Changing Careers? Before Bailing Out, Check Your Parachute, Advises Best-Selling Priest Richard Bolles

updated 07/16/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/16/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Give me a fish and I will eat for today; teach me to fish and I will eat for the rest of my life.

With the inspiration of that ancient Chinese proverb, Episcopal priest Richard Nelson Bolles has landed a big one: a best-seller that will keep him in fish—and in the chips—for the rest of his own life. It is his paperback on job hunting and career change, What Color Is Your Parachute? Making the change, counsels Bolles, 52, is a lengthy process of redefining goals and identifying skills. His pragmatic, step-by-step manual tells how—and the millionth buyer has just been hooked.

Bolles' approach is irreverent. Skip mailing résumés, he says("Only one interview results from every 245 received"), and avoid employment agencies("Out of every 100 people who walk through the agency door, only four or five are placed"). Instead, Bolles advises, spend up to three months assessing your skills and interests, then find the company that can best use them. He suggests: "Locate the person with the power to hire and then approach him or her." The book also provides tips on job interviews, lists of career counseling centers and techniques for personal assessment. There is also a special section on mid-life career changes and 18 pages aimed at the extra problems of women in the job search.

Bolles knows the pinch of unemployment from personal experience. In 1968, while one of Bishop James Pike's canons at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, he was forced to hit the pavement because of "budget cuts and politics." Employment agencies, he quickly discovered, assumed that his preaching skills meant he would be a whiz as a high-powered sales pitchman—"spurious logic at best," he now says.

Eventually Bolles landed a job as a troubleshooter for the United Ministries in Higher Education, an organization of nine Christian denominations. While traveling around the nation visiting campus ministries, he began a pamphlet for UMHE members that mapped the pitfalls of job hunting. Bolles titled his 162-page manuscript What Color Is Your Parachute? to dramatize the necessity of planning ahead before plunging into the job hunt. Then in 1970 he wangled $2,600 in credit to print 1,000 copies—and offered it to UMHE members for $5. Orders poured in from, among other places, General Electric and the Pentagon. "Word of mouth was our sole promotion," he recalls.

By 1972 Bolles had an offer to publish the manuscript from Ten-Speed Press, a small, Berkeley-based house committed to offbeat titles. Since then Parachute has been updated and revised annually. Currently it ranks No. 3 on the paperback best-seller charts (behind only How to Flatten Your Stomach and The Joy of Sex).

The author is naturally flying high. He travels around the nation presiding over workshops on job hunting and is booked nine months in advance. One of his gambits is to darken auditoriums and use such arresting props as fluorescent chalk on a blackboard ("It's the kid in me," he says).

The kid is the son of an Associated Press bureau chief from New York. (Brother Don Bolles was the Arizona Republic reporter killed in Phoenix in the 1976 bombing of his car while investigating a Mafia story.) Richard started out as a science major at MIT and Harvard, then switched to the Episcopal ministry when he learned engineering jobs were tight. Before Pike hired him in 1966, he had been a parish priest in New Jersey for 13 years. The father of four, he is divorced from his second wife and plans to stay single—"knock on wood."

Bolles is now free to enjoy his $200,000-a-year income. He often leaves his small, gadget-filled Walnut Creek, Calif. apartment to fly to New York to catch a Broadway show. On occasion he sends plane tickets to friends so they can come visit him. He sees that his mother gets a red rose every day, because she once told him, "If I had your money, I'd have a fresh rose on my table every day."

Since Parachute, Bolles has written two other how-to books, Where Do I Go from Here with My Life? and The Three Boxes of Life and How to Get Out of Them. His work in progress is a personal memoir on growing up. "To grow is to change," explains Bolles. "To become perfect is to change often."

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