -- one is to be a radio commentator. But it doesn't begin with what it is he really wants to do. Executives often have great trouble as they get older in taking initiative. Instead, [they] wait for people to come after them and then sort of choose one card from the deck that's extended to them.

Q: Why do they have trouble taking initiative?


They often find it difficult to change careers because they feel they've invested so much of their time and life in this one particular career. They hate to admit to themselves that they've wasted so many years of their life. It's one of the hardest things for them to look at full face. I am a Christian -- I've been ordained as an Episcopalian minister for 47 years now -- so one of the things I tell them is: Learn to forgive yourself.

Somebody once defined what it means to forgive yourself. They said it means giving up all hope of ever having a better past. I like that definition a lot. And I think, sometimes in life, older executives have to learn how to forgive themselves for not making those decisions that they now see they should have about life and work. Sometimes they know they were miserable in a job for 10 or 15 years, but they were slow or reluctant to come to that conclusion.

Q: What are some workplace trends that you see quietly taking shape now?


A recession.

Q: What does that mean for the job hunter?


A cold shower. Do you recall the 1987 crash on Wall Street? What was so shocking about that [time] was that there were a lot of very young turks in the stock-broker business who had never experienced a recession. They thought [the market] went up and up forever.

Similarly, there are young people today who have never experienced a recession in terms of job hunting. They assume that employees are in the driver's seat, as far as what they want and what they get.

One person posted an [online review] of Parachute and said, "Nobody needs this book. All you need to do is excel at the job you're doing, and people will come and find you." He will get a rude awakening when a recession comes. Nobody is going to come find him.

Q: You talk in Parachute about the importance of finding your mission. What stands in the way of people doing that?


First of all, they don't want to. To find it, you have to want to find it. It's not an issue for you if the [first thing] out of your mouth is, "Oh, you've got a new job. What's the salary?" and that's the end of your inquiry.

Mission is often found through adversity. It's often found when people go through a very big crisis in their life -- their spouse dies, they go through a life-threatening illness themselves, they lose one of their children -- and they say, "I've really got to rethink why I'm here on earth, and I have to pay attention to how my work fits into it or doesn't fit."

Another factor that causes them to ask, "What is my mission in life?" is that they're bored out of their minds at their jobs. They say, "A job has got to do more than just give me a salary and put bread on the table. It has to give me a sense that I'm here on earth doing something worthwhile." If they start to say that to themselves, then they are going to work very hard to find out what their mission is.

Q: Have any examples?


I know so many stories. There was a guy who went to a career counselor and said, "I'm really puzzled. I don't like what I'm doing now. I'm making a very good salary, but I want to do something more meaningful to me."

The career counselor sent him off to a career conference in Colorado. When the guy came back, he went looking for the career counselor who had urged him to go to this expensive conference. He wanted, basically, to choke him to death with his bare hands.

The counselor said, "What are you so upset about?" The guy said, "I found out that my passion is playing bridge." And the counselor replied, "What's wrong with that?" The guy answered, "Have you seen my house? Have you seen the two cars in the garage? I love my lifestyle. I'm making over $100,000 a year, and I would have to give all that up if all I did was just play bridge."

The career counselor said, "Well, why don't you take weekends and teach bridge? Then do your regular job that brings in the money during the rest of the week."

So, he did, and the guy soon became so popular that he had to hire other people to help him do the teaching. Then he franchised to other cities, and eventually, he was making more money playing [and teaching] bridge than he was in the job he'd had before as an executive.

My point is you don't know what kind of income you would have if you were really doing what you loved, because the enthusiasm and passion with which you come to that task often makes all the difference in the world.

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