Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Dick Bolles Changed My Life

Richard Nelson Bolles died a couple of weeks ago. I can never repay the debt I owe him, because he helped me to discover the career that has sustained me for most of my adult life. By chance, that career led me to work in the same field as he did—career development—and because of that outcome, he became aware of my work and contacted me. Thus I was able to thank him personally.

In the late 1970s, I realized I would have to give up my goal of becoming an English professor. Once I had earned my PhD in English, I actually got fewer job interviews than I had snagged while holding only a master’s degree. I had taught part-time for a while, then full-time on a temporary basis, and now was again reduced to teaching part-time—as an adjust instructor shuttling among various colleges in the Delaware Valley. At the 1978 conference of the Modern Language Association, where I hoped to get interviews that would lead to full-time, permanent work, I actually got none. So I attended a couple of workshops with titles such as “Alternative Careers for English Majors,” trying to learn how else I might spend my working life.

Not once, but twice I heard references to a useful self-help book called What Color Is Your Parachute? The book was rather new at that time but evidently was well-known in circles where underemployed people congregate, such as the MLA conference. I borrowed it from the library as soon as I got home, and I dutifully did the exercises.

For me, the most useful exercise of all was one that, ironically, Dick Bolles later dropped from the book; I don’t find it in the 2014 edition, which Dick mailed to me when it came out. What I found so  helpful was a skills-clarification exercise that went something like this:
  1. Take a sheet of lined paper and draw two vertical lines to divide it into three columns.
  2. In the leftmost column, write examples of work you’ve done (paid or otherwise) that gave you the most enjoyment and that you handled the most skillfully. You may want to skip a few lines between each example.
  3. In the middle column, for each kind of work, identify the specific tasks that were central to the work—i.e., that determined your success.
  4. In the rightmost column, for each task, deduce the transferable skills that you used to accomplish the task.
  5. Look for skills that occur most often, and then start looking for jobs that use those skills.
After I did this exercise, I realized that I should be pursuing jobs that involved not teaching but researching and writing. The research work I had done, especially on my dissertation, had given me the greatest satisfaction, and I had earned high grades for my writing ever since high school. And so I started looking for jobs that involved researching and writing.

I was thinking in terms of journalism or speechwriting, but in the meantime my wife, who was working at Educational Testing Service, was showing me postings for job openings at ETS. I rejected two of these out of hand because they did not involve my two favorite activities, but I was intrigued when she showed me one for a job that consisted of researching and writing career information. The fact that the information was to be used for delivery by a computer-based system (SIGI) did not make the job either more or less interesting to me; in those days, I had no expectation that computers would become ubiquitous in the workplace.

This lowly research assistant job not only allowed me to use my researching and writing skills; it also gave me the opportunity to learn the principles of career development from Martin R. Katz, the developer of SIGI, who later received an Eminent Career Award from the National Career Development Association. And although I was at first shielded from the computers that ran SIGI—in those days, only a highly trained operator was capable of inputting the career information that I was developing—as computers became more interactive and even personal, I found I had a knack for understanding how databases work. I figured out how to use the primitive 64-bit Scripsit word processor to mock up screens for the SIGI PLUS program that we were developing. So what started out as a researching and writing job turned into something much more complex.

In retrospect, I realize that when I did Dick Bolles’s three-column skills-clarification exercise at age 30, I neglected to include one leisure activity that became a central part of my work: collecting. As a child growing up on the Jersey shore, I was an avid collector of seashells. Later I started to collect rocks, and for a while I also collected stamps. I realize now that a database is simply another kind of collection, and so the work I do assembling databases and finding useful ways to query them is giving me many of the same satisfactions I got from organizing my collections of mollusks and minerals.

I know that I am one of probably tens of thousands of people whose lives were changed by Dick Bolles’s work. I’m especially grateful that I had the opportunity to thank him personally.