LOOK BEHIND the title page of Richard Bolles’s What Color Is Your Parachute? 2022 and see that its copyright has been renewed 48 times. The text has been revised, updated, and reprinted almost annually since its debut in 1970. At the time of Bolles’s death in 2017, his forever book had sold upward of 10 million copies, a number which has likely been padded by the two most recent editions, co-authored by career counselor Katharine Brooks during the pandemic years.
The table of contents bursts with the words job, career, and work. The text mimics listicle structure, with chapter titles like, “The Job Search Is a Mind Game: Here Are Ten Ways to Win” and “How to Deal with Any Challenges You Have in the Job Search.” Extended URLs are embedded in the physical text. Chapters are divided by blue pages marked with pseudo-inspirational quotes. Weird illustrations soak up blank space.
Poor craftsmanship notwithstanding, the book sells because it promises to help you find your dream job. It will not. Most of the pages between the covers exist solely to justify the price tag. The first four chapters are reminiscent of high school essays written the night before they’re due, overstuffed with motivational banalities and bits of common knowledge easily found on the internet. Chapters five and six detail the “Flower Exercise,” an amalgamation of arts-and-craftsy, Myers-Briggsian activities, for which readers are invited to purchase other products from the Parachute franchise. The remaining chapters trot out some clichés before closing with an excerpt from Bolles’s original writings, the only time a hint of flavor creeps into the book’s language.
Despite failing to deliver on its central promise, Parachute’s appeal mysteriously endures, whether out of brand nostalgia or the cleverness of its own promotional language. To gain a deeper understanding, C. Wright Mills’s landmark 1951 study, White Collar, provides a useful framework. Mills put forth the idea that a burgeoning sector of workers was adapting to monopoly capitalism by wielding personality as a marketable asset:
In a society of employees, dominated by the marketing mentality, it is inevitable that a personality market should arise. For in the great shift from manual skills to the art of “handling,” selling, and servicing people, personal or even intimate traits of the employee are drawn into the sphere of exchange and become of commercial relevance, become commodities in the labor market.
The most prescient contribution of Mills’s study concerns the insidious ways that people internalize market forces. Goods and services do not have psychology, but individuals do, and the law of supply and demand attacks all things. Some are persuaded to conflate their socioeconomic comportment with their genuine personality until there’s no distinction. These workers are always “on.”
It makes sense that self-discovery figures largely into their employment trajectory. Mills focused on salespeople and public-facing bureaucrats, but he observed that the phenomenon was diffusing throughout the white-collar workforce and into the general population. White Collar specifically calls attention to how “[t]he literature of self-improvement has generalized the traits and tactics of salesmanship for the population at large,” and how, “[i]n the literature of vocational guidance, personality often actually replaces skill as a requirement.”
More than 70 years later, the conditions of the personality market have reached a fever pitch. Social media threw gasoline on the fiery convergence of personality and brand. Businesses compel everyone operating under their umbrellas, from CEOs to minimum wage earners, to lead PR-friendly lives. Momentum is building toward a society of contractors, a frenzied mass of gig-hunters who must court large institutions that provide no stability. Workers are forced to sacrifice more of their inner lives amid widespread, rapid downward mobility. The result is an increasingly desperate struggle to prove one’s worth.
With cheery overtones, Parachute encourages readers to embrace this dystopia. Antisocial behavior can be profitable, they say, according to research showing that numerous shallow relationships are more likely to lead to employment than real friendships. Routinized totalitarianism, such as the practice of monitoring employees’ social media, is equated to crafting a résumé, with suggestions for people-pleasing online behavior and bland speech. Readers are offered a concise explanation of surplus value: “[E]mployers want to hire people who can bring in more money than they are paid.” Desensitized as we are to cold-blooded capitalism, it’s shocking to consider this sentiment written so plainly for a popular audience.
In a few instances, Parachute admits with a tepid shrug that maybe the world of work isn’t ideal, but we’d better get used to it. This attitude appears out of place in today’s climate of fed-up workers telling their bosses to shove it, but it imparts the book’s only valuable lesson: complainers don’t get far in the personality market.
Feeble objections to irrational hiring practices call to mind the titular concept in Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, a stifled capacity to imagine alternate social conditions, namely those that regulate work. Common gripes include a lack of transparency about pay, unreasonable qualifications for entry-level jobs, excessive interviewing, ghosting, and so on. These complaints might make for a viral LinkedIn post, but they have no impact on the structures that determine employment. The people lodging them still show deference to their abusers, often in the same breath, because they don’t find the organizations themselves objectionable, only the roadblocks that make it too difficult to get in. Disgruntled job seekers kneecap themselves by failing to imagine anything beyond a hiring process that is less unfavorable.
Before such bleak resignation was widely internalized, Mills examined an idyllic model of work as craftsmanship, a self-directed activity that holds inherent meaning and value to the craftsman. Craftsmanship was antithetical to the typical white-collar experience that Mills studied. Due to the increasing division and rationalization of labor, many workers experienced their jobs as abstract contributions to impersonal enterprises, which could lead to extreme self-alienation in work involving the personality market.
Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism, which reads a bit like an updated White Collar, affirms many of Mills’s predictions about how white-collar alienation would intensify. More of the population is becoming highly educated in preparation for a work culture that values shallow, transient task completion, resulting in widespread unfulfillment and anxiety. Colleges have transformed into generalized trade schools to meet the needs of the new economy; they are treated as Bourdieusian mechanisms to prepare students for the personality market, and the con starts in the middle of high school. Hordes of teenagers spin compelling life stories to gain admittance to undergraduate business programs where they rack up enough debt to send themselves scrambling for a gig.
Fisher characterized our economic system as “market Stalinism,” defined by a greater fixation on the appearance of success than actual success. The term refers to Stalin’s efforts to demonstrate Soviet development in ways that ultimately stunted development, such as with the White Sea Canal project, which generated good publicity despite its failures. Reality dematerializes into PR fodder. For instance, Tesla stock goes up because people think they make good cars, not because they do make good cars. When Tesla stock goes up, more people buy it because they think it will keep going up. Next thing you know, Elon Musk is the richest man in the world and the 405 is clogged with his sketchy EVs.
In this manner, perceived events generate real consequences. Workers navigating the personality market — like Parachute instructs — are placed under acute pressure when the primary task of a job becomes proving that you are doing a good job. The same goes for interviews, where the most valuable skill is the ability to convince a hiring manager that you have valuable skills.
The individual suffers from being made into a miniature Stalinist project, burdened with the task of cultivating hollowness. Deeper than the necessity of proving one’s worth to others is the need to establish real self-worth. But the bulk of waking life is funneled into unenjoyable careers that don’t offer much to the well-being of others. Energy spent scavenging for a preferable job could be directed toward efforts to reorganize society so that all jobs might actually benefit the world instead of somebody else’s narrow economic interest.
Bolles’s philosophy, scrubbed from recent editions of Parachute, resembles spiritual craftsmanship — a mission to find meaning and grow closer to God through work — which adds a layer of absurdity. This book exists to promote not happiness but the aggressive emptiness of white-collar careerism. With Parachute as a guide, readers will arrive at some depressing conclusions about themselves. The Flower Exercise is meant to produce “a complete picture of you. All of you. In the language of the workplace.” More than a quarter of this “complete picture” is composed of your salary and working conditions.
And here we are, defined in the language of the workplace. Which leads us to the most disturbing element of Parachute: its atrociously manipulative use of language. There’s an uncanny sense that the sentences are straining to disguise how little they communicate. What’s more, the book’s stilted tone sounds like it’s being delivered by someone forced to smile at gunpoint:
Make it your goal to completely fill in your Flower in the next chapter. And try to feel it as a joy rather than a duty. Determine from the beginning that this is going to be fun. Because it sure can be. And should be. Are you ready to get started on finding your dream career?
Their emphasis, not mine. Then there’s this gem:
If you are unemployed, you have the opportunity (desired or not) to pause, to think, to assess where you really want to go with your life. Martin Luther King Jr. had something to say about this: “The major problem of life is learning how to handle the costly interruptions. The door that slams shut, the plan that got sidetracked, the marriage that failed. Or that lovely poem that didn’t get written because someone knocked on the door.” A self-inventory is just the type of thinking and assessing that Dr. King refers to.
Anyone who’s perused the pathetic essays on LinkedIn will recognize this nauseating blend of corporate lingo, con artistry, and contrived sentimentalism that pervades language on the personality market. People don’t need Parachute’s encouragement to adopt this style. It permeates our culture and casts an Orwellian shadow over the future of the English language.
For enterprising readers yearning to make a buck, the smart move would be to follow what Parachute did for itself, not what it advises you to do. This endlessly renewable product has catered to an insatiable mass of people searching for an escape from the drudgery of life under capitalism for half a century. With a wink and a nod, the book includes testimony from a career counselor named Rich Feller (yes, really) who decided to teach the Flower Exercise to others after completing it himself. But the classic strategy of profiting off other people’s aspirations requires credulous consumers, and the romantic notion of the “dream job” threatens to buckle as we backslide into techno-feudalism. Parachute might stay in print for another 50 years. Eventually, though, an ouroboros can be expected to choke.