For career guide, 42 years of soft landings

Richard Bolles’s “What Color Is Your Parachute?” is a classic of its genre — and a perennial best-seller.
Peter DaSilva/New York Times
Richard Bolles’s “What Color Is Your Parachute?” is a classic of its genre — and a perennial best-seller.

Richard Bolles does not mince words.

“Let us put the matter simply and candidly,” he writes. “The whole process of the job hunt in this country is Neanderthal.”

That assertion is from his famous career book, “What Color Is Your Parachute?” It is not from the most recent edition, though, but from the very first commercially published edition, which was issued by Ten Speed Press in 1972.


According to Bolles, now 87, the job-hunting process is still somewhat Neanderthal. But it is certainly less so because of “Parachute,” which he continues to update annually. The book has sold a total of 10 million copies and has been translated into 20 languages. If you roll all 40-plus editions together, it is the best-selling book ever published by Ten Speed Press (now a division of Random House). And it’s still going strong.

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Bolles was kind enough to lend me his only copy of that 1972 edition, so I could compare it with the 2015 version, which came out this month. Then, as now, the subtitle is: “A Practical Manual for Job Hunters and Career Changers.” Beyond that, I wondered what had stayed the same in the book.

When I went through the 42-year-old copy, I was struck by how pertinent most of its advice still was. Yes, it contains references to “personnel departments” (even the newer name for those, “human resources,” is starting to sound dated) and the wording may occasionally sound sexist to modern ears (“You must identify the man who has the power to hire you and show him how your skills can help him with his problems.”)

But three main points in the book still hold, as Bolles explained in a personal note he sent along with the book:

The traditional job-hunting system is a numbers game that is “heavily loaded toward failing the job hunter.”


 A “creative minority” has come up with nontraditional, highly successful methods of job hunting that involve choosing the places you want to work and approaching the people there who can hire you.

 Before choosing those places, job hunters must look inward, figuring out what they would most love to do — and where, geographically, they want to do it.

Those three concepts are as relevant in 2014 as they were in 1972, as are the shock of rejection, the loss of self-esteem, and the depression that can result from a prolonged round of job hunting, which Bolles also covers. Those parts of the book have stayed the same because human nature doesn’t change, he said.

But many aspects of the most recent edition of “Parachute” would sorely perplex readers from 1972. “What is this Google he speaks of?” they would ask, after reading Bolles’ admonition that “Google is your new résumé.” And he peppers his commentary with references to LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

Technology, of course, has brought the most radical change in job hunting since the 1970s. Barbara Safani, president of Career Solvers, a career management firm in New York, said in an e-mail that Bolles “has stayed relevant to new generations of readers because he embraces the Internet and social media as important resources for job seekers and helps them demystify job boards and social networking sites.”


The 1972 Ten Speed edition is actually not the first. Bolles self-published initially, printing out the first 500 copies of “What Color Is Your Parachute?” at the Copy Copia in San Francisco. He illustrated it with lithographs he was able to obtain free. Held together by a flimsy plastic binder, it was originally a guide for clergy members who were losing their jobs in a changing economy.

Bolles, himself, was in that group. Ordained an Episcopal priest, he was in his early 40s when he was laid off in 1968 from his job as pastor of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. He then got a job as a minister to chaplains who served on university campuses in nine Western states.

Many of the ministers’ jobs, and church jobs in general, were being cut. The ministers said to him: “You’ve been fired — tell us what to do,” he recalled. The traditional route was to go back to school and retrain for work in another field, but that was not feasible for most of them — especially if they had families to support.

Bolles did not know what to tell the ministers, but he did have a large travel budget. So he toured the country doing research on the realities of job hunting, and he wrote up the results. Then he began devoting himself to the book full time. That’s been his job ever since.

(About that catchy, enigmatic title: When he was first gathering information for the book, he would hear people say that “they were ready to bail out” of their jobs. At one point he playfully responded, “Well, then, what color is your parachute?”)

Somehow — he says he does not know how — the crude-looking manual ended up in the hands of people at the Pentagon, General Electric, and other organizations, and he started getting orders from laity. And Phil Wood, founder of Ten Speed Press, approached him about adapting his 128-page guide for the general public. After that, it hit the best-seller lists.

Bolles has followed his own advice, by pursuing what he most loves to do. After making one momentous career change in midlife, he has continued working long past the age when most people have retired. He says his work is not repetitive, as there is always so much more to learn. He sometimes changes the structure of the book from one year to the next to keep things interesting, he said.

Married to his fourth wife, with four children and 10 grandchildren, he lives in Danville, Calif., not far from where he once served as a minister. The proceeds from “Parachute,” he acknowledged, have allowed him to live well.

But that isn’t the main reason he keeps revising the book and giving talks about it, year after year, he said. As he wrote in the note he sent me with the 1972 book: “This work — revising, rewriting, updating and teaching the book each year — is now my life, and my reason for being on Earth.”