In Memoriam: Richard Bolles ‘53


Richard N. Bolles, Class of 1953, a former Harvard physics major, Episcopal minister and career counselor whose own twisting vocational path led to his writing What Color Is Your Parachute? — the most popular job-hunter’s manual of the 1970s and beyond — died on Friday, March 31, 2017 in San Ramon, Calif. He was 90. Bolles originally self-published his manual in 1970 as a photocopied how-to booklet for unemployed Protestant ministers. In 1972, he recast it to appeal to a wider audience and found an independent publisher in Berkeley, Calif., willing to print small batches so that it could be frequently updated. Since then, “Parachute” has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and has never been out of print. In 1979, it reached the New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for more than a decade, returning intermittently for years afterward.

In 1995, the Library of Congress placed Bolles’s book squarely within the canon of classic American self-improvement literature by including it in “25 Books That Have Shaped Readers’ Lives”, a list compiled as part of a nationwide reading-incentive program.

What Color Is Your Parachute?, subtitled “A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career Changers,” was framed less as a guide to the job market than as a guide to help readers understand themselves — to help them figure out what they really liked doing so that they could find the job that would let them do it. “You need firm ground to stand on,” Bolles told an interviewer in 2000. “From there you can deal with the change.”

Bolles, an ordained Episcopal minister until 2004, when he left the ministry, said the title of his book came from an oft-repeated discussion he had in the 1960s with parishioners who were unhappy in their jobs. They would say they were thinking of bailing out. “And I always thought of an airplane when I heard that phrase,” he said. “So I would respond, ‘What color is your parachute?’ ”

Mr. Bolles was well qualified to write a handbook on changing direction; he had changed his own several times, from planning a career in the chemical industry to becoming a minister and then, at 41, experiencing being fired and enduring the anxiety of unemployment at a time when he and his wife then, the former Janet Price, had four small children. It had never entered his mind, though, 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.”

Whether he knew it or not, Mr. Bolles had anticipated a sea change in the relationship between workers and employers in the United States, said Micki McGee,  an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University and the author of “Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life,” a 2005 examination of self-help literature that includes an analysis of Mr. Bolles’s book. She said “Parachute” had come along at the beginning of a historic shift, when corporate strategies like outsourcing, subcontracting, downsizing and mergers were starting to erode traditional notions of job security. The idea that you could stay in one job for a lifetime began coming undone in the early 1970s, and “Parachute’s” perennial sales reflected, at least in part, this new reality.

Richard Nelson Bolles was born on March 19, 1927, in Milwaukee, the first of three children of Donald Clinton Bolles, an editor for The Associated Press, and the former Frances Fifield, a homemaker. After serving in the Navy at the tail end of World War II, he studied chemical engineering for two years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then transferred to Harvard, where he earned his bachelor’s degree cum laude with a major in physics.

While still an undergraduate, he was moved by a sermon he heard one Sunday at church about a critical shortage of ministers. After graduation, instead of accepting a lucrative job offer in the chemical industry, he decided to become an Episcopal minister. He then attended General, where he received a master’s degree in New Testament studies. He served as a rector at several churches in northern New Jersey, including St. John’s in Passaic, where he often counseled teenagers on sex and drug use.

After participating in the 1963 March on Washington led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he reached out to an all-black church in Passaic and, with its pastor, the Rev. Avery Johnson, led the integration of their churches, despite the opposition of some parishioners.

Mr. Bolles had been a clergyman for 18 years when a combination of budget problems and philosophical differences with superiors led to the elimination of his job and his dismissal in 1968 as a pastor at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the flagship church of the Episcopal Diocese of California.

After six months of anxious searching, he landed a job in 1969 with United Ministries in Higher Education, an interdenominational church organization that had long been involved in recruiting and supporting college chaplains across the country. But college chaplains were increasingly being laid off, leaving Mr. Bolles a new mission: to help chaplains at campuses in seven Western states find new careers.

That effort led him into research that inspired him to write the how-to manual that evolved into What Color Is Your Parachute? Among his other books was The Three Boxes of Life and How to Get Out of Them, on balancing work and personal life.

Besides his son Gary, he is survived by his wife, Marci Mendoza Bolles; two other children from his first marriage, Stephen and Sharon Bolles; and 10 grandchildren. A third son, Mark, died in 2012.