Q&A: Careers Guru Richard Bolles

A '70s icon meets Twitters and puzzles over generation Y.

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When Richard Bolles first self-published his job-hunting manual in 1970, he was trying to help a group of campus ministers find new jobs. He was not expecting to be picked up by a commercial publisher, which he was in 1972, much less to be made savior of the nation's unemployed. By 1982, when unemployment hit 10.8 percent, his book was more popular on college campuses than even The Simple Solution to Rubik's Cube. Bolles spoke with U.S. News about the book's success. Excerpts:

Why did What Color Is Your Parachute? become a bestseller?
If only I knew. It was everywhere, on every college campus, in 1978. It was a new idea that there were alternatives to how you looked for a job, besides the customary résumés, agencies, and ads. Nobody had told them that. No college course had talked about that. I remember everywhere I went, I was treated like a celebrity. One airport in Cedar Rapids laid out a carpet from the little airplane that brought me from Chicago to the terminal.

What made you look for alternatives?
I knew every other job-hunting book that was already out there because I'd done my research very thoroughly, and there were 13 of them. I knew very well that the questions I was pursuing nobody had thought of. The [others] all presented résumés, and then they leaped immediately to interviews, and then they leaped immediately to: "Now that you've got this job." And I said to myself: There is a gap there the size of the Grand Canyon. Because what happens if you send your résumé out and you don't get any interviews or you don't get the job from the interviews that you do manage to find?

You update the book each year. Has the Internet made the job search much easier?
I stay up with all this stuff—when it's something new like Twitter or when something comes down the road that I've never heard of. But by now, I bring a certain holy skepticism to new trends. You know, when people say, "The social networking sites are going to revolutionize job hunting," I say, "Well, be sure and tell me the first time you hear that someone got a job from a social networking site, because I don't hear much about that."

Are you surprised by the qualities of generation Y, like the demand for flexible schedules or Facebook use at work?
Are we talking about self-absorption, or what is the topic? [Laughs.] When you pass 80, you get bold. You can say anything you want. I started to emphasize years ago—job hunting is becoming a member of a symphony orchestra. If you're a piccolo player, you'd better learn what notes to play during the symphony—that's self-inventory. If you don't know all the other parts, you get the idea that it's a piccolo concerto.

Is there more of that with the Y generation? Sure. We all know that. They grew up with their nannies and computers. They can work for hours cheerfully all by themselves. That does something to you. It does something to your view of the world.