Exactly ten years ago I wrote a column on careers guidance in which I described how when I joined the Rotary Club of Nairobi in 1978 the first job I was given was to take care of the careers guidance portfolio.
Like most young people making their way through their school years I had never received any serious help in deciding on what I should be doing after emerging from my education, and so it was – and still is – with just about every young Kenyan today.
There was no Google to consult on how I should approach my onerous new Rotary responsibility, but happily I came across What Colour is my Parachute? by Richard Bolles, a brilliant book that was to become my bible on the subject – and that of so many others all around the world, with over ten million copies having now been sold, in twenty-two languages.
What Colour is my Parachute? has been around since 1970 and revised every year since 1975, sometimes substantially. The transformation of the workplace environment and the arrival of the Internet have resulted in job-seekers having to adopt radically different approaches to matching what they have to offer with what employers are seeking, and this brilliant book has always kept pace with the evolving trends.
The edition I first bought was the 1978 one, and just recently the 2018 version, in which I read that Mr Bolles died last year at the age of ninety. I felt I had lost someone precious to me, and so this article serves as a tribute to him, a celebration of his life.
With Google now at my elbow, I found the New York Times obituary to Mr Bolles, in which it quotes him as writing in his book that “job-hunting is an art form, more like dating than like selling a used car. You may never understand why things sometimes work, and sometimes don’t.”
What I so appreciate about the book today, just as much as I did when I first stumbled across that much earlier edition, is that beyond being a guide to the job market it offers a powerful yet straightforward way of helping readers understand themselves — the most neglected of all aspects of the process, I have consistently found. They are helped to figure out what they really like doing and are good at, so they can then find the job that would let them do it.
The obituary informs us that it had never entered Mr Bolles’ mind that he would write a blockbuster. “I was just trying to help people be better prepared than I was when I was fired and started looking for a job,” he said in an earlier interview.
Mr Bolles explained that the title was inspired by the expression, common among people weary of their jobs, that they wanted to “bail out”. “I always thought of an airplane,” he explained, “so I playfully would respond, ‘What color is your parachute?’”
He put little hope in job postings and CVs, and instead encouraged job seekers to form personal connections through means such as the informational, or exploratory, interview – which I also strongly recommend.
He pushed readers to treat a job search like a major project, a full-time occupation. And as for job interviews, these should be seen as conversations between the two sides, to see if what one is offering the other is seeking, and to determine whether the chemistry the culture fit, is right.
The central wisdom of “Parachute” has remained constant, whether I go back to my 1970s version or consult the current one.
Yes, people conduct job searches differently, but how interviews unfold hasn’t changed at all.
“It’s still two people circling each other,” he pointed out, “trying to figure out if they like each other enough to actually spend time together in a productive relationship,” explaining “I think that has remained the same because human nature has not changed.”
So my advice to job-seekers – at any age – is invest in a copy of Mr Bolles’ masterpiece. You’ll be really glad you did. And good news: his son will be continuing to update the contents in future editions.