Richard Bolles is perhaps best known as the author of the job-finding, career-path-defining, weird-illustration-containing manual “What Colour is Your Parachute?” which he has rewritten every year since 1970 to keep each new edition relevant and which has sold more than 10 million copies.
One of his lesser-known works, however, has an even wider purview than job-hunting. “The Three Boxes of Life: and how to get out of them” is a book that addresses the way that we typically organise our lives. The “boxes” Bolles defines are: Education, Work and Retirement. The general pattern of culture in the modern Western world is to divide these up across life: we spend our first 20 years or so studying, the next 40-50 years working, and then perhaps if we’re lucky another 20 years on leisure pursuits. Bolles’ notion is that we could mix these boxes up, and that we might be happier for doing so. Why not, throughout life, spend some time on each? Lifelong learning, lifelong work, lifelong leisure.
These ideas were ahead of their time when “The Three Boxes of Life” was first published in 1978 but they’ve become more popular in the past 30 years. As pensions shrink, the idea of finding lifelong congenial work starts to seem more appealing, and ‘career breaks’ or flexible working to pursue leisure interests have also become common aspirations.
Life-long education seems to me the most exciting and rewarding goal of the three. In fact, I never feel quite ‘right’ unless I’m pursuing some kind of study. Despite the continuing financial assault on the university sector, it’s still possible to take a short course fairly inexpensively in the UK. I’ve taken Open University courses and short classes at the City Lit. There are also one-day workshops – I enjoyed a great woodworking class earlier in the year, and have the perfect fit-for-me footstool to prove it. Independent learning provides flexibility – I have a French ‘conversation exchange’ partner who I meet up with for a couple of hours’ chat, one hour in English and one in French. And then there are the pursuits which might not be considered typical ‘education’ but which fall under that heading for me. My sessions on the psychoanalyst’s couch aren’t exactly education, but I certainly learn a lot from them.
Several of the characters in my new novel “The Lessons” find the structured learning of Oxford University ultimately stultifying and demoralising. The weekly tutorials, the reading lists, the libraries… these don’t work for everyone, least of all perhaps for 18-year-olds. My characters find that they learn more once they’ve left university than they did while officially in the “study” box of life. Perhaps that’s not surprising. The curriculum you build for yourself tends to be more rewarding than one handed to you. And the idea that you could have learned everything you need to know for life by 21 is, when you come to consider it, fairly ridiculous.
Naomi Alderman is a member of The School Of Life faculty. Her new book 'The Lessons' is published by Viking.