The History of Life Work Planning

Author: Dick Bolles

  A keynote address presented at the International Conference on Careers Guidance: Careers Guidance - Which Way Now?, in Bled, Slovenia, Wednesday, May 5 th, 1999

I have been asked to speak this afternoon about Life/Work Planning. I would like to begin simply. 

Life/Work Planning as Everyday Activity

Almost everyone already does Life/Work Planning, in some area of his or her life – though without using that title. But if you got up on a Sunday morning and you thought of eight different things you might do that day, before you discarded five of them in your head and decided to do the remaining three – then you have already done Life/Work Planning. Or if you thought about your vacation time last summer, and started out by imagining three different ways you could have spent your vacation, before you finally decided which of those three possibilities was most interesting, or even fascinating, to you – then you have already done Life/Work Planning. Or if you came to feel that too much of your life was devoted to work, and you figured out how to build in more time for your family and for leisure – then you have already done Life/Work Planning.

In other words, the title may be new to some of you, but the activity is something that almost all of us, including the most dedicated dreamer among us, has already experienced. 

The discipline called Life/Work Planning is only a more systematic, thoughtful and thorough way of doing something you already do occasionally, intuitively, and without much agonizing thought. 

Thus to decide you want to really do Life/Work Planning as a program is like deciding to take up walking as a discipline. In that case, you would not be undertaking a totally new activity. You already walk. But to choose walking as a discipline is to move from just ambling around the house, or taking short walks to the store, and determining to walk for a longer time, and at a brisker pace, and with some sort of schedule. In any case, you are just expanding something you already do. 

Life/Work Planning as a program represents the same kind of change: you are merely deciding to do, in a more disciplined way, more regularly, and for a larger bloc of time, that which you already do. 

Life/Work Planning as Program

The history of Life/Work Planning as a program is that it was invented some thirty years ago in the U.S. From there it eventually migrated to other countries, most notably Switzerland, France, New Zealand, Australia, England, and Germany. 

There are names associated with this history, of course. In the U.S., Kirn and Shepherd. The first textbook in the subject, which is still widely used, was written by myself, back in 1978. In Switzerland and France, the leading teacher of Life/Work Planning has been my dear colleague, Daniel Porot. In New Zealand, Felicity McClennan. In Australia, Paul Stevens. In England, Walt Hopkins. And in Germany, John Webb and Madeleine Leitner. So we may think of this as a historical movement spreading as such movements do, from country to country, among vocational and careers guidance people. 

But I believe that even if a country were shut off from the rest of the world, it would eventually discover Life/Work Planning all by itself. 

Think of vocational and careers guidance as like a tree. If we saw through the trunk of a tree, and if it be large enough, we of course discover it has a series of concentric rings. Our field has its own concentric rings, that appear as the field matures down through the years.

The innermost ring, the oldest, the place where job-hunting systems usually begin, is with the simplest task: "finding people jobs." But over time our field eventually evolves to also include the next ring outward, which is "helping people change careers." And then, over time, it grows to include the next ring outward, which is "helping people plan for their future careers." And – this is my point – given enough time, vocational and guidance systems will inevitably grow to include the outermost ring, "helping people with Life/work planning." 

So, as I said, even if the vocational and guidance system of a particular country were shut off from the rest of the world, I believe it would eventually discover Life/Work Planning. Its own clients would force it to. Consider their own personal history. They – or shall I say "We" – begin by wanting to find a job early in life that puts bread on the table, clothes on their back, a roof over their heads, and gives them – it may be – an interesting group of people to work with. Voila! In order to do this, they need us to help them with The Job-Hunt (the innermost ring of the careers guidance tree). 

As time moves on, they have to change jobs, and eventually careers. Voila! they need us to help them with Career Change (the next ring outward).

Often they learn to do this, and learn to do it well, but if they have to keep changing careers as they grow older, they realize they must start planning ahead – further down the road than just at headlight range. Voila! they need us to help them with Career Planning (the next ring outward). 

And then, they may learn to do this well, but in mid-life often their spirit grows restless, like a caged tiger pacing back and forth within its cage. Their work is satisfying, but... Long forgotten questions from their youth resurface in their minds, such as, "Why am I here on earth? What was I put here to do? What is it I want to accomplish with my life before I die?" Their interest is no longer just in work, though it may revolve around work. But there are larger issues now; they want to look at their whole life – their learning, their leisure, their relationships, and even their faith. Voila! They now need us to help them with the outermost ring: Life/Work Planning.

To be sure, these stages are not necessarily related to age. For the past twenty five years I have been teaching a two-week course every summer in the U.S. on Life/Work Planning, attended by guidance people from around the world, and our youngest students are 17 years of age. That is to say, a hunger for Life/Work Planning may be found in even the very young. It does not have to wait until we reach a certain age. 

But my major point is this: Life/Work Planning does not evolve because some vocational or careers guidance counselor somewhere grows bored with his or her work, and wants to invent something new – just for the sake of doing something new. No, Life/Work Planning evolves because our clients' needs evolve, and they need more and more from us as they seek to build a truly holistic, well-rounded life. 

Growth, over a life time, is not of course restricted just to our clients. It happens to us, too. At least, one hopes so. Unfortunately, vocational and careers guidance – like any profession – has its share of experienced, seasoned careers people out there who feel they have seen it all, and heard everything there is to hear. The spend more energy than they know merely in protecting their status as 'experts.' Their life's text has become, "There is nothing new under the sun." They have 'arrived.' They also, in some sense, have died. 

But we who come to conferences, we tend to be a different breed. Many of us, in fact most of us, are open to new ideas, nay, hungry for new ideas, ever seeking to be more effective in helping other people find jobs. We recognize each other instinctively when we meet, and feel this common bond between us: the pursuit of excellency. We know we have been given people's trust, and our life's text has become: "Lord, let me be worthy of their trust." 

Now, for those among us who want to grow, Life/work Planning is a topic made to order. That is, if we are seeking to find for ourselves a certain fullness of Life, a Life that is comprised of a balance between work, learning, leisure, relationships, and faith, then Life/Work Planning applies not just to our clients, but also to our own lives. 

If we want to grow, then I believe that somehow, someway, sooner or later, we are each of us going to need to figure out how to do Life/Work Planning ourselves – and then how to offer Life/Work Planning to our students, our clients, our public, through workshops. Several day workshops, even two week workshops. 

You will of course be told by other guidance people or trainers, that this is a U.S. -based program, and 'it won't work here.' As John Webb in Germany discovered: "I was told," he says, "that this is not part of our culture. 'You can't do that here, and expect it to work.' And, indeed, when I first said to people here, 'Imagine that you could go out and talk to people, and through these conversations gain enough information to be able to make an offer to an employer for a job that truly matches your skills,' many people looked at me as if I had just said, 'Imagine you could go out and flap your arms and fly.' " 

Nonetheless, since 1990 when he trained with me, John has taught 134 successful Life/Work Planning seminars or courses in Germany during the past eight years, each one usually running for 2 1/2 weeks, starting on a Thursday and ending on a Tuesday. In fact, the Protestant Church there, on the State level, has just commissioned him to train others in Life/Work Planning, beginning in the year 2000. As well, he and another Life/Work Planner in Germany, Madeleine Leitner, have written well-received articles in German periodicals on the subject. So, I assure you that you can teach such programs, in your own culture, – so long as you have first run your own life through it. 

Designing such a program is easy. Just consult with experienced Life/Work planners such as

John Webb in Germany ( or
Daniel Porot in Switzerland ( or
Walt Hopkins in the U.K. ( They can show you how, without your having to re-invent the wheel all over again. Or, if you want the textbook, you can order it on the Internet at

But what I want to particularly address, today, is the necessity – before you move to program design – of first grasping the most basic principles, upon which all Life/Work Planning depends. For, if you do not grasp these principles, your program will almost certainly fail. 

So let me briefly enumerate what these principles are. For the vocational or careers guidance system, there are three.

Life/Work Planning as Principle

Principle #1 of Life/Work Planning:

The Client Is The Given.

There is a widespread belief that the whole vocational system in a particular country is essentially a man or a woman who stands with both arms outstretched: one, holding onto the hand of the employer, and the other, holding onto the hand of the job-hunter – student, blue-collar worker, middle-aged executive, or someone on the brink of retirement – equally helpful to both and equally loyal to both employer and job-hunter.

Well, I think this is a delusion, and one that has been responsible for a great deal of mischief, over the years. If you would in the imagination of your hearts go up in the air and look down from about two hundred thousand feet on the whole elaborate job-hunting system that countries around the world have erected, one thing will strike you above all else: and that is, that almost every part of this system – governmental, private, academic – is more loyal to the employer, than it is to the job-hunter. 

You can see this when there is some mismatch between an employer's wishes and the job-hunter's wishes. The job-hunting 'system' will, at that point, tend to defer to the employer. And this, for a very obvious reason: "He who pays the piper, calls the tune." The employer has a continuing relationship with the whole job-hunting apparatus in any country, because he or she offers the prospect of repeated contacts and business; whereas, the job-hunter if he or she is successfully placed may not be seen again for many years. 

We see this clearly. in the U.S., as in other countries, with any employment or placement agency. Suppose that agency has a real-live, genuine job-order for the particular kind of position a job-hunter is looking for. Or, well, almost ... There are, as it turns out, some pretty significant differences. Who does the agency try to change? Well, you know the answer as well as I. Except in rare instances, it is the job-hunter who will be told that he or she has to adjust, has to compromise, has to scale down his or her expectations, has to be more realistic about 'what's available' out there, has to settle for what the employer offers. 

So, when there is a mismatch between the employer's and the job-hunter's expectations, and something has to be reshaped, trimmed, compressed, or pushed into a slightly different shape, it is the job-hunter – and not the employer – who is selected for this honor. Which means, if you think about it, that the agency winds up – in spite of its best intentions – as advocate for the employer rather than advocate for the job-hunter. 

To put it another way, in the attempt to match job-hunter and employer, The Job (or the employer's image of it, at least) is regarded as The Given; and everything else – including the agency counselor and the job-hunter himself or herself – must accommodate themselves to this Given. And this, despite the well-known fact that in any decent-sized company, employers often have a very unrealistic idea about what is actually involved in the job that they are hiring for, or what qualifies a job-hunter for that job.

Now, could we envision a program which handles this whole matter in another way? A program where the job-hunter and his or her wishes and aspirations are regarded as The Given, not to be tampered with, folded, spindled, or mutilated? Well of course we can – and that is, any place where Life/Work Planning is the program. For it is the fundamental thesis of Life/work Planning that the job-hunter is taken as The Given. 

Life/Work Planning begins by asking: "what do you want?" "what are your favorite skills?" "what are your favorite fields of knowledge?" "what would you most like to learn?" "what kind of leisure would you most like to have?" "what is most important to you in your relationships, such as marriage or friend-ship?" And then it teaches the client or job-hunter how to find a world – an employer, a job and a life – that conforms to this Given.

Principle #2 of Life/Work Planning:

You must see your task as that of training the client to do without you, rather than merely offering him or her "services," for which they will eventually need to return.

One thing that may be said with confidence of virtually every vocational and careers guidance facility is this: It Is Helpful. And it is kept very busy being helpful. 

But we need to go a little deeper. It turns out, there are two principal ways of being helpful. One is by rendering services. And indeed, in some state-run guidance and placement offices, rendering services is all we have the time or the budget to do. Period. You may want to do more, but there is no time (or budget) to do more. 

Still, there is great virtue in rendering services. That virtue is that, if you are successful, you thereby pull your clients out of crisis situations, and they are terribly, terribly grateful to you. 

But, the problem with this is that the crisis you just helped your client out of, is going to occur again in that client's life, almost certainly. The younger the client, the more certain it is that the crisis will. Indeed, we ought to write over the door of all our operations, "This will come again," just to remind ourselves that unemployment, career search, career change, are going to keep popping up, again and again, in the client's life. And, it may be, we're only 'there' this one time. 

Of course, the next time the same or a similar crisis comes along in the life of this former client of yours, they're going to have to come hunting for you, like Diogenes with a lantern, asking you to 'bail them out' again. Because by rendering services all you really taught them was that to solve a crisis, they need you. Very nice for your ego. But terrible if you have moved on, or they did, and you are no longer near or ready at hand to help them, the next time out. And the help that is available to them is ineffectual or non-existent. 

They're on their own. And baffled as to what to do. Inasmuch as they haven't a clue as to how you did what you did, when you helped them, the services you rendered might as well be an act of magic, as far as they're concerned. 

So, it's a good thing that there is a second way of 'being helpful,' that we can aspire to. And that is, to empower or train them for the future, by using the present crisis (career choice, career change, or unemployment) to train the client on how to deal with this crisis anytime it ever reappears in their life, knowing that in the present crisis they are most open and most teachable. 

This means we must explain everything. We must use no instruments which the client does not fully understand; give the client no summary of the results without explaining how those results were arrived at; come to no recommendations without explaining carefully to the client how we reached those recommendations; propose no job-hunting strategies with-out explaining what the virtues and limitations of each strategy are; and define our task not as helping place the client, but rather as teaching him or her how to place themselves. In other words, we must take care that each step along the way is carefully explained to that client, so they'll know how to do all of this, ever thereafter for themselves. 

As I hinted earlier, in the U.S. and other countries this second way of being helpful is sometimes called "empowerment" because we don't know any better way to describe a process in which both the goal and the result is that the client becomes stronger and more in control of their own lives. The world is always astonished when it meets someone who knows where they are going, with their life; that is such a rare kind of strength.

Principle #3 of Life/Work Planning:

Your clients have more control over their lives than they think they have.

If you are going to teach Life/Work Planning, you are asking people to believe they can change their lives. So if your client doesn't believe that, you'll never get to first base in getting them to do the paper and pencil exercises that Life/Work Planning requires. 

In light of this, I regret to report that many of our clients are devout believers in what I call "The Victim Mentality." That is, an outlook or attitude that says, "My life is essentially at the mercy of powerful forces out there that are beyond my control. And therefore it makes little difference what I want out of life; I must learn to settle for whatever I can get, since I am essentially powerless to make my life be other than it is." 

What these forces are held to be, that are holding them back, will vary from person to person. The Victim Mentality may seize upon:

  • Their history, upbringing, genes or heritage
  • Their social class, their lack of education, or their lack of a high I.Q.
  • Their lack of experience, their lack of skills, their lack of ambition.
  • Their parents, who have held them back, their teachers who were walking disasters, or an invalid relative who deprived them of the attention they deserved during their formative years.
  • Their partner, mate, husband, wife, best friend, who is never giving them sufficient love, or paying sufficient attention to them and their needs.
  • Their boss, superior, manager or co-workers, who are always picking on them.
  • The economy, the government, the state, the system, that is holding them back.
  • The rich, the poor, taxes, low employment opportunities, large corporations, or other social conditions, that are oppressing them.
  • Some particular enemy, out to get them – a former boss, an irate creditor, an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, a conspiracy, or the devil.

Regardless of which multiple choice is chosen, the Victim Mentality, once it has you in its grip, discharges you from any responsibility for how your life is going, since you clearly are at the mercy of other forces. And Life/Work Planning, by this view, is nonsense, since there is really nothing you can do to change your situation or your life. By this view, you are doomed.

Now, to be sure, there is a sense in which we are victims, truly at the mercy of forces we have no control over. War, pestilence, famine, earthquake, fire and flood spring to mind. 

And some of us, some of our clients, anyway, such as the homeless, the poor, the downtrodden, minorities, and outcasts, seem to be peculiarly at the mercy of powerful forces: prejudice, discrimination, racism, sexism, idiotic laws, uncaring bureaucrats, blind justice, wrenching tragedy, and the like. It is even more difficult for them to believe that anything can ever change, about their life. 

They are victims. And sometimes, we are victims. But nonetheless, there is a vast difference between being a victim, as we all are at times, and having the Victim Mentality. Being a victim means there are some areas of my life where I am battling powerful forces, but I will still do battle with them, and seek to prevail. Whereas, people in the grip of the Victim Mentality have essentially given up: what's the use? Why even try? I am depressed. I have no hope. It is the difference between a soul that is a fighter, and a soul that has given up. 

I want to state a simple truth, for it is the very foundation of Life/Work Planning, and that is: every individual has more control over their life than they think they have. We don't have to turn to Life/Work Planning to see this. We can find illustrations of this in almost any area of life. 

For example, some years ago a woman named Maryann was pointed out to me by a mutual friend. That friend pleaded with me to help her, since everyone else in her life had given up on her. She was the victim, though in her twenties, of multiple sclerosis; she was able to walk only with the greatest of difficulty. A neurologist, I was told, had examined her, and said there was nothing he could do. A psychiatrist had also examined her, and said there was nothing he could do. And so, Maryann came to see me. She entered my office slowly, walking with great stiffness to her whole body. I asked her how she felt. Hopeless, was her reply. Everyone had given up on helping her. 

So I asked her a simple question: "Maryann, do you know what multiple sclerosis is?" "No," she said. "Well, neither do I. But let us suppose that it is almost purely physical, caused by a virus or damaged nerve sheaths or something like that, something purely physical, that you have no control over. And let us suppose that this part which is beyond your control represents 98 percent of your illness. Still, there is that other 2 percent that is under the control of your emotions, or your mind, and therefore it is something that you can change. Now, I have no skill at helping you with the 98 percent that is beyond your control. But we can work together on the 2 percent, or whatever, that is within your control. Do you want to do that?" And she said, "Yes." 

After regular counseling, she lost much of the paralysis that was afflicting her – so much, in fact, that she became a clothes model on fashionable 57th Street in New York City, and was able basically to resume a normal life. Now, I tell this story because it is an illustration of something that is fundamental to Life/Work Planning: no matter how much of our life we think we cannot change, there is always that part that is within our control, and that we can work on – be it 2 percent, 5 percent, 50 percent, or whatever. It is always more than we suppose. 

Let me give you another illustration, again taken not from Life/Work Planning, but just from everyday life. There was a man named Don, who was married, but was going through a very difficult time with his wife. In fact, he was thinking seriously of divorce. Consequently, he went to see a marriage counselor. "Tell me," said the counselor, "what's the problem?" "Well," said Don, "to put it quite simply, my wife has an explosive temper, and she is a constant complainer and a nag. The other night, for example, she wanted to attend an evening meeting down at the library. I offered to stay home, feed the kids their supper, clean up the kitchen, and put the kids to bed in due time. But when she got home, after the meeting, do you think she thanked me? No, she looked in the kitchen and saw there was one pan I had forgotten to wash. And all she said was, 'Why didn't you do that pan?' Can you imagine? After all I'd done that evening, so she could attend the library meeting! That's gratitude for you. She's a nag." 

The marriage counselor was full of sympathy, at what Don had to put up with; and told him so. "You poor guy. That must be very difficult to live with." Don nodded, appreciatively. "But incidentally," the counselor continued, "why didn't you do that pan? Do you always leave out one little thing, when you're doing something for her?" In the days following, Don thought long and hard about this question, and realized that, indeed, every time his wife asked him to do something, he would always leave one thing out of the assigned task. He hadn't created her explosive ungrateful nature; but he knew, unconsciously, how to set it off. It gave him a sense of power over her. He realized that in his dealings with his wife, he was not as powerless as he had told himself he was. 

I repeat, in the simplest exchanges of daily life – totally apart from Life/Work Planning – we can see that people always have more power over their lives than they think they have. They are always less of a victim than they at first imagine. No matter how much of their life they think they cannot change, there is always a part of it that can be changed. 

Life/Work Planning is based upon this truth. In seminars, workshops, and individual guidance, Life/Work Planning says to even the most hopeless client: give me the part of you that can be worked on, and can be changed, and working together we will change it. 

Now, it would be nice if the only people we had to convince were our clients. But, I regret to say, our clients are the least of our problems. Our greatest problem is ourselves. We must convince ourselves that our clients can change. No small task, I might add. Because if I were asked what is the greatest danger into which vocational and careers guidance people can fall, or if I were asked what is that factor that can most inhibit our own effectiveness in the work that we do, I would reply without the slightest hesitation. The greatest danger in this profession is that of falling into unconscious contempt for our clients. And I stress the word "unconscious," because if you know you have fallen into this state of mind about your clients, you can at least try to do something about it. But the greatest contempt, and the deadliest contempt, is that of which we are totally unaware. 

I have, over the years, run into a number of people in our profession (I regret to say) who have unwittingly and unknowingly come to this point. And, heaven knows, they are able to offer reams of evidence to support their contention that their clients are essentially dolts. The trouble with such data, of course, is that it is corrupted by the counselor's perceptions. Like the two drivers, going down the street, side by side, in parallel lanes, who both were approaching a green light. The first driver said to himself, "I'll bet that light will change to red, before I get to the intersection." And, with that, he began to let up on the accelerator and started to gently tap the brake pedal, in preparation for having to stop. And sure enough, the light turned red just before he got to it. And he said to himself, "I was right!" 

The second driver, side by side with the first, also saw the green light. But he said to himself, "I'll bet I can make it through the intersection before that light turns red." With that, he accelerated his car a little more, and sped across the intersection in plenty of time, before the light turned red. And he said to himself, "I was right!" 

What we believe, corrupts the data. In driving. And in doing vocational and careers guidance or counseling. The counselor who believes his or her clients are pretty hopeless, or 'unable to overcome their past,' or 'passive dependent,' will always accumulate – God knows – a lot of very impressive data for his belief. 

But, we know well that the counselor who believes in his or her clients, who believes that they are capable of great change, and that they can take control and management of their lives if given the proper help, will find even more-impressive evidence for that belief. 

So, how do we persuade ourselves that our clients can change? Easy. Thirty years experience in teaching Life/Work Planning has convinced me of the answer. We persuade ourselves that our clients can change, by first running our own life through the process of Life/Work Planning. For, there is an immutable law, written in human nature, which says the way to believe in your clients is to believe in yourself. The way to change your clients is to change yourself. If you are going to help them with deciding where they are going with their lives, first decide where you are going with yours. Sit down and run your own life through any process you intend to teach, before you presume to impose it on your hapless clients. 

Now, many of you will find this truth self-evident, and wonder why I bother to mention it at all. Well, it's because in the U.S. at least I have seen so many vocational and careers guidance people who want to be more effective in their work, and will pay any price – except that of dealing with their own lives first. I am usually pretty understanding about this, about the limits of human nature, but sometimes I must confess it does get to me. I get frustrated to see such resistance, and when I get frustrated I have been known at times to fall into mild sarcasm: such as saying that our society has developed two beautiful ways to avoid the job-hunt: one is to remain unemployed, and the other is to become a careers guidance counselor. 

Well, it must not be so among us. If we would be truly effective counselors, if we would teach Life/Work Planning, this must be our motto: "I will not try to teach others anything that I have not first mastered myself in and for my own life." 

So, in closing, these are the questions each of us needs to ponder:
"What are the experiences I have had thus far in life, which most turned me on, and which I felt I did well?"
"What are the skills that I most enjoyed using, in those experiences?"
"If I had to put those skills in an order of preference, which is the skill I most enjoy using? And is it with data, or people, or things?"
"What are the fields of interest I most enjoy exploring – in magazines, books, seminars, workshops, and life?"
"If I could not do my present job any more, but I received ten million dollars and never had to work again, what would I spend my volunteer time doing?"
"If I had to visit different work settings, in order to learn more about them, which ones would I most like to visit?"
"How could I plan to have more leisure time, more time with my loved ones and friends, now, in this present time, without waiting for retirement?"
"What do I want to achieve before I die?"
An English author, named John Wilson, stated the rationale for Life/Work Planning better than anyone – even though he was not, at that time, writing about Life/Work Planning. In a book written thirty years ago, now long out of print, he stated it like this: 

"My life has been a reasonably full life; but my chief regret is that it has not been full enough. What I regret is not the occasions on which I have suffered, or made a fool of myself, or made choices which led to trouble; I regret rather the occasions on which I could have said 'Yes' to life, and in fact said 'No.' The same is true in my relationships to other people. I repent not so much of the damage I have caused them by doing something, but the damage I have caused by not doing something: it is the missed opportunities of helping people, of enlarging their experience, of loving them, that worry my conscience – the sins of omission rather than of commission. The most tragic thing in life would be to lie on one's death-bed thinking of all the things one had not done, the experiences one had not had, but would have liked to. So if I had to push people at all, I should try to push them into fuller lives, to persuade them to say 'Yes' to life and not to say 'No.' On this earth, at least, we only have one life; and we might as well make the most of it." 

That is what Life/Work Planning is all about. Helping our clients to make the most of their life, helping them to say 'Yes' to life, so that on their death-bed they do not lay dying and thinking of all the things they have not done, the experiences they have not had, but would have liked to have. 

But first we must learn and re-learn how to say 'Yes' to life ourselves. Life/Work Planning is for us before it is for them. 

So, in this journey, I wish you well. I wish you Godspeed.