What Color Is HR’s Parachute

September 1, 1998
Most authors would be thrilled to sell 20,000 copies of a book during their lifetime. But Richard Bolles sells 20,000 copies of his book, What Color is Your Parachute? each month -- and has done so for the last 25 years. Parachute was first published in 1970, and is currently published in 10 different languages. In 1995, the Library of Congress selected it for its list of “25 Books That Have Shaped Readers’ Lives.” Bolles invented much of what we know about career planning today.

What was job-hunting state-of-the-art before Parachute was written 28 years ago?
The same as it is now -- that there’s a better way to job hunt, but it hasn’t gotten out yet. Remember, although I have six million readers, that’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the 131 million people in the workforce.

What Color Is Your Parachute? has become a household term. How did you come up with it?
I wrote the book back in a time when people who were tired of their jobs said, “I’ve decided to bail out.” I always thought of an airplane when I heard that phrase, so I playfully would respond, “What color is your parachute?” When I subsequently wrote the book, I gave it that title because all my friends found it very amusing.

Some people think you got it from the phrase golden parachutes.
Actually, it was the other way around. That phrase came from the title of my book, or so a reporter for Life magazine once told me. I don’t care for the phrase, myself. My book is about how to take control of your own life, whereas the term golden parachutes implies someone else is going to take care of you.

Many aren’t aware you’re an ordained Episcopalian minister. Can you tell us something else people may not know about you?
Sure. As for my background, my studies were not only in theology, but also in psychology, chemical engineering and physics. As for what people don’t know about me and the book, the thing that surprises people the most is that I paste up the book, page by page, each year, with my own hands, scissors and paste, so it looks the way I want it to look. Then the publisher pours it into QuarkExpress.

Why do you think your book continues to sell over 200,000 copies each year -- and has for the last 25 years?
I have no idea. Of course, if I didn’t update, revise and rewrite it each year, I’m sure it would have died a rattling death long ago. Most of my mail says people like the book because it’s conversational in tone, amusing, with pictures as well as text. Plus, it works.

Can you tell us an example of how you’ve revised Parachute?
John Crystal invented a process (he was my mentor for many years and has long since gone to his reward). I named the process informational interviewing. It’s an alternative to just walking in cold or choosing a career that you don’t really know much about and then finding out later it’s a big mistake. And so, one way we told them to research the industry and to research the kind of work they were thinking of doing was to go out and do informational interviewing.

Because there are always job hunters who like to cut corners, unfortunately, there were immediately those who saw this a really clever, sneaky way to get in to see somebody within the organization. It got so the idea of informational interviewing started having a very bad name.

I looked at it one day, and I realized there was one key omission in my description on what informational interviewing was. It’s not supposed to be with the boss or the person who has the ability to hire you, but rather, one step lower than that. It’s supposed to be with the person who is actually doing the work you’re thinking about doing.

You ultimately save your potential employer a lot of grief by doing informational interviewing because you don’t waste the time getting hired there, only to discover one month later that it isn’t the job you thought it was. So informational interviewing is to the advantage of the employer as much as it is to the advantage of the job hunter. But I found I had to emphasize that. I had to say that if you misuse it as a sneaky way to get in to see the person who has the power to hire you, that’s not informational interviewing.

I have gotten more and more emphatic about that as the years progress -- I don’t like seeing job-hunters playing tricks on employers. After all, I’m an employer myself, as well as an ongoing advocate for the rights of job hunters.

Do you think there are people in HR who disagree with your advice to job hunters?
Oh, sure. The antecedents of HR lay in the invention of personnel departments during the Great Depression to ward off armies of job hunters. Therefore, I warn people who are beyond job screening to stay away from HR departments. I recall an HR organization that [invited me to speak as] one of their keynoters, and someone publicly asked why I warned people to stay away from HR departments during their job hunt. I replied, “Don’t answer this out loud, just think about it -- if you were out of work, would you apply to the HR department?” I saw by their faces they would not, whereupon I continued, “If you know enough to stay away from that department during your job hunt, why should that same information not be given to the average job hunter?”

Do you think all HR people disagree with your advice in Parachute?
Oh, by no means. I know a lot of HR people, and many of them tell me how much they like what I tell job hunters. In fact, one HR person once phoned me and said, “Please warn people to stay away from this place.”

If an HR director or staff person has to perform the screening-out function because that’s why they were hired, how can they elevate the function of the HR department where they work, vis-a-vis job hunters?
Well, I think it starts with what’s going on in your head. I think what an HR person ought to ‘get off on’ is not their power -- to deny access -- but rather, compassion. If you, as an HR person, realize you may be job hunting next week, that definitely makes you more compassionate toward this person in front of you.

Taking a few minutes to help them figure out in what areas they’re excellent often will be the difference. “Are you happiest working with people, data or things?” is one way to start that conversation. It’s amazing how much you can help people in a brief amount of time, if your goal is compassion, not power.

What if the boss comes down hard on the HR department for “wasting time” this way?
I’d probably make a little speech, were I in their shoes, something like the following: “I appreciate your concern, of course. I feel that the HR department isn’t only here to work internally, but also here to deal with how the organization is perceived out there in the world. If I spend a little time with those whom I have to turn away, they’re going to go out singing the praises of this organization and telling everyone how great we are. That kind of goodwill all the marketing and public relations dollars in the world can’t buy.”

Is ‘screening out’ the only reason you advise job hunters to avoid the HR department (where there is one), or are there other issues?
No, I don’t think job hunters have any other issues with the HR department -- I certainly don’t. Many, many HR people are my friends; many know and use my book. We treat each other as allies, not adversaries.

I re-read Parachute this year, and what leaped out at me was how much spirituality there is in the book. Would you comment?
Thanks, I much appreciate such observations. That’s due to my background, of course. But it’s also due to something [forecaster] George Gallup once told me over lunch: Since 1960, their poll had revealed the same thing every year: about 92 percent of the American people believe in some concept of God. I’m unafraid to talk about this, and I get such grateful letters from my readers who appreciate my integrating spirituality into the job hunt -- an overwhelming part of my mail, in fact. The chapter in my book called “How to Find Your Mission in Life” is hands-down the most popular part of the book, judging from my mail.

Your book is also playful -- could you talk about that aspect of its spirit?
I’ve always thought playfulness was an essential ingredient to daily happiness; I learned this from my father, who was an editor for the Associated Press. I think all playfulness begins with not taking ourselves too seriously at all. For example, I get up in the morning, look like a normal 6-foot 5-inch man, who faces the day confident of his ability to cope. But I wear suspenders, and often as I put on my pants I catch my heel in those suspenders, and pitch myself into the wall. I stand there laughing and laughing. The gulf between our pretensions and our actual performance is a source of great amusement to me. I think all playfulness begins with that gulf.

Can we do word associations?

A dying art, I think. Companies now seem to be concentrating on the services they give to those who remain, not just to those who are downsized.

Corporate training programs.
A mixed bag. Some HR people are excellent at identifying their organi-zation’s training needs. Others just run after the latest fad or the latest buzzword.

A well-intentioned attempt to give brief help to people, after brief training. Sometimes, its emphasis is unfortunately on bailing people out of a dilemma, instead of teaching them how to solve it for themselves. Only the latter is worthy of the name of coaching.

Always saluted by the stock market, always decried by the people who lose their jobs. As a trend in society, it has produced great profits but at the cost of tremendous human suffering. Downsizing often shatters people’s trust -- they never trust again.

Well, there’s a hostile merge and then there’s a marriage desired by both partners. Big difference. Shotgun marriages are to be avoided both in the home and in the business world.

The best are those who ask all the resident managers what decisions they would reverse if they were in charge of that place, sifting those [decisions], and then recommending the best. In other words, in most cases, the best consultants are those already inside the organization. The best outside consultant is one who knows that and uses it -- rather than coming in with a ready-made solution, one size fits all.

On a personal note, I’ve found it’s impossible to mention your name around without someone saying, “He turned my life around,” or “That book changed my life.” Tell me about life as a cult hero.
Well, let me first of all comment on that last phrase. A young priest was once asking his mentor what to do with all the praise he received after every Sunday’s sermon. The wise, old priest replied, “Listen, but don’t inhale.” If anyone starts to think of him or herself as a cult hero, the person has got more problems than he or she knows. A certain humility -- a certain sense that God is working through one, and therefore, the credit belongs to Him and not to us -- is essential to growing old gracefully. And I’d like to grow old gracefully. I’m 71.

But your question reminds me of a woman from Canada who once wrote me to say that my book had changed her life. I wrote back, “Would you mind telling me precisely what it was in my book that changed your life?” She responded, “Oh, that sentence about ‘you can do anything you set your mind to doing.’”

I was puzzled about that for a long time. Such a simple sentence, so obvious -- how did that change her life? As I thought about it, I saw a picture in my mind of people pushing a snowball up a hill during the winter. The snowball, of course, was getting larger and larger, while they were puffing harder.

Eventually, they got the snowball to the crest -- a brief crest where the hill almost immediately sloped down the other way. They paused to rest, and accidentally brushed against the huge snowball, whereupon it started careening down the other side of the hill all by itself.

We all huff and puff while dealing with life’s difficulties and adversities, but eventually, we get to the top of some hill in our life, where we have a chance to catch our breath. At that moment in the life of a job hunter, the briefest sentence, the briefest encouragement, can start the snowball of our life down the other side, with increasing ease and speed. I think my book is often picked up by people just as they are at the crest of that hill, at which point almost anything they read can have a great effect upon them.

I don’t mean to dismiss the content of the book, or how hard I strive to make it useful. But overall, it’s a very humbling thing to have your book used in this fashion in people’s lives -- it’s a kind of spiritual manual masquerading as a job-hunting book. I think anyone who helps change the life of another person has been midwife to an extraordinary event. And helping people is why we’re all in the HR business, isn’t it?

Workforce, September 1998, Vol. 77, No. 9, pp. 50-54.