Parachute Lessons for the Job Hunt: Principles from ‘What Color is your Parachute?’

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On 31 March 2017, the recruitment world lost a very important individual. Richard N. Bolles, author of the best-selling manual for job hunting and career changing, What Color is your Parachute, passed away at the age of 90. In memory of Mr. Bolles, this article recaps some of the key job hunting principles in his famous book.

Job Hunting is a Survival Skill

In today’s uncertain world, job-hunting is no longer an optional exercise, but a survival skill that is repeatedly used over one’s life. Familiar and frustrating to many of us in the working world is how our employers sometimes hire people who are poor fits for the job. This is a cruel but unavoidable reality as the one who gets hired is not necessarily the one who can do the job best, but the one who knows the most about how to get hired. Rather than lament about this, we can learn how the world of employment works and how to use this information to our benefit.

Think like an Employer

The way a typical employer prefers to fill a vacancy is opposite to the way a job seeker prefers to look for a job. To illustrate, a typical employer prefers a low-risk strategy of employing from within the company, someone whose work has already been proven. In contrast, job seekers generally prefer to use the resume as a means to find a job. An employer’s main concern is risk, reducing the chances that the new hire would be more a liability than an asset; while the job hunter’s main concern is time, wanting to reach as many employers as possible with a single resume.

Useful Strategies for the Job Hunt

Hence, some useful tips for finding suitable employment, include:

  • Focus your efforts on smaller (fewer than 100 employees) and newer firms.
  • Write resumes to get invited for interviews, not to sell yourself.
  • At an interview, the question “Tell me about yourself” is another way of asking, “What experience, skills, or knowledges do you have, that are relevant to the job I am trying to fill?”
  • The best time to negotiate salary is between the time the employer wants you and before they have gotten you, anything before that is too early, and anytime after that is too late.
  • During salary discussion, never be the first to mention a salary figure.

Knowing Yourself

Another important strategy is to take stock of who you are. A self-inventory reveals your multiple skills and experiences, enabling you to look beyond specific job-titles. This includes finding out who you like to work with, your favourite working conditions, what you excel in and enjoy doing, your mission in life, your favourite knowledges, level of responsibility you would like and preferred places to live. Use this opportunity for change to also seek a truer and more coherent life for yourself. As Mr. Bolles says in his book, “Make this not only a hunt for a job, but a hunt for a life. A deeper life, a victorious life, a life you’re prouder of.”

Compassion for Job Hunters

More than providing strategies and revealing to us how things work, Mr. Bolles was most aware of what job hunters often most need – encouragement, humor, and lightheartedness. It is easy to become overwhelmed and depressed when the job hunt stretches. He tells us not to be discouraged by turn-downs, as every “no” gets one closer to a “yes”. No two employers are alike, a rock to one employer, is a gem to another. Lastly, he reminds job seekers to practice self-care and to “never give up”.

Boxed Story

Richard N. Bolles first self-published What Color is Your Parachute as a manual in 1970 for unemployed clergy members. Since then, Mr. Bolles had re-written the book yearly since 1975, updating it according to the times, covering major events that shook the job-hunting world such as the 2008 financial crisis and the invention of the Internet. Unique to Parachute is the focus not only on the process of the job hunt, but also on the emotional and psychological labour that is involved in the search. As to how the book got its enigmatic name, it was Mr. Bolles’ playful response to people who told him “they were ready to bail out” of their jobs.

Stories and Selves

Young adults hanging out talking

I want to begin by proposing boldly that, in effect, there is no such thing as an intuitively obvious and essential self to know, one that just sits there ready to be portrayed in words. Rather, we constantly construct and reconstruct our selves to meet the needs of situations we encounter, and we do so with the guidance of our memories of the past and our hopes and fears for the future. Telling oneself about oneself is like making up a story about  who and what we are, what’s happened, and why we’re doing what we’re doing.

It is not that we have to make up these stories from scratch each time. Our self-making stories accumulate over time, even pattern themselves on conventional genres. They get out-of-date, and not just because we grow older or wiser but because our self-making stories need to fit new circumstances, new friends, new enterprises. Our very memories fall victim to our self-making stories. It is not that I can no longer tell you (or myself) the “original, true story” about my desolation in the bleak summer after my father died. Rather, I would be telling you (or myself) a new story about a twelve-year-old “once upon a time.” And I could tell it several ways, all of them shaped as much by my life since then as by the circumstances of that long-ago summer. (p. 64-65)

I find myself telling different people different stories over time about why am I in my existing career, why this particular half-time scheme, why am I pursuing a PhD on the side. I think our career and work takes up so much of our lives that it is useful to examine the stories we tell ourselves and others about them. There are those stories about how a child had a dream to be a doctor, to save lives, but thereafter on that path, through the backbreaking work and heart-wrenching encounters, realizes maybe medicine’s not for him or her; stories about how one really wanted to be a lawyer, a policeman, a teacher, but no matter how hard one tried, those doors didn’t open. The heart-aching stories of people who spent their whole lives pursuing a career that they knew they hated, but stayed on because of the fear of taking chances and because it paid the bills . And also stories of how people stumbled into a career they loved by accident. A letter written to the forum and then talent-spotted to be a journalist.

So many, so many possible interpretations of what is happening in our lives. This blog started out as a story as well. It was a story of a girl setting out to find a job, and how qualifications and a good CV were not enough, enough to get her interviews, but not enough to impress interviewers; and how finally a kind soul employed her (what a relief that not every boss goes for the brightest spark), and how she developed empathy for those who struggled to find jobs, because of her own struggles.

Reference

Bruner, J. (2002) Making stories: Law, literature, life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Housekeeping

I’ve been doing a bit of tidying up during Christmas day and New Year day. Today, I started to put aside some of my church materials and University notes to be discarded. And it’s at this point in time that I realized, I am not going to be a:

  • Youth Worker or Church Staff
  • Sociologist or Historian
  • Biologist or Ecologist or Evolutionary Biologist or Naturalist
  • Urban Planner or Architect

I had kept the relevant notes from school, because I had harbored hope that if I had the knowledge in these fields, perhaps one day I could switch to one of these careers.

It is with some enlightenment and sigh of relief when I packed away these things, certain that these were not the paths for me.

Back then, I would have never guessed I would walk the path of an educational researcher. I would have never guessed I would be interested in Education.

I also noticed the common thread among those disciplines that caught my interest – what captured me was “structure”. The reason why I liked taxonomy, urban planning, and architecture was because I was fascinated by structure. I like things that had a fixed pattern to them. They were very beautiful to me.

*sigh* This year I’m going to be 30. And I guess, what I have helped myself to do this past 29 years was to eliminate those jobs mentioned above. I can be a hobbyist, to enjoy the fruits of those disciplines, but no, I will not pursue those as my career. Life has led me to be an educator, and though I scratch my head and wonder how can someone like me become an educator, I will embrace this path of life, until I receive further direction from above about where this path leads.

Administrative Frustrations

Administrative work creates a lot of stress in me, because there are logical steps for getting things done.

I am more of a spontaneous thinker, a brainstormer. I don’t work step-by-step. So when I do admin work, I find myself keep getting stopped in the process because a previous step was not achieved, I required clarification on another step etc etc. The whole process cannot move forward so long there are gaps in the process.

So yes, I had wanted to clear all my admin work today, on a Saturday, but I realized I cannot. The information I require to clear my work lies in the hands of other people. I can only wait till Monday to continue my work.

So administrative work requires planning and doing things in advance. It requires foresight… and permission from others to proceed forward.

It’s not like my writing work that I am fully in control of the process. I work whenever I want to. I can do whichever steps I prefer to first. I can come back later to steps I missed out on earlier… It’s so much more flexible.

I think I better learn to be more logical in my work so that I can be more efficient in administrative work…

Botanic Gardens

There’s a bittersweet feeling whenever I come to the Gardens. This was pretty much one of my dream jobs or place to work in. In the herbarium, studying specimens. In the garden, walking among plants.

As I sit under my favourite tree where I first found my pet ant-mimicking spider whom Zelanie helped me name, Herman, because we didn’t know whether it was a he or she, I feel happy and contented.

I come here whenever I was in need. When I needed restoration. When I felt great anxiety. I like plants. Unlike people, they have no expectation of you. They do not give you pressure or stress, they just are. I still my heart and enjoy the beauty of this place.

That my career path has been directed away from this place, I just have to trust God with the unknown He’s leading me towards. For whatever reason He has extended a year after a year where I currently am and given me new roles and assignments, I just submit my will to it, praying for new grace and new strength daily to face the work I have to do.

He has restored me and I will be courageous to face more tests, more temptations and more trials. This is His lot for me. And I accept it. And I praise Him.

I trust You, Lord, as I enter into this great Unknown. Lead me. And protect me. And help me love others.

Money

Money is the last thing that will draw me to a job and the last thing that will make me remain in my job.

I belong to that group of people who are willing to pay for our job. I am willing to pay with my youth, my best efforts, my suffering, pain and tears, my passions and joys, my time. Yes, I am willing to pay for my job. I give much more than I earn and in return, I receive much more than I give.

Ranting

When I was a little girl, I liked to dream who I would become. I liked nature very much. I once had an ongoing snail mail conversation with a zookeeper about my pet terrapin. I dreamed of being a florist and a grass cutter. I also had at the back of my mind a desire to be a doctor, because I like to “fix” human beings. I like to know what was wrong with the physical body of someone and find cures to it. As I drew older, maybe 12 years old, I also dream of being a journalist, but I gave that up when I enter into secondary school and found out I did not write very well, in fact English was perennially my weakest subject. When I entered into junior college, I noticed at times I can write well but it was usually the content that was good, not the language. I also started to realized I was timid by nature, not the journalist or kaypoh and daring type, so I gave up that desire to be a journalist as well. Oh yes, I wanted to be a police woman as well. I was into crime investigation, until I realized there was a minimal height to meet before you can be a police officer.

I thought about passion again when I got out of university. During my university days, I pursued Life Sciences, thinking that I really have something for “life”. But my times at university were not the best of my life and I had this nagging feeling in my heart that this field was not for me. I dream of being out there with the plants and animals, but when I really get out there the excitement dies out after awhile. As I searched for jobs, I also reached a dead end, because skills-wise, I only had “Life Sciences” skill. I was stuck. Limited by that single set of skills I acquired at university. I tried to get out. I considered doing another degree.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong asked us not to do a degree for fun, but the degree should be related to our work, the degree should help our work and our work should be what we like and are good at. I think he said something like this in his national day rally speech. But… how many of us actually end up in such an ideal situation?

I still don’t know what is my passion. I think his advice would be, stop pursuing further degrees, find your passion first.

What if my passion is in pursuing further degrees?

Recently, this question keeps coming up in my heart… What should I be doing with my life?

Adminstrative Work

This season of my work life I will be doing more administrative work. People like to complain about admin work, especially teachers, who think that such work distract them for their real task of teaching. In fact, some researchers have bad reputations in terms of not being able to handle administrative work well. It made me think that admin work is lesser than other work. But no, it is not. We must never despise the less prominent parts of the body/company/organization. We must not despise those who work in the background and who receive little attention; their work is just as important and just as difficult as those in foreground. I must change my perception. And I must learn how to do these administrative work well. In fact in church I have a reputation of being good at admin work or secretarial work. Hence, I really should stop criticizing myself at being bad at it. But humbly learn how to do it and do it well. In fact, to take pride in it, that my role is just as important as anybody else’s role.

Yes! And I should watch myself to give credit where credit is due. I must give respect to administrators and those who do admin work in general.

A puzzle

This world so puzzles me.

Some people are offered jobs and they do not want it.

Others seek so hard for one but never find it.

Career Update

It’s been four years since I got my first job. After working for 1 year, I quit, because I felt it was not what I wanted. It was too difficult for me. I wandered for another year hoping to upgrade myself through further studies or find an “easier” job, but lo and behold, an opportunity at my previous workplace came up again, because of the connection I had to my former boss, and so I grabbed that chance in a step of faith. (I was motivated to grab that chance because I learned that it was difficult to find a job in Singapore. And that the easiest way was to find one through connections.)

It was a step of faith, because I was returning to where I had left. Among the many things I had to lay down, one of them was my pride. I had to admit to myself and my former colleagues that I kind of made a wrong choice of leaving, there was awkwardness and embarrassment. Another thing I laid down was my interest. I decided to pursue a project that had nothing to do at all with my Life Sciences degree, I decided to pursue a more Artsy subject called Citizenship. I also laid down my hope for an “easier” job because the means through which I got the job was through my weakness. I got the job because my new boss was impressed by a presentation I did which showed very nice statistical findings. However, one of the reasons why I left my former job was that I did not like Statistics. Hence, I had to face my weakness again. And taking on this job, was a big step of faith for me.

But God has been gracious to me. I don’t know if you noticed, but I like writing. I’m not very good at it, but at least I enjoy  it. 🙂 Much more, than doing technical statistical analysis. I’m not a very “Number and Figures” person, but I prefer using “Words”. And while I struggled with the Statistics part and also the writing part and disappointed one of my boss, my other boss noticed that I could write.  🙂 And asked me to write more! 😀

The greatest lesson I learn from this job, which has now lasted me more than 2 years, is that, we shouldn’t quit when the going gets tough. When something is difficult, it does not necessarily mean it is not meant for us. But it could very well be that it’s a training ground where we can become better at something. I learned to persevere. I learned to accept scoldings, criticisms and feedback graciously and thankfully. And use them to become better.  I learned there is no shame in doing a bad job because I did not know the better way to do it. And I just had to embrace the lesson in each setback I faced.

I was also given a chance to pursue my Masters through this job. And I learned to break out of traditional boundaries of the 9 to 5 working hours. Being a “writer” was initially challenging to me because I found out that the writer was the “tool”. It meant that how I treated myself determined the work that I produced. If I treated to myself to a nap when I was sleepy, it resulted in much more productivity thereafter etc. If I took care of my soul and pray, I wrote much better than when I anxiously tried to work as much as I could on my own strength. These are things that we have to learn along the way.

I also discovered a new passion. That I really enjoy “career counseling”. I love to help others who are searching for jobs, to give them my perspective on their situations etc. I love to help people write better resumes. And to encourage those who feel hopeless. This blog has allowed some to cross paths with me. And I’m so grateful to God that I can use my experiences to help others. 🙂

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