What Colour is your Parachute

I read my first copy of Richard Bolles’ seminal job-hunting tome What Color is your Parachute in the late 1990s. The big cheeses at The Firm had decided to move away from research, and out of electronics towards development and software. I was wondering if I should stay with my first love, which was electronics design, or stay with the Firm.1

Parachute is a great resource and a good read. At the heart its message is as old as the Delphic Oracle itself – know thyself. Around that message, however, is a good periphery of tactics and perspective. There is only one problem. Parachute is a weapon of contemplative reflection. You can’t use it under fire, IMO, and when do most people turn their attention to looking for a job?

When they either need a job right now, or are fearful of losing the one they have already.

I’m not looking for a job, despite Monevator exhorting the early retiree to get their sorry ass back to the workplace for a day a week. Although Britain is a post-Christian country, the feeling that the devil makes work for idle hands seems to run deeply through the personal finance community. I’d fingered Calvin for the problem, but it seems the ‘work and suffering is good for you’ meme runs deeper than him

Here in the West we have a lineage of puritanical belief systems that still leave their mark, and all forms of Christianity teach that suffering brings us closer to God.

Niall Ferguson made the case a few years ago that this Protestant work ethic is the reason that the West is cock of the rock, his crystal ball didn’t show that the fire was burning out rapidly. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Read widely – library ebooks don’t have late fees

The Ermine reads widely, particularly as the library lets you borrow ebooks for free, and a little munging with Calibre gets that onto a Kindle which makes it easier to read in the park, or a particularly favourite little beauty spot near me with a swing seat and a glorious view. So when I saw a copy of WCIYP 2018 I thought I might take a look at what’s changed over 20 years

Billed as a practical manual for job-hunters and career-changers, it is an interesting read. It has been nearly thirty years since I last applied for a job in the open market2, and getting on for eight since I applied for an internal job, so much has changed. The first part of the book is about the conventional approach, and why this doesn’t work. This is the method the DWP push the unemployed into – registering with Monster jobs and scattercasting CVs3. I’ve only actually ever once had a CV work, and this was at the very beginning of my career, and even that was responding to a newspaper small ad which invited applications with a CV.

The problem with resumés and CVs is that they only work when employers are finding it tough to fill jobs.

when times are good, employers often have difficulty filling their vacancies, so they will typically cater to the job-hunter’s preferences in such a season. We like resumes, so they will take the trouble to solicit, look at, and read our resumes. We like job-postings, so they will post their vacancies where we can find them: on their own site or on job-boards, typically.

Parachute highlighted that applicants are trying to minimise the amount of time they spent on the search, whereas employers wanted to minimise risk – to them of hiring the wrong person. In economic good times employers meet applicants on the applicants’ turf. At other times they favour their own turf, which is described at length in the first half of the book. Networking, mainly.

Am I glad I’m outta there… I’ve been to networking events where Mrs Ermine was networking.  She is more outgoing that I am, so it presumably worked for her. As an observer, to me it all looked like shallow glad-handing and that hungry look in people’s eyes of what can you do for me, and they switch off PDQ when they realise you don’t have anything to offer them. It’s how I imagine speed-dating to work, and I’d hate to have to depend on my minimal desire for that sort of thing. What I find even more bizarre is that some people say this sort of thing is fun, and the tone colour of their voice seems to indicate that they aren’t lying. WTAF is that about, there really is now’t as queer as folk?

Ask not what job you can do. Ask what job you would love to do

The part that was of interest to an Ermine, however, was the second half – where you turn the question round, and look at this from the point of view of what are your skills, predilections and aptitudes, you create a profile of yourself, and query what sort of job would match that. There’s a nasty streak of the do what you love, love what you do meme in this. There’s space in part of the jobs market for DWYL-LWYD, but it’s nowhere near even 10% of the world’s wage slaves. The case is well made here that DWYL-LWYD devalues work and hurts workers. WCIYP doesn’t quite cross that line.

There’s an online (paid) form of the process on here, but any decent public library carries a copy of Parachute. The profile takes the form of a seven-petal flower, the petals each describing a particular aspect of how the world of work interfaces with you as a human being. It’s an interesting and holistic way of expressing that.

Here’s a worked example, the flower for this dude, who is one of Bolles’ mates who drafted this first in 1982. Bear in mind that this is a fellow who spake thusly

a Thought Leader for the Life Reimagined Project, helping 39 million AARP members find meaning and purpose in navigating a new phase of aging and career development.

and Ermine Command has only a mesh waste basket, which holds back the chunks but sadly lets the watery part of the sick through. Each to their own, eh? At least you have the headlines of the petals and an illustration. I’m not familiar with the AARP, which seems more Saga4 than Age Concern.

I did the exercises in Parachute, and found them instructive. Take part 1 – people. If I were looking for work, I would want to work with people who were/had

  1. Integrity
  2. Supportive
  3. Bright
  4. reliable
  5. [I would be] not micromanaged
  6. competent [at what they do]
  7. stable

The method of discovering this was basically look at who you worked with in the past and what pissed you off most about them, rank this and take the inverse, my requirements are the inverted image of two of the foulest bosses I had

the second petal, my favourite working conditions are

  1. sense of community/esprit de corps
  2. Not open plan
  3. Not London
  4. short commute (<30 min)
  5. small town not city
  6. not using public transport

The central petal, you take seven biggest projects/jobs you’ve done and see what they used5. I was surprised to find among these, I had evidence of

People Skills

  1. lead
  2. supervise/manage
  3. consult
  4. Assess, evaluate
  5. communicate well in writing

Skills with Data, Ideas

  1. Create, innovate,invent
  2. design, use artistic abilities, be original
  3. use my brain
  4. synthesise, combine parts into a whole
  5. organise, classify
  6. analyse, break down into parts
  7. work with numbers, compute
  8. solve problems
  9. plan
  10. program
  11. research
  12. examine, inspect, compare, see similarities and differences

Much of the People section was a surprise to me, It’s easier, of course, looking back over 30 years of full-time work, this would be tougher if I were in my early twenties. I was surprised, the story I told myself was that I was a loner who hardly interacted with people and preferred the lab, whereas much of my working life, arguably the functional high-water mark across 18 years in to 27 years in was spent with more than half people skills. A serious ‘know thyself’ fail, really 😉

I had discarded all that experience because I still thought of myself as a lone wolf, which I am/was, but was adaptable enough to learn how to lead people and present stuff in public even though it was not my favoured role. People stuff tends to pay better, however, and it appears I followed the money more than I thought I had…

The tragedy, of course, was when this might have done me some good in showing the competencies6 that were written in my working record, I was too desperate to stand back and take stock when I needed to do it, presumably this methodology  was in WCIYP 2009, which I didn’t bother to read, because I had already thrown the switches for the off-ramp.

However, more surprising to me was the favourite knowledges/fields of interest. They included

  1. photography
  2. field recording
  3. travelling
  4. ancient stones/prehistoric sites
  5. leading/small community projects
  6. microcontrollers/sensors/IoT
  7. composting

My view of myself was biased towards what I did for my working life, which was engineering. Although the first two require some technical competence, this is a small part, it is the artistic part of choosing the defining light/subject/moment and soundmap/subject that are key to success in those fields.

There is a general strong tendency towards storytelling and narrative in my post-work activities than there was in my working life, and correspondinlgy less problem-solving. There is also a wider variety of people from more disparate walks of life in my activities now, which is odd for a Myers-Briggs INTJ.

It is possible that working made me more antipathetic to people – after all, now, if I don’t really like someone then I can usually avoid them, which makes interacting with other people easier. Explainer for extroverted readers – dealing with people costs introverts nervous energy, effectively there are only so many people slots per unit time. Take out the right PITAs at work that cost a lot of energy and introverts become functionally less introverted 😉

Of those seven items only one is technical. I would hate to have to follow Monevator’s dictum and try and make money from that mess one day a week. 1 and 2 do make me some money, but I would starve if I relied on them for income. I am not good enough at either to make a proper living if I applied myself full-time. I am better than I was a couple of years ago but there is still a long way to go.

To get the best out of the second part of the book, you need to read it at a time when you aren’t actively looking for a job or in fear of losing yours imminently. You need time to answer those questions reflectively.

The amount of networking it would take to make WCIYP’s second half route work is huge, however. Bolles  must assume a Dunbar number that is much, much higher than 150, perhaps along these lines. Maybe the DWP isn’t being as mean as I assumed – if you are unemployed and want a job, you can fold in on yourself somewhat, which isn’t conducive to WCIYP’s  networking methods at all.

If you are working, What Colour is Your Parachute will be more useful to you while employed

To use it well you have to be able to take in the philosophy of Parachute, and that’s easier done from relative security.The second half of the book is a big picture thing, strategy, not tactics. I did ask myself, when I read it, does it tell me anything that I essentially got wrong in my journey through my working life? I am not sure there is, my younger self switched jobs enough to reach a level congenial to me, and I had a long run when work was good enough. I could have taken more chances, but since I didn’t adapt to adverse circumstances at the end of my working life perhaps this was just as well.

I got something from it too, even though I am not looking for work.

Parachute was useful in clarifying my interests, but it won’t get me a job

I am not going to return to being an engineer7 – the fact that two of the leading interests and a couple I left out are biased towards the humanities  seems to point away from that. I have no idea why, perhaps there is an unconscious urge towards balance. In economic activity you should play towards your strongest suit, the humanities are not mine at all.

Without thirty years of experience in the fields I want to explore I am going to be a long way behind people my age who have honed their craft for decades. I am still going to be an economic deadbeat.

Extending Parachute’s philosophy tells me I have been underspending, and should do more – travel to see more stones and take pictures. The retired me spending is a different creature from the working me spending, even if the spending is on the same class of things/experiences. I got out of the workplace early by shooting much non-essential spending, but the overhang of that is starting to cost me. I will never make an economic return on these activities, but I will sharpen the saw. Mastery has reward in and of itself. It doesn’t matter that I won’t make an economic return, quality of life is about more than economics, once you have enough.

It’s surprising how many well-educated people seem to fear getting bored in retirement. That always struck me as bizarre, let’s hear it from the AoM on the 3 characteristics of an educated man, I don’t think they’re particularly gendered.

work, time and  commitment

Parachute invites you to ask what you like and dislike about work, and the power balance is what I disliked. The point of becoming financially independent is summarised in my favourite hokey American ad for having savings:

Running against that, I was fearful of running out of money before I could draw my pension. So after a couple of years of recuperation I did a couple of jobs, one was a research project, the other some bookkeeping. The research work was paid on results, not time, and it made me more discriminating about the world of work. Work defined in terms of time is a Bad Thing in my view.

Socially that is regressive – I can afford to take that point of view because I don’t need the income. Most workers have outgoings like rent and food that flow at a certain rate per unit time, so work that returns an income of a certain amount per unit time is a good match for the basic need to keep the wolf from the door. The working day was introduced measured in time after a lot of struggle with employer abuses of piece work – the issues are to be seen in what they are trying to forestall in the government definition of minimum wage for piecework.

Once you are FI piecework is no biggie – if the price isn’t right, walk away, if The Man gets uppity, walk off the job. The financially independent must be the worst employees ever. At least volunteers wanted to be there, at the beginning, and managing volunteers is really, really hard. Managing FI workers must be like wrestling ferrets in a sack.

Work demands your presence, and it consumes headspace. That’s okay when you’re in your twenties and thirties – you’ve got a realistic expectation of having fifty years ahead of you, you can spare some of that. But as you get into your fifties and beyond, time gets more valuable relative to money, and priorities can shift. Parachute intimated to me that I have given too much headspace to the issue of money, keeping an imagined wolf from the door, and not yet enough to living well. I may not need the job Parachute points me to, which I would need to network into heritage organisations to get.

3 months later…

I wrote this article back in July, it’s always good to grind the axe against the Protestant work ethic. Trouble is, halfway through writing it a bit of engineering work came my way, which weakened the thesis somewhat, so I stuck it on ice. The work was fun, self-contained, and easy money.

I still view of engineering as something done in a big company lab somewhere with this sort of inscription above the door

rather than something that happens in my garage. It seemed, however, that the Universe had other plans. Plans of mice and men gang aft agley.


  1. Staying with electronics would have been a terrible idea in hindsight, this was field that was rapidly being run out of the UK at the sort of level I was working in, largely because business forces were driving strongly towards the use of commercial off the shelf stuff and accepting the short lifetime before obsolescence in return for lower costs. This was a few years some other bright spark decided that The Firm should become a ‘fast follower’ which was a few more years before yet another bright spark decided to outsource all the software development to India, where funnily enough the wife of the CEO had a large stake in the BPO/outsourcing firm who got the job. 
  2. An interesting stat from the book was from the U.S. Department of Labor, which revealed that the average person in the U.S. born between 1957 and 1964, had to go job-hunting 17.2 times from when they were 18 years old until they were 48 – the corresponding figure for me was 5, I have led either a charmed or an unadventurous working life 
  3. it seems I am out of touch and Monster no longer run this. It’s a little depressing that the first categories offered on findajob are trade & construction, hospitality & catering, maintenance, logistics & warehouse, none of these fields are noted for inspiring pay levels… 
  4. I am proud to say that so far the Saga corporation have yet to get an Ermine in its sights and send me bucketloads of junk mail promoting cruises, stairlifts and walk-in baths. How I managed to stay under their radar for over five years beats me. I only get these as a drive-by shooting from my membership of the RSPB, from the sort of ads I infer that the membership of wildlife and heritage organisations are not generally spring chickens 
  5. A criticism I would make of Parachute is that much of this methodology is no good to you until you’re about halfway through your working life. It’s easy for me looking back over three decades, not so easy if you are 25, where arguably it’s more important to set direction for the next 40 years 
  6. Modern interviewing practice promotes competency-based interviews, where you come up with a narrative of how you displayed a particular general skill/apprach. I learned how to pass interviews in a time when interviews tended to be ‘we have this issue, tell me how you would tackle it’. As a result I never learned how to generalise competencies in a narrative structure, Parachute’s Chapter  7 and 8 – Self-Inventory put across what this means in a way that corporate training courses at the time of this transition didn’t – or perhaps my 20-year older self can stand back more and view this as an intellectual exercise rather than an existential threat. 
  7. I didn’t even get to the end of writing the article before doing just that for a couple of days, so much for the quality of insight I achieved using Parachute me, eh ;) 
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16 thoughts on “What Colour is your Parachute”

  1. When I was made redundant in 2016, I had to have training on applying for jobs as it had been 20 years since I’d applied externally or had an external interview. Networking was top of the list, so I just took that to mean going out for drinks with ex-colleagues – it’s not something I enjoy doing otherwise! The training course I attended did have some of the elements you describe from the book, eg the qualities of people you liked to work with (which incidentally matched my own qualities), identifying skills I didn’t know I had. Anyway, I eventually got my current job just uploading my CV onto one of those places which have a gazillion other CVs.

    Re ebooks for Kindle – I can’t believe it never occurred to me to use Calibre to convert the library files! I look forward to no longer having to lug big hardbacks around on my commute! Thanks for the tip!

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  2. You think you had bad bosses, E? You should meet my current one… Or not. And it doesn’t help that my previous two bosses – at my previous employers – were amazing. Technically brilliant, great with people, supportive, seriously, I never had a slightest doubt about either of them being 100% behind me, whatever happened. Save for fraud or gross negligence perhaps 😉. And while I worked at these companies I made bad financial decisions, and lived the life of a consumer sucker. Landing my current gig was like taking the red pill in the Matrix. Unpleasant but necessary, IMHO.

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  3. People think the world only spins on its axis by using money every day, but actually money is just an IOU for the real lubricant of life on this planet and that is surplus energy. There is a cost to producing energy and we live in the hydrocarbon age, countries economies fundamentally depend on how much oil or gas they can afford right now, sustainable energy is still irrelevant for various reasons in the grand scheme of things.

    In fairy tales, based on how life was in pre-industrial revolutionary times, they often started with ”A poor woodcutter…..” because that’s what the energy that fueled life was limited to in those days, translating to a feudal, basically animal existence level for the vast majority and just Ok for the 0.001%. Even so, the poor on benefits today may have heating in winter which would be better than the elite of that time for example.

    But the party is over now that the oilocene/plastic era is ending, because in energy terms, all the low hanging fruit has been picked, so prosperity has hit the buffers inevitably, given our entire way of life is based on consuming and waste which is only viable when energy is a certain level of cheapness. If someone with a chainsaw can cut 100 trees in a day now, which the woodcutter (axe) could only do one tree in, guess what it means? We can only regress to feudalism via rapid population decline; the ignorance of the masses on this is fuelling the populism which will crash civilisation faster. Locally, we have the precedent of the Roman withdrawal, so nothing really changes in history.

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  4. A great read a always. Back to your stones & photography – do you have the 2nd Julian Cope book where he visits the stones of Europe (The Megalithic European) – there are a lot you can go & visit in the coming years beyond the ones on the little patch of land we call home.

    Once my kids of flown the nest i intend to visit many of the significant ones on the Scottish islands one summer. It
    will make a great tour.

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    1. Indeed I do – and unlike his other one it hasn’t converted itself into the loose-leaf edition, the binding has held. You’ll have your work cut ont to see the Scottish ones in one summer even with a Calmac hopscotch ticket – there are so many 😉 Orkney was great earlier this year, and Lewis has rich pickings what with Callanish and the surrounding sites.

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  5. Despite being 15 odd years older, in a different discipline, and 5 time zones away – I find your narratives to be shockingly reminiscent and applicable to my prior work life. Where we differ is in MTBI (I am INFJ so I suppose the internal feelings were more of an issue) and the fact that I encountered the work BS much later so had more time to save and be FI.
    My wife and I have financial security now and in my 70s why in hell would I want to put up with workplace mayhem or micro-management by some 30 something toff? It would be a McJob anyway unless I wanted to do contract R&D for a cannabis firm. I’m serious -real Food Science R&D has gone away to the US.
    I was probably a decent enough people person most of my career – although I hated middle management a lot of the time. I did my best work as an informal leader though. Towards the end, I got depressed and probably a bit paranoid. Finally I just said “sod it” and got out. I never wanted to go back. Never did.
    I did a couple of years as a volunteer to help get a small coffee company off the ground – but I left once they were of a size where politics began creeping in.
    Photography, some travel and a bit of writing suit me just fine. The food industry in Canada has changed so much I’d never get hired in the same capacity as a young person today anyway.

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    1. > contract R&D for a cannabis firm

      It looks like the demand is there y’know 😉

      I guess the time of the big industrial research labs has passed in many places, I was talking to a university friend who had worked for/with EMI’s central research lab who said it’s been razed to the ground when he looked at it on Google maps, though the name has been hijacked for a a co-working space/incubator. Which is what they are trying to do with The Firm’s place where I worked.

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      1. Unilever still has Colworth House and Port Sunlight, but they are closing down Vlaardingen Research Centre and relocating to a university-corporation research park in Wageningen. My former colleagues who worked on lipid research have either retired or their specialty has been sold to a corporate raider. According to what I heard most of the survivors went to Nassaukade near Rotterdam. I have no idea what will happen in North America.

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  6. I pootled along, taking jobs where They approached me. And then, late in my career, I actually completed an application form. My covering letter said something like “If you have a candidate for this post who is exactly what you want, please consign this application to the bin. If you can’t find what you want I’d be happy to be a stopgap for a couple of years.” So my formal job-hunting success record is 0%.

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    1. I’d forgotten. I applied for a dozen jobs when I was a final year undergraduate. I was offered fourteen: twelve from the firms I’d approached and two from firms who had – as we then didn’t say – headhunted me. Them wuz the days.

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  7. “I am not going to return to being an engineer…two of the leading interests and a couple I left out are biased towards the humanities… I have no idea why, perhaps there is an unconscious urge towards balance.”

    Jung would suggest that you’ve been engaging the inferior function in the afternoon of life for several years now to achieve that psychological balance and strengthening/maturing of character. (http://www.cgjungpage.org/learn/articles/analytical-psychology/805-the-inferior-function-as-a-moral-issue )

    The underdeveloped extraverted, sensate and feeling qualities within you are coming into conscious awareness and use, as reflected in your abiding interests. (It’s possibly been easier for some of us to see these features in your writing than you until now 😉 ) .

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  8. How much more difficult though, choosing a career before graduation, before you even know yourself at all? I couldn’t see beyond finals, and emerged, blinking, into the real world not knowing what to do. Maybe today’s graduates are more clued up.

    As an aside, have you checked out http://felixonline.co.uk/publications/felix/ ? Those can take you back, plus you sometimes see company ads for the 80s Milk Rounds, featuring defunct names, as mentioned above. I was thinking Marconi specifically, when a quick search led me to this: https://www.computerweekly.com/blog/Public-Sector-IT/Mysterious-deaths-freedom-of-information-Marconi-and-the-Ministry-of-Defence

    Oh good grief…the internet rabbit hole!

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