Happenstance: Stop planning your career, start planning for chance


January 20, 2021

How do you go about choosing a job or crafting your career?

Do you:

  • A) Listen to your parents (after all, they know best…so they say)
  • B) See jobs as a buffet and try them all (they don’t need to make sense)
  • C) Follow your passion and hope the money will follow too
  • D) Pick one for money and hang in there to retire early
  • E) Choose any job for the time being and whilst you decide what you really want
  • F) Don’t plan anything, see what falls into your lap and do that?

I chose option E, or rather, I didn’t choose it, it just happened that way.

I thought that at some point during my uni years that this metaphorical lightning bolt would come and hit me (gently) and make realise what my calling was, and I’d go do that and live happily ever after. Anyone else had that expectation?

I was very disappointed when said bolt didn’t come. Is it running late? Will it come to me in the summer after graduation? What’s up bolt, time is ticking!

It didn’t help that the year I graduated, 2008, was also the year the economy decided to have a recession. There was a freeze on hiring and boy was that not fun. So after 4 months of job searching and lots of unpaid internships that went nowhere, I finally got a paid job somewhere totally unplanned and totally nothing to do with my degree.

That’s when my Quarter Life Crisis began and I moved onto option B: trying out different jobs and industries to see if anything was my calling.

I began to get obsessed with careers and I’d always end up talking to people about theirs:

  • How did you know what you wanted to do?
  • How did you get your job?
  • What’s it like?
  • What are you going to do next?

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one fascinated with careers. Researchers have been studying careers since the 1900s and have come up with quite a few different Career Theories.

Career Theories

Career theories started out exploring how to match the right person to the right job. They focused on matching aptitudes and interests to what the job required. They mostly asked – can you do the job and is it remotely interesting to you?

Looking at whether the job is meaningful and fulfilling to you and whether it aligns with your values, came later on.

Where other career approaches fail

There are about 17 different types of theories which I won’t go into here because I only like one.

The other career approaches encourage you to plan logically. Figure out what you’re good at, where your strengths and experience lie, then see what job roles match them and boom. Off and away you go.

The problem with that is:

  • You likely don’t your strengths (they come so naturally to you that you take them for granted).
  • You forget your achievements because you move on to the next thing on the To Do list.
  • You don’t know all the jobs out there because new job roles pop up all the time.
  • You may be assuming you can’t do a role because you don’t have experience or you’re not trained (when in reality, you learn on the job anyway).
  • And sometimes you don’t have the luxury of time to work out your perfect job match.

Planned Happenstance encourages you to recognise, generate, and incorporate chance events into your career development.

It acknowledges serendipity and that’s why I love it.

John Kumboltz’s Planned Happenstance theory

This theory remind you that some of the best things are unplanned (a bit like some legendary nights out that started with you going out for ‘one’).

If you ask a lot of people how they got to where they are they’ll say something along the lines of:

  • “I just fell into it”
  • “a chance meeting with X led me to Y”
  • “my friend told me X was hiring”
  • “I wasn’t looking to leave but then a recruiter contacted me with…”

Right? You know people like this and yet we always forget to consider chance when going on about our career development or job search.

A lot of my clients, when talking me through their jobs, despair at how random they are, how they made wrong choices, or how they’re a jack of all trades and a master of none. They compare themselves to the one friend or family member who always knew what they wanted to do, went out there and did it and now they’re all happy because they’ve climbed the ladder and didn’t waste any time.

I say those straight up linear career paths are the exception not the norm. Stop the comparison and read what Kumboltz has to say because it’s like soothing balm to your anxious mind.

Planned Happenstance says

Chance plays a bigger role in careers than we give it credit for.

We can create chance by developing these 5 skills:

  1. Curiosity – what new opportunities are emerging from these unplanned events? What new learning opportunities are being presented here?
  2. Persistence – keep going despite setback.
  3. Flexibility – be responsive to unplanned events. Don’t be wed to the career you planned when you were younger, go broad. Look for things which fit your natural strengths and interests.
  4. Optimism – Don’t be embarrassed by your CV, embrace the up-and-down nature of our careers. See new opportunities as possible and attainable
  5. Risk taking – take a risk, even if you think you’ll be rejected because trying is always better than not trying at all.

So what does generating chance actually look like?

You engage in exploratory activities that increase the probability that you will be exposed to unexpected opportunities.

In other words, you hone your curiosity, follow your love of learning, talk to old colleagues, attend talks and workshops in and outside your field. Ask questions of professions you don’t know about (or assume you know about). Be open-minded.

Don’t just pick roles that match the skills you already have, but look at roles you’d normally dismiss.

I know job hunting drains a lot of people. Which is why I remind my clients that job boards aren’t the only places where hiring occurs.

Your next job or client could come about as the result of chance. Like noticing an old colleague has made a job move, saying congratulations and asking how it happened. This turning into a mini catch up which leads to them finding out you’re looking and then….BOOM.

And all you did was be you.

So didn’t give up. Remember chance is on your side. Do as many things as you can to increase its probability and you’re golden!

You got this.

Like this? Subscribe to the Straight-talking Newsletter for more career tidbits.

If you are looking for clarity and guidance to move forward then why not download my Guide: Find Your Way.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *