Vocation Unwrapped: the Parachute Model

Posted 14th September 2009

Marietta Birkholtz discusses the approaches influenced by Richard Bolles, author of What Colour is your Parachute

Vocation Unwrapped: the Parachute Model

It is rare in life to come across a person whose humanity, warmth and wisdom

is so tremendous that something inside ourselves is forever changed.  For me, Richard Bolles is such a person.  He is the author of the best-selling careers guide What Colour is your Parachute, and I had the privilege of attending one of his courses some time ago.

It would be doing Bolles' work a great injustice to summarise it in terms of ‘skills' and ‘fields'.  In fact, the road to vocation consists of an in-depth look at several areas: (1) favourite skills, (2) favourite fields (or interests), (3) core values, (4) preferred people environment, (5) favourite working conditions, (6) desired responsibility and salary, and (7) preferred location (Bolles 2009).  Importantly, each topic is addressed via exercises that open the ‘right side' of the brain.  This way, the individual can generate a wider and deeper range of vocational options.  Accessing the right hemisphere also helps us shift our focus from ‘I can't' or ‘I shouldn't', to ‘I can', and ‘I will' (Ornstein 1997).

Over the last five years, I have worked on selecting and adapting Parachute exercises to tailor provision to groups and individuals who deal with chronic conditions.  I discovered that even short workshops on core skills and favourite fields help clients change their outlook and job search strategy.  Some individuals also progress to realise a deeply held vocation and/or find a market gap to start their own business.  One key in this is to focus  from the outset on generating hope, self-belief and desire to succeed.  Participants enjoy being facilitated to discover strengths, passions and new ideas before anxiety-provoking subjects such as CVs or job interviews are tackled.  Here is how two participants fared shortly after the workshop, and further down the line:

‘I found today tremendously rewarding.  It gave me a good insight as to where I would like to go with job searching...' (Pete, 46, participant of CMP vocational module, 2008)

‘...I just wanted to let you know that after not having a proper job for five years, I now have the job I want.  I applied for a disability researcher training scheme with a TV production company, and I got it...!' (Agnes, 32, three months after completing PMP vocation workshop, 2007)

This is good news for time-poor case managers or health care staff who would like to  address their clients' vocational needs in a succinct, yet life-affirming manner.  Bolles' work is effective, not least because it strengthens a proven predictor of successful vocational outcomes: self-efficacy which is concerned with judgments of how well one can execute actions required to deal with situations (Bandura 1982, p. 122, Booth and James 2008).  Self-efficacy helps clients lessen their concerns about physical limitations and encourages them to re-frame them as assets.  After a recent two-hour vocation module, Sylvia (48) commented:

‘I now feel ready to go for a college course in textile design, and I will raise the tuition fees by working as a secret shopper.  They have already expressed an interest, because people like me know what assistance a shop would ideally provide'.  Sylvia suffers from chronic wide-spread pain and relies on walking aids.

It is a common misconception that following ones calling depends on 100% fitness.  Bolles (2008) names the actual stumbling blocks: apathy, laziness, and hopelessness.  Add fear to this list - fear of failure and fear of success - to complete the catalogue of internal barriers.  We can test this statement by thinking of the more able-bodied people in our lives some of whom might nevertheless settle for less than their full potential.  What exactly blocks their (or our own) progress? 

In order to pre-empt misunderstandings: chronic pain, depression or any long-standing condition is challenging, and prejudice exists.  Return-to-work schedules, education of employers, ergonomic adjustments, and other work place interventions are needed to address external barriers.  My concern is whether we encourage clients to hold a vision that takes them beyond these steps.  Clinical psychologist Russel N Cassel points us to the importance of making the connection between life purpose, well being and health care provision:

...frequently the real health care problem arises from failure to discover one's life mission and consequent general monotony in living...any effective health care global strategy must consider the relevance of one's mission in life as being crucial to wellness.  This means that attention must be given to helping individuals discover their own life mission as an integral aspect of the health care strategy...' (Cassel, 1991).


I believe that the integration of Parachute exercises within rehabilitation can take us one step closer to this vision. 



Marietta Birkholtz contact: marietta.birkholtz@realhealth.org.uk.





Bandura A (1982)  Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency.

American Psychologist 37 (2) 122-147

Bolles R N (2009) What Colour Is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job Hunters and Career Changers.  Ten Speed Press, Berkeley

Bolles R N (2009) Radio Interview: How to Smash Through Inertia. Access via: http://www.media-monster.com/ or www.randomhouse.com/crown/tenspeed/job-hunters-resource-center/index.php?page=interviews

Booth D and James R (2008) A literature review of self-efficacy and effective jobsearch.  Journal of Occupational Psychology, Employment and Disability 10 (1), 27-42

Cassel R N (1991) http://www.cassel.edu.au/; see on-line article references.

Ornstein R (1997) The Right Mind: Making Sense of the Hemispheres. Harcourt Brace, NY

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