Almost everyone knows about a book that has become a classic in the field of career-related literature: What Color is your Parachute? by Richard Bolles. Far fewer people are aware of another of his books, The Three Boxes of Life and How to Get Out of Them. The message of Parachute was timely, but in order for it to be kept up to date, it has had to be revised annually.
The Three Boxes, however, was so far ahead of its time that it has taken over twenty years for us to catch up with its message. At the time the book was written, the compartmentalization of life into the “three boxes” of: education, ages 5 through 18-22+; work, ages 20-something to 60+; leisure, age 60+ (“postponed” in favor of education and work); was more or less taken for granted as the norm. Fortunately, this is changing.
We are now beginning to recognize that learning, work and leisure have practical and spiritual value throughout life, but at the time Dick wrote The Three Boxes of Life, this was very much “out of the box” thinking.
CHALLENGING THE MODEL
In the 1980’s, when I was conducting outplacement programs for a major corporation, I began to understand how entrenched this model was.
With each new round of downsizing there would be another wave of employees who had started with the company right out of high school or college and had been with it for 20, 30, 40 or more years.
Though these people had been trained to take on increasing responsibilities as they advanced in their careers, over time the focus of their job responsibilities had narrowed rather than expanded.
I recall one group in which the employees all had over 25 years with the company and were approaching retirement age. Rather than presenting the traditional “job search” workshop to these people, the corporation agreed to let me do a retirement planning workshop developed by AARP which was designed to address issues that went beyond mere financial preparedness.
In the beginning it was a struggle to get the group to think about anything beyond the question of whether they would have enough money for what they envisioned as the endless pursuit of leisure—the retirement “box” they had been taught to expect.
As the workshop progressed, however, they began to express concern about “who they would be” when they left their jobs. They began to wonder if it was realistic to think that they could play golf for as many hours a week as they had been working.
By the time the workshop ended it was clear they were starting to think “out of the box” and their vision of retirement was beginning to expand to include not just leisure, but work and learning as well.
More recently I presented a program on retirement viewed from the perspective of Transition and the exact same issues that I had struggled to get people to think about in my earlier program were now well received and enthusiastically discussed.
Several of the participants had taken retirement packages in their mid-50s and had had the opportunity of living inside the leisure “box” for 5 to 10 years and were ready to explore new possibilities: starting a business, going back to work, going to school.
Almost all of them had some goals for personal enrichment!
LIFELONG LEARNING, WORK AND LEISURE
As a career counselor I have watched the concept of lifelong learning, work and leisure that Dick Bolles treated so exhaustively in The Three Boxes begin to gain a foothold and gradually broaden the horizons of the generations of retirees who have followed the WWII veterans for whom the boxes were made.
We are now beginning to recognize that learning, work and leisure have practical and spiritual value throughout life, but at the time Dick wrote The Three Boxes of Life, this was very much “out of the box” thinking. He framed the work/life balance and business/personal wholeness discussion long before most of us had begun to consider:
- The importance of maintaining marketable skills and confidence in our abilities
- The reasons why we might have (or want) to continue working into our 60’s or 70’s in order to sustain ourselves in retirement and also to be able to enjoy it fully.
- The need for us not to allow work to take precedence over more important things.
THE THREE BOXES OF LIFE
These ideas came not just from Dick’s experience guiding others, but also from a personal tragedy—the violent death of his brother, whom he eulogizes toward the end of the book.
So it may be that one reason these concepts are beginning to have resonance for us today is because the events of 9/11 have given us all a heightened sense of our own mortality.
I’m not suggesting that we’re all walking around wondering if we’re going to “make it” as far as retirement, but I do think it’s true that we’re more conscious than we used to be that life is far too unpredictable and far too precious to be contained in boxes. We want it to have substance and meaning, and so we must look for ways of "de-compartmentalizing" it.
For whatever reason, I do know that the image of the three boxes and Dick’s poignant tribute to his brother have stayed with me for all the years since I read the book.
It’s no wonder that Peter Drucker has described the The Three Boxes of Life as a “distinguished public service”.