The book that changed my life

I get asked this question a lot. It’s one I stumble over, and if you read more than one interview or see me fielding this at multiple events, you’re likely to notice that I give different answers.

Early books that moved me were written by or about women I wanted to be. Joy Adamson, Dian Fossey, Babe Didrickson. If only there had been stories of women astronauts.

Granted, I discovered subtext at a very young age — George and Bess from the Nancy Drew mysteries — lesbians living in plain sight among their oblivious friends. And later, after seeing the movie adaptation of Lillian Hellmann’s The Children’s Hour, I picked up her memoir and found myself riveted to the story of Julia (also to become a film and later determined to have been purloined from someone else’s actual life).

Then came the real lesbians — a worn copy of Rubyfruit Jungle, the scandalous Sudden Death, and my favorite, Six of One. Rita Mae Brown’s books were such a wonderful, wicked indulgence.

Sometimes I name a book I wish I had the talent to write — Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible; or one so bold it stayed with me long after I finished, like AM Homes’s Music for Torching.

But none of those books actually changed my life. This one by Richard Nelson Bolles did.

In 1984 I was teaching elementary school in a small Florida town. I got fired after moving in with a woman most folks knew was gay. There was no recourse because laws allowed discrimination against LGBT people, and my school system waved its “morals” clause at me. It was devastating. I eventually landed a job in another county, but acknowledged after a couple of years that I was constantly looking over my shoulder for the next set of daggers. I came to hate my job, to hate the small-mindedness that supposed me as a threat to children. But more than the stress that comes with paranoia, I began feeling isolated from more important matters. No one in the teachers’ lounge was talking about the urgent issues of the day — Chernobyl, famine in Ethiopia, the CIA meddling in Nicaragua. Or events that directly impacted the LGBT community — the AIDS epidemic, the Hardwick court case that upheld Georgia’s sodomy laws. I was reading three newspapers a day, soaking up all I could find about the state of the world. And I came to realize I stuck in someone else’s life. So I resigned with no idea what I’d do next.

Face it, most of us chose our first career when we were 19 and still stupid about the world. And also clueless about ourselves. I think I went into teaching because I’d always been a student and it was the only career I’d seen up close. In my search for self, I picked up What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job Hunters and Career-Changers. It wasn’t exactly a how-to; nor was it anything like the Kuder skills and interest test I’d taken in high school. It was a workbook crafted to help me envision myself in the perfect job. The exercises forced me to peel back the layers and identify aspects of the workplace that might be critical to job satisfaction.

  • What do you most love to do?
  • Where would you most love to do it?
  • How do you find a job like that and persuade someone to hire you?
  • *

    A series of underlying questions helped me identify even minutiae that could matter in how much I liked my job. Some of it was self-image: What sort of clothes did I want to wear to work? What might my office look like? What would I do when I was working alone, and how did I want my coworkers to see me?

    At the end of this workbook, I had most of the answers: What I loved most was figuring things out. I wanted a vibrant urban setting, but with the freedom to work everywhere, not in the same building day after day on a schedule someone else set. And not with 6-year-olds, or people who behaved like 6-year-olds. I wanted to explore how policies, events and messages affected people’s lives — and how best to share knowledge and understanding.

    Unfortunately the book also made it clear that I wasn’t equipped to do any of that. I’d have to go back to school for intensive training, probably a PhD if I really wanted to persuade someone to hire me for that perfect job. By the time I finished I’d be 35 years old! But here was the clincher: I was going to be 35 anyway — did I want to be ready for a new career or not?

    I did, so I threw myself into a new career plan. It took me eight years (not five) but eventually I landed my dream job: director of research at a Miami company that did political polling and market analysis. And from there I went on to start my own consulting business where I had the luxury of working only on projects that interested me.

    I’m on my third career now, most certainly my last. Like the decision that took me from the classroom to the business world, becoming a writer was an upheaval. But thanks to this wonderful book, I gained the confidence to pursue whatever calls me. This is my tribute to Richard Bolles, who died on Friday at age 90. His book literally changed my life.

    4 Responses to “The book that changed my life”

    1. Thank you for this blog reminding me of this life-changing book! I was the tutoring center director at our Jesuit University with responsibility for 300 tutees and 40 tutors a semester, as well as all the DOE paperwork for a Title III Strengthening Developing Institution Program Grant. I was also an adjunct teaching English composition so half the time I was teaching students to write clearly and the other half I was writing government-mandated gobbledygook. I read What Color Is Your Parachute, took a career decisions course, and began my new career of copy editing.

    2. Wow, okay, that explains a lot why so many little ones appear in your books. And I think the trick you made Claudia play with her class in the second chapter is actually yours, or isn’t it?

      Having started a career as a German teacher in adult education at 33 I wholeheartedly believe in what Kelly said: The most fulfilling careers are the ones that you feel are calling for you. Sometimes it takes a while to hear it.

      KG, hats off to you for finding the energy and the courage to start a second career. Hats off to Mr. Bolles for helping you find it. And above all: Lots of love and respect for starting your third one. We really, really appreciate it 😉

    3. Wow that hit home I started to work with intellectual delayed adults at the age of 35 after jumping job to job never finding what felt right… I had the education and knew I wanted to help people but nothing ever felt like It fit. Then after leaving another position my niece suggested I work at CLNB I hesitated for a very long time and questioned my own beliefs systems and personality type. But finally I made the jump. 17 years later and I’ve never been happier I love what I do and I love the people I support as I assist them to have active happy fulfilling lives. I think sometimes the career we love the most isn’t really a choice so much a calling and we need to open up and listen to it with our hearts and not our wallets

    4. Great blog. Thank you. Here’s to all the teachers who were fired for being lesbians and went on to change the world.

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