What Colour is Your Parachute?

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April 24, 2012 by David Miller


I’ve been reflecting recently on the ups and downs of moving from a ‘safe’ occupation to one characterized by uncertainty, confusion, fear, desire and hope.

I quit my job as a litigation lawyer 18 months ago and decided to finally embark on an entrepreneurial journey that for years I’d been too scared to move into.

My wife and I moved home to Ireland 6 years ago, summer 2006. We quit safe and respectable and enjoyable jobs respectively in a City of London law firm and an inner-city school.

In 2006 I got a great job for a large commercial law firm in Dublin albeit not doing the litigation law that I’d loved practicing in a 125-partner firm in London. So I gave banking and financial services law a crack; after a while it was clear to me that while I’d learned a lot and had worked both for and with some terrific lawyers, banking and financial services law wasn’t for me. (My wife had quickly found a great teaching job in a disadvantaged part of Dublin). Remember 2006 when jobs weren’t so tough to find and when unemployment bumped along around 4.5% rather than then the eye-wateringly high 14.3% it does so today in Ireland?

So, in spring 2007 I resigned, and stared into the void. I knew then that I’d wanted to start up my own business. But doing what? I didn’t know and I didn’t know HOW to know.

‘Luckily’ for me I never had to make that choice as some friends of mine asked if I’d come and work for them doing litigation law for the man on the street. I jumped at the opportunity. I went on to have 3 and a half years of great fun practicing dispute resolution law for individuals, small businesses, charities, attending cross-examination of doctors at inquests, trawling through 5,000 pages of medical documentation to find the one key comment that proved medical negligence on the balance of probabilities; attending employment & discrimination tribunals; helping men and women navigate their way through the choppy waters of an acrimonious divorce, separation or a custody battle; dealing with complicated commercial agency disputes; and more.

It was a real privilege; I was good at my job and it was fun.

But I still had that hankering – that itch – to be pushed into something new, something further, that I felt that I was being called to something bigger. And I felt that ‘it’ was to be in online services. I thought more and more about it in the 2008-2010 period but I was in too ‘safe’ a job to risk anything. And anyhow I loved what I was doing. Oh and we had kids by now too. Risk = not good (I thought).

Fast forward to September 2010. A totally unexpected situation arose at work that prompted me to summon the courage to take the plunge and jump ship from legal practice. I resigned and started my first days as a non-practising lawyer.

And that’s when I remembered a fabulous book called “What Colour is Your Parachute”?. It’s sold something like 11 million books in 26 languages.

(Interestingly it’s got nothing to do with parachutes (which doesn’t even appear anywhere in the text) but has everything to do with what you want to have with you when you ‘bail out’ (e.g. of a plane) of a career/job (hence the reference to a parachute. Confused? Don’t blame me, I didn’t write the book! This article explains it well).

I first read Parachute when I was 18 years old and deciding what to study at college (having just spent a year in South America and France teaching English and then working in a hotel) – when the book had inspired me to ditch the course I’d originally planned to study at college – English & French – to try something entirely new that I knew that I’d never get the opportunity to study/master/immerse myself in but for the opportunity to study it at undergraduate level. So at 18 I had switched out of the comfort zone (the ‘safety’) of English and French (which I’d been good at during school but never really fallen in love with to study for 4 more years) into Arabic and Persian and middle eastern studies, at the end of which I scored a double first class joint honours degree with distinction in oral Arabic. Result.

So in the autumn of 2010 it was natural (to me) that I’d came back to the ‘Parachute’ book as I liked to call it.

Written by an Episcopalian preacher in the United States of America back in the 1970s who was laid off from his church and couldn’t find any decent book on career change (so he wrote one), it’s infused with Christian theological home-run truths: but – and this is the story of its success – it applies to people of faith and no-faith at all; people of all different colours, classes and backgrounds.

And it basically asks and then answers this question (that’s paraphrased from my own recollection as this is what I remember it as):

Q: Where will you find the greatest meaning/professional job satisfaction?

A: At the point where 3 paths meet:

(1) your path representing the skill you’re really good at;

(2) the path representing the thing you most enjoy doing with your time; and

(3) the path down which you can identify the greatest need in the world relevant to the skill you excel at and the thing you most enjoy doing.

Parachute says that at EXACTLY that junction in the road anyone (ANYONE!) can find huge professional satisfaction – and meaning.

So I decided to follow the Parachute workbook and for the next 4 weeks worked full time on carrying out the exercise that help you to assess and analyse your strengths and weaknesses, the aim being to create a 1 page distillation into your ‘Parachute’ document (which for some reason best known to Bolles is called your flower, presumably as each section are like petals).

It gets you to identify your top favourite skills, in your favourite working conditions, in your preferred areas of interest, at your preferred responsibility level, with your preferred values and in your favourite setting.

This was my mine:

Looks funny doesn’t it?

Some of it may make sense to you, some won’t. Some of the terminology follows the suggested terms in the book and seems a bit quirky, but no matter.

What I ended up with was actually a pretty darned accurate reflection of what for a long time I’d been thinking but which I hadn’t actually found the words (courage?) to articulate.

The Parachute document helped bring to life a seed that I’d unconsciously planted and been watering over the years, to the point today where I’m (clumsily but with enthusiasm) exploring the potential viability of a web-based business ticking a lot of the ‘boxes’ on my Parachute document.

If you’re in ANY way not satisfied with your present professional working situation, I couldn’t recommend more highly you purchasing the What Colour is Your Parachute book.

My own journey since then has taken me to work for one of my old clients in the online services industry, to endeavouring to see if I can find a viable business model value proposition for an cloud based volunteer recruitment solution I’m exploring. Full of darned sight more fear than I’m that comfortable with; but I’m enjoying the ride.

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