Our Lives with a Theory: Reflections on John Holland’s New Autobiography
By Carley Peace and Deb Osborn
In writing his autobiography, John Holland hoped to provide “a personal account of [his] research experience that would be helpful for students and new researchers” (p. 40). Below, a graduate student and a professor describe how this behind-the-scenes look at Holland’s life and work enhanced their understandings of RIASEC theory and provided professional inspiration.
A Graduate Student's Perspective
As a graduate student and aspiring researcher, I was pleasantly surprised that this eminent psychologist wrote much of his autobiography with newbies like me in mind (Rayman & Gottfredson, 2020). Holland reflected on the circumstances and people that made the success of his RIASEC theory and Self-Directed Search (SDS) assessment possible, all with startling candidness and a sharp humor that made me laugh out loud on several occasions. I enjoyed the read, but I also came away with valuable new insights:
- Pay attention to practical problems. Had Holland not reflected on his frustrations as a practitioner, the SDS might never have come to be. Early in his career, he administered interest inventories that were so complicated they had to be shipped off for scoring, and he found the formidable Dictionary of Occupational Titles cumbersome to use. These experiences ultimately led him to create an interest inventory that could be scored immediately and give clients not just a list of possible occupations but, more powerfully, a schema for understanding what types of work they would enjoy.
- Listen to people outside your field. Holland reported learning from individuals in various fields—everything from philosophy to poetry to insurance sales. In so doing, he not only avoided the silo effect but gained a creative advantage.
- Got rejected? You’re in good company. Holland made no secret of his many journal article rejections, some of which he considered unfair (see the exhibit “Letter to Ralph F. Berdie, 1973” for Holland’s entertaining response to a particularly ill-judged review). But although these rejections were disappointing, Holland used them to fuel future studies. This ultimately strengthened empirical support for his theory and demonstrated best practice in psychological research.
- Sometimes less is more. Holland’s many tips for new researchers included reading what he called “an effective antidote for the mindless use of statistics” (p. 104)—Jacob Cohen’s writings on statistical applications in psychological research. Today, both Cohen and Holland would probably advise us not to forget the power of a few classic principles: limiting variables, examining main effects, and maximizing sample size.
- Honor your own person-environment (P-E) fit, but partner with other types. Holland exemplified the psychologist willing to follow his own advice. Rather than forcing himself into professional roles that didn’t fit, Holland found his niche planning research and developing assessments, areas that aligned with his strengths, and he recruited research partners to fill in the gaps. At a time when I must decide what training and employment opportunities to pursue, I appreciated Holland’s reminder to prioritize person-environment fit and seek out complementary colleagues.
A Professor’s Perspective
As a professor who has been teaching RIASEC theory to graduate students for over two decades, I greatly enjoyed reading Dr. Holland’s description of his theory in his own words, especially how the theory was developed, and learning more about the man behind the theory. He certainly wasn’t perfect, and expressed some views that are very different than my own, but this helped paint a more human-like portrait of him and his personality. Below are some of my take-aways:
- Include the man with the theory. Include quotations from Dr. Holland, along with samples of his memos, to provide a richer context for RIASEC theory.
- Explore and apply the principles in class. This book provided several new insights about RIASEC theory, such as background principles (which differ from the four assumptions) and influences that shaped the theory, that can be easily incorporated into teaching. One background principle states, “members of a vocation have similar personalities and similar history of personal development” (p. 13). On the first day of class, I often have students draw their career journey. Because most are preparing to be counselors, they have similar Holland Codes. As they share their stories and note commonalities, I can point to that particular principle of shared history.
- Deepen discussions about typology. The definitions of the six types and environments in the book are much more extensive than what is often described in textbooks. Asking students to respond to questions about themselves and jobs they are holding or have held, and then comparing their responses to the typology information in the book, can lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Holland’s typology.
- Appreciate and incorporate your own type. One of my preferences is for Artistic (A). I was excited to learn that one of Dr. Holland’s primary types was also A, and his creativity is evident throughout the book, which caused me to think about RIASEC theory in new ways. For example, he suggests relationships among RIASEC types as “rings” or “bands” rather than “separate bins” (p. 30). As an A type working in an I/S environment, I was encouraged by Dr. Holland’s words to seek opportunities where I can to let my type shine, such as creating unique activities to further my students’ understanding of concepts.
- Find humor in what you do. I was amused and also encouraged by Dr. Holland’s evaluations of himself, revealing both transparency as well as his humor. He shared the best and the embarrassing, and in doing so provides a model for healthy reflection. He gave voice to frustrations I sometimes feel as a researcher and instructor, but might not express out loud.
Thank You Dr. Holland
In short, we found Holland’s autobiography to be a valuable resource for graduate students and experienced professionals alike. We encourage graduate students to read and return to Holland’s account as they navigate the many career decision points ahead, particularly regarding research. Similarly, we encourage professors to apply knowledge gained from reading this resource to both the self and the classroom. Thank you, Dr. Holland, for your honesty, insight, and the reminder “…to use your competencies and interests to satisfy both your goals and those of the organization” (p. 88).
Rayman, J. & Gottfredson, G. (2020). My life with a theory: John L. Holland's autobiography and theory of careers. National Career Development Association.
This book is available in both print and ebook (PDF) in the NCDA Career Resource Store.
For more on Holland's autobiography, see:
My Life with A Theory: John L. Holland's Autobiography and Theory of Careers - Book Review by Brian M. Montalvo (2020)
A Review of “Essays Celebrating John L. Holland’s Autobiography and Contributions to Career Theory, Research, and Practice: A Festschrift” - By Taelar Bybee (2023)
Carley Peace is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology and School Psychology at Florida State University (FSU), where she works as an Instructional Specialist at the FSU Career Center and teaches undergraduate career development courses. Her research interests include cognitive information processing (CIP) theory and the intersection of career concerns, mental health, and personality. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deb Osborn, PhD, is a Professor and Co-Coordinator of the Combined Counseling Psychology and School Psychology doctoral program at Florida State University. She has been teaching career development courses for 20+ years. She is a fellow and past president of NCDA. Dr. Osborn’s program of research includes: identify predictors of and best practices for increasing positive career outcomes and decreasing negative outcomes; applying career-related theory (especially Cognitive Information Processing theory) in research and practice; designing and using assessments in career services; and exploring the role technology can play in enhancing and extending services. She can be reached at email@example.com