The Limits of Self-help Books for Job Seekers

In the early 1970s, Richard Bolles published what became the seminal self-help manual for job seekers: “What color is my parachute?” I can remember visiting the Harvard Coop in Cambridge in 1982 and seeing the book in a pile right near the checkout counter. The colorful parachute on the cover grabbed my attention and I thought about purchasing it. But I never did. When I returned the next fall for my senior year at Bates College, some of my classmates were carrying it around on top of their textbooks. For some reason, I wasn’t too concerned about finding a job at graduation (although I should have been). It was 1982/3 and the US economy was emerging from a vicious recession induced by the US Federal Reserve and the excesses of the Vietnam War. Compounding the problem were two OPEC-induced oil shocks, causing price inflation to be passed onto consumers through union cost of living allowances (COLAs). If you can believe it, interest rates reached 20% and inflation rates were not far behind..

Today, there is no shortage of self-help books for job seekers. Many of these contain nuggets of wisdom that can be very useful to individuals of any age who need to find work and want to explore alternative career paths. For many, however, the advice is premature and could potentially lead to a dead end. Take it from me, I landed a prestigious job as an economist at an economic think tank my senior year of college, rose to the level of European CEO of a marketing services company, and only then did I discover that I had taken the wrong path. How could this happen?

Well, in short, I skipped an essential step in my career development: emotional self-awareness. If you’re like most people, two career belief systems co-exist: one that connects to our genuine self and another that reflects what we believe others (e.g., your parents, your teachers, society at large) want us to be. The gap between these two beliefs can obviously vary considerably by individual. It mostly depends on childhood circumstances and comfort with feeling and responding to emotions. Often, we experience emotions but fail to mobilize and resolve them.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you interview for a job at a prestigious audit firm. While you’re there, you feel a visceral distaste for the firm’s culture. You become aware of that feeling but you push it away because it conflicts with the kind of job you believe you need to obtain. Ultimately, you’re offered the job with an attractive salary and benefits package, so you accept it. What was initially an intangible distaste for the culture grows into an oppressive loathing. Sixteen months after accepting the position, you find yourself miserable and resentful. You can’t face spending most of your waking hours at this job and decide to quit. Just think how much different things would be if you’d simply paid more attention to your thoughts and emotions before you took the job.

Here’s the point of this little anecdote. The first step in any job search or career development process is fostering deep self-awareness—about who you are and what kind of career truly complements your skills, talents and passions. Frankly, it’s highly unlikely that Meyers Briggs or any other personality diagnostic will get you close to that level of awareness.

The most effective approach I’ve discovered is grounded in Gestalt methods. With Gestalt career coaching, the focus is on “helping you become more of who you are—exploring, uncovering and understanding what is really going on, from the inside out.” The primary role of a Gestalt Career Coach is to create a process that makes you more aware of possible choices, helps you take responsibility for your decisions and leads you to become more aware and accepting of who you are as a person. When this is done right, the outcome of your job search is aligned with who you are.

So before you launch your job search, consider starting at the beginning: becoming more aware of who you are as a person and the unlimited world of possibilities.

1The Fertile Void, Gestalt Coaching at Work, John Leary-Joyce, 2014

David Ehrenthal is the co-founder of Mach10 Career Coaching. He’s a Gestalt trained Career Coach based in Concord, MA. He can be reached at Or just visit the web site at and make an appointment to talk.

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