To become one of the forefathers of modern career counsleling, John Holland first had to become a revolutionary.
“IT TOOK MANY YEARS before I became popular," says John Holland (Ph.D. ’52), now 87. “I was kind of a renegade character."
Today, Holland can look back on a career as one of the most influential industrial psychologists of the 20th century. Straddling the twin pillars of data and theory, his taxonomy of personality types transformed our ability to match people with work and careers.
“His theory has had more impact on how people select occupations and careers than any other source of directed intervention in the field of psychology," said Professor Jo-Ida Hansen in a tribute to Holland.
Holland, who grew up in Nebraska and attended the University of Omaha, flirted with the idea of becoming a classical pianist before deciding “there was always some kid who played better." Serving in the Army during World War II as a psychological assistant, he administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, which piqued his interest in psychological research. It was that interest (and the G.I. Bill) that brought him to psychology at Minnesota.
As a Ph.D. student, Holland absorbed the department’s signature emphasis on empiricism, but he also was drawn to theory. Inspired in part by a philosophy class with Herbert Feigl, he decided to embrace a then-unorthodox mix of theoretical and empirical approaches. That was a direction that would one day revolutionize the field of vocational psychology.
Holland quickly found that the instruments used to measure vocational interests were wholly inadequate. “We couldn’t link people’s interests to the occupational world with any completeness or empirical base," he recalls. “I remember saying to myself, ‘Somebody ought to really fix this. This is really one hell of a mess.’ I never thought I would do it. Or knew how much work it would be."
In 1959, Holland published an article that became the basis for the Holland Theory of Vocational Personality Types. He posited six types: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional. Similar types naturally congregate, he said, and when they work together, they create workplace environments that reflect and reward their shared characteristics. Moreover, people who choose compatible environments are more likely to be successful and satisfied in their work.
Despite some early skepticism, especially among behaviorists, this simple and elegant system is now widely considered the gold standard in the field. “There is no question — it has become a bedrock of the profession and has stimulated much of the scholarship in vocational psychology and career development over the past 30 to 40 years," says Hansen.
“If you develop some deviant ideas, you have to work hard to get acceptance," says Holland. “Science is a conservative enterprise. People have a belief about what’s correct and if you come along and say that’s wrong, you have to go against the grain."
Holland not only won over his profession but has been showered with honors — including the APA Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions. His book Making Vocational Choices: A Theory of Vocational Personalities and Work Environments (first published in 1959) is in its third edition, and The Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes remains a standard reference tool.
From 1969 until his retirement in 1980, Holland served as professor and director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. He still lives in Baltimore, where he took up piano again in retirement. And here’s more music to his ears: the mess that he encountered half a century ago has been swept into the dustbin of history. “It’s very tidied up," he says.