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Job Hunting Tips from Author of "What Color is Your Parachute?"

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Chatting with Dick Bolles

My guest today is Richard N. Bolles, author of What Color is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers. Welcome to OpEdNews, Dick. You wrote your book almost 40 years ago. Isn't life incredibly different now? How can your book still be applicable today?

photo copyright: Janine Mankin

  Well, my first response is that you have been misinformed.  I didn't write the book 40 years ago.  I wrote it last June.  What someone forgot to tell you is that  I FIRST wrote it forty years ago.  But I have rewritten it every year since then.  So there are 39 books out there that all have the same name.  Many readers in fact buy the new edition every year.   I think this is mildly strange, but there you have it. Articles that appear one year, often never reappear again (for example, "the influence of women on the workplace").  Anyway, to speak more specifically to your issue, how does the book stay relevant,  I spend five days at a time each year with 84 different job-hunters of all ages, ethnic and educational backgrounds, degrees of learning, and nationality.  I spend three hours each day on the Internet,  and I read four newspapers daily (the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, and a local paper here in the Bay Area).  I also read four news magazines each week (Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg Business Week, plus Forbes, The Harvard Business Review,  and other periodicals.  I also spend two hours each day answering emailed questions from job-hunters and career-changers.   And I am on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and other forums where dialogue takes place.  I make it my passion to stay up to date with the world and with job-hunters.   That is why my 39 books  all with the same name, have sold 10 million copies, in 26 countries.

I stand corrected, Dick.  One of the charms of your book is that it's written in simple English so that anyone can understand it. Was that a conscious decision on your part, way back in the early '70s?

  I am often told,  "You talk just like you write."  So, I guess I must talk all the time in simple English.  And think in simple English.    I feel, among the college-degreed,  there's altogether too much temptation to prove how learned they are, by using what my Dad used to call "highfallutin' words" that the average person doesn't understand.  Well, I'm "college-degreed" but I like my communication with people to be simple and clear,  and I never have to think about how to do that.  It's my natural instinct and always has been, since I was a boy.    

A former Episcopal clergyman whose academic background was in chemical engineering and physics is not what would generally be considered a natural for a writing a book on this topic. How did you convince your publisher that you were the man for the job, so to speak? And after all these years and copies sold, why did you not jump ship to a larger, more prestigious publisher than Ten Speed Press?

  One of the first things I teach my readers and my students is: "Question all assumptions."   There are so many assumptions (false assumptions, I might add) underlying this question that one hardly knows where to begin.  But let's start.   Okay, the assumption here is that the way to get published is to write a manuscript, shop it around to 24 or more publishers, and hope that one of them will say, "Yes, let's publish it."   That is one way to get published, but since the invention of the Internet there have been a thousand ways to get published.    Even before the Internet, there were two:  the way I just described, and self-publication.  I chose the self-publishing route.  You could only order the book from my home, back then.  I received two thousand orders in the first two years.  Inasmuch as the average book only sells 1500 copies in its entire lifetime,  that was extraordinary.   It caught the eye of a publisher over in Berkeley California,  and he approached me about letting him publish it commercially.  As you know, it has gone on to  become a historic book:  it's sold ten million copies so far, and still climbing.  That's some kind of record for a book originally self-published.  So, in a nutshell, I didn't go after them; they came after me.

  Second assumption underlying this question: that you have to have some kind of credentials (here a M.A. in vocational counseling, say) to be regarded as an authority.  Not true.  Job-hunting is a very pragmatic field.  You try this or that, and it either works, or it doesn't.   The strategies in my book worked.  That's all a publisher needed to hear.  My background simply didn't matter.   People's lives were getting changed, day by day, week by week, by that book.

  Third assumption underlying this question:  that you can jump to another publisher.  Yes, if you write a new book.  But not with a book that gets updated and rewritten every year, but retains the same title.   A book contract is for life.   Most people don't know that.  

  Fourth assumption underlying this question:  that an author would want to jump to "a more prestigious" publisher.  Why?  Phil Wood, who passed away just last December,  was my publisher for the better part of forty years.  He trusted my  instincts,  so he gave me complete control over every aspect of the book:  and by "everything" I mean,  I controlled the title, the design of the cover, the layout of the contents (I pasted them up myself every year, for ages),  and the actual writing (I never have had an editor; just a proofreader ---- the ms. essentially goes straight from my computer to the printer).   No other publisher would ever dream of giving me such control over my book.  Just ask any publisher you know, and you will see.    I prize controlling the look and feel of my book, as well as the content.  That's much more important to me than "prestige"  (actually I don't even know what that means, or why it is important).   

  You may be amused at a final twist of fate in this tale: the year before he died, Phil Wood sold his publishing house to Random House.  I am now published by Random House,  with the same arrangement I have always had with Ten Speed.  Random House is about as prestigious as you can get.

That's inspiration for all you would-be authors out there! But I'm still curious about where your interest in successful job searching came initially.

  I was an ordained minister (Episcopal) when I first wrote Parachute. But I didn't have a congregation.   I was actually appointed as a kind of "priest-at-large."  I was a member of the national staff of an effort on the part of ten different Protestant denominations to work together, with respect to college ministries.  The effort was called "United Ministries in Higher Education" or UMHE. My appointed territory was the nine western states (including Alaska and Hawaii) .  I was to visit every college campus ---- universities, colleges, community colleges, and tech schools ----  and talk to whatever full-time ministers of those ten denominations there were on these campuses, to see if there was anything I could do to help them.

     This was in 1968 and I soon discovered, in my meanderings, that the men assigned to full-time ministry on all these campuses all had the same dark future:  church budgets were getting tighter and tighter, year after year, and one way to balance that budget was for church bodies (their bosses) to cut out campus ministry, and just let whatever parish church was nearby, do that ministry. Faced with "being let go," these men didn't want to go back to ministry in a congregation;  they wanted to go out into the secular world, but.......they didn't have a clue as to how to do that. Most of them had families, and children in their pre-teens.  It was too late to go back to college.  They asked me if I had any bright ideas.   I didn't.

   But what I did have was a handsome travel-budget, so I volunteered to do some research, which my boss thought was a good idea.  I eventually ended up traveling 68,000 miles all told (I kept a log) and everywhere I went, I asked two questions of every expert I met:  "Do you have any idea, or know someone who has any idea, about how you change careers, without going back to school?"  and "Do you have any idea or know of someone who has any idea about how you go about the job-hunt if the traditional big three ---- resumes, ads, and agencies ---- don't turn up anything for you?"  In the end, I summarized my findings in a self-published manual which I called What Color Is Your Parachute?  A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters & Career-Changers. (The title was just a joke, intended to make people smile.)  I sent a copy to all the campus ministers I supervised.   

  I sold it at cost ($6.95) and, very quickly, news about it spread by word of mouth, and I started receiving orders not only from churches and campuses everywhere, but also from some truly-weird places (I thought) which I knew didn't have extensive numbers of ministers on their payroll:  the Pentagon, General Electric, UCLA,  CCNY, the U.S. State Department, and so on.  I thought, "What is going on, here?"  So I went and asked them. They said, "Well sure, the book is just for campus ministers, but you've discovered some secrets we all could use, and we know how to translate it out of your language into ours."  So, to my surprise, the questions I had asked in my research regarding campus ministers proved to be of universal interest.  My little manual was eventually discovered by a publisher in 1972, he wanted to publish it, and so I rewrote it for the general public, and he published the first commercial edition of Parachute in November of that year;  it quickly shot to the top of best seller lists,  

  So, "A funny thing happened to me, on the way to church."  While just trying to help some campus ministers who were hanging on the ropes,  I accidentally wrote a best-selling book.  I didn't write it to be that.  I didn't write it to make money,  I only wrote it to be helpful.  I didn't know that with its annual revisions (which I required) and with teaching from it all around the world, it would take over my whole life, from that day (1970) until this.

It's amazing what the combination of a handsome travel budget and a desire to be helpful can do!  You've been doing your thorough annual revisions for almost forty years. What can you tell us about the way the job market has changed in that time? How much more challenging is it now to find a job or switch careers?

  Well, in the main, what has stayed constant over these almost forty years is the substance of the job-hunt,  while what keeps changing is its outward form.   The substance of the job-hunt is:  WHAT, WHERE and HOW. Over these forty years it has remained constant that you must take charge of your own life and your own job-hunt, and decide WHAT are your favorite skills, talents, or gifts;  and then, WHERE would you most like to use them ---- in what field,  in what geography, in what size company,  in what working environment, with what kinds of people;  and then you turn to HOW ---- how do you find the name(s) of such jobs, and where such jobs are located in your preferred geographical location, and who there has the actual power to hire you?

    What has changed, over the years, are the forms of this search. For example, it used to be that you found contacts by scanning lists of your friends and acquaintances; now, it's through LinkedIn.  You used to search the newspapers for want-ads posted by employers; now you look on the Internet.  It used to be that resumes were mailed to individual employers; now they are sent out by the bushel, via (again) the Internet.   It used to be that an employer's only information about you was what you put in a resume; now the employer can (and does) search Facebook, or just "Google you,"  and can find information you would never want them to.

  So, as I said, the form of the search has changed; the substance, the basic methodologies, have not.

  As for your other question:  is it harder now to find a job or change careers now than it was 40 years ago?  Much depends on the individual, sorry to say. The hard truths that have remained constant during these forty years are:   (1) There are always people out of work, even during the best of times  (it was 8 million just before the Recession hit).  And  (2) There are always job openings, even during the worst of times  (in a typical month during the recession,  4 million people found jobs each month, while another 3 million vacancies remained unfilled and open, THAT MONTH).   So, finding jobs is always hard work,  but the basic question any job-hunter must ask themselves these days is:  sure,  employers are slow to hire after this terrible Recession recently, but if 4 million people found work last month, why aren't I among them?

  The one factor that makes it harder to find jobs today than was the case 40 years ago is the unwillingness on the part of an individual job-hunter to rethink how to go looking for a job in 2011.   The title of a recent book ---- "What got you here won't get you there" ----  is key.   Stubborn job-hunters  ("but this is the way I've always done it, and I'm gonna keep on doing it this way, even if it isn't working")   have a harder time than thinking job-hunters ("okay, I'm gonna read up on this and find out what the best methods are for today").

You freely admit that looking for a job is a challenge. But, rather than looking for and settling  for any old job that will pay the bills, you claim that we can set our caps for our dream job and have a good chance to nab it. What an intriguing, unsettling, perhaps counter-intuitive  idea! Can you expand on that a bit, Dick?

  I am not an inventor of ideas.  I am essentially a collector of evidence.  I work with job-hunters,  I listen to job-hunters, I counsel with job-hunters, and mull over what I see happen to them.  

  With the job-hunt in America often taking as long as two years,  I have observed that what an unemployed person needs most of all is persistence.  Keeping at it.  Stick-to-it-iveness.  And such Persistence requires energy.  And energy comes from how desperately you want,  what it is you're looking for.

  I learned, early on,  that looking for "any old job that will pay the bills" isn't inspiring enough,  doesn't generate enough energy, for the unemployed to stay persistent in the lengthy job-hunt.  They give up.  Studies show that 51 out of every one hundred, in fact, give up by the second month.

 They need something stronger beckoning them on.  A better target.  A better goal.  That's why, as it turns out, defining their own vision of what a "dream job" would be,  then setting out to find at least a part of that "dream job",  gives them a target they hunger for, and, consequently, energy, and out of that, persistence.

 Here are some recent pieces of evidence that even when finding a job becomes especially challenging,  the dream job is not only worth defining, but is actually achievable.  I've been getting letters like this for forty years:

  "I graduated college in 2008, wallowed hopelessly in career frustration and later received the best career advice of my life...which was to read your book What Color Is Your Parachute? Today, I am happily employed in job that is the envy of my peers. I'm living proof of the power of your book and I recommend it to everyone I meet."

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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