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Why you should leave your career plans to luck?

by Fiona Christie on October 17, 2008

You may think I am talking myself out of a job in posing this question. But this statement is not about just waiting around passively for a sudden flash of inspiration telling you what you should do after your PhD or with your life in general. A popular career planning theory has emerged in recent years called planned happenstance which is influenced by chaos theory. Sounds interesting! I found out about this theory when attending a workshop run by careers colleagues at Leeds and Warwick Universities at a conference.

Happenstance is all about recognising that career indecision is normal and that we need to develop this “normality” into a positive rather than paralysing state. Happenstance rejects the notion of being able to plan for the job that is a perfect match for you or for “I want to be a…” My interpretation of it is that it is fundamentally about being able to be open to chance opportunities and to be able to seize them – a bit like serendipity really.  It isn’t about waiting for chance to lead you somewhere but recognising that sometimes you have to start a journey when you are not quite sure of the destination. A good example of this could be a PhD student who is worrying about whether to go for academic jobs or jobs outside academia. Maybe they don’t have to make a decision but look at possibilities in both knowing that as part of this process of understanding the “landscape” the right pathway will emerge. I think a lot of what we say about networking relates to this theory – lucky breaks happen to people who make themselves known – this could be going to academic conferences and meeting someone doing research in a similar area to yours that can lead to a joint publication, but it could also be about doing some voluntary work that interests you that brings you into contact with a new circle of people and then opens the possibility of a job in social policy for a charity! Do you get my drift?

When I found out about this new theory my gut feeling was that happenstance strategies were something I used with students anyway but as a careers practitioner it felt good to have some theoretical back up that told me it was OK to tell students it was normal to not know what you want to do.

I have often been sceptical of people I meet who say they attribute where they are now in their career as being down to luck. I think this can be a disingenuous thing to say as if you really dig deeper into what they are saying it is likely that they had actually put themselves in a position to be lucky. An example of this could be someone who is doing some unpaid work experience at the BBC which then leads to a job offer. They may have felt lucky to have got the job offer but making a decision to work for nothing for a short period in an industry that interested them contributed to their chances of being lucky.

I found these useful tips about how to incorporate happenstance into your life on the Berkeley website

  • Cultivate self-awareness and listen to yourself.
  • If you’re curious about something, find a way to learn more about it.
  • Let yourself imagine how you could channel an interest; be open-minded and willing to consider “crazy ideas.”
  • Think positive. Don’t foreclose on an idea before you’ve given it a chance.
  • See a careers adviser, who can help you brainstorm ways to explore your ideas and address any fears you might have about trying something new.
  • When things happen differently from what you expected, don’t dismiss them as “off track.” Ask yourself, could this be an opportunity in disguise?
  • Cultivate spontaneity.
  • Believe enough in the validity of your curiosity to talk to new people. Don’t be intimidated by people who seem “important.” Learn to value your wants, to see your interests as legitimate.
  • Be willing to experiment, learn new skills, make mistakes, and change your mind.
  • Don’t be held back by stereotypes you may have about how things usually, or are supposed, to happen. There’s often not one “right way.” (At the same time, you don’t have to be radical.)
  • Move beyond stereotypes you may have about yourself – the way you’ve “always been” or are “supposed to be.” Be open to discovering things about yourself you didn’t already know.
  • Learn to accept ambiguity.
  • If you’re really curious or excited about something, go ahead and explore it – don’t worry about whether you’ll be “successful” or where you’ll wind up.
  • Don’t just think about it – get out and do it!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken October 27, 2008 at 3:19 pm

I am defintitely an example of ‘happenstance’ – having had no careers advice I have drifted along in charity and now Council work and have become an expert in funding advice. i suppose there are pros and cons to it, and my problem has always been that I am always wanting to try something new and so have jumped from career to career. The downside is that if you want to be a top executive or bain surgeon for instance, it would be pertinent to be somewhat more focussed.


Corrina Gordon-Barnes May 5, 2010 at 8:23 am

This has absolutely been my experience. Throughout my 20s, when I was travelling and playing with different areas of work, I had such a low tolerance to unfulfilling work that I would often leave a position with no clue of what I was going on to next, just a trust that I would follow my curiosity, follow my passion – and something would come along.

That always happened very successfully – I’d almost say miraculously: I have enjoyed fabulous jobs and I now am deeply fulfilled running my own business, You Inspire Me.

I help women to turn their passion into a business so there’s an element of planning and structure that comes in AND qualities I see as highly important are: openness to opportunities, being true to yourself and regular spiritual practice or a similar way of accessing inner guidance.

You might like to read my latest blog post which is about how an Olympic swimmer, Michelle Engelsman, retired from swimming without knowing what was next… and what a fulfilling journey she has found herself on – a great example of planned happenstance!


Tom October 7, 2010 at 12:28 am

I have always found having a career plan is a must, it is like a road map to where you would like to be. But just as on a journey you somtimes take a wrong turn, or even what looks out to be a wrong turn then works out well.

You need to be flexible in your approach, a career paln can not be rigid it must be responsive to your ever changing journey.



Kev January 4, 2011 at 4:20 pm

I think plans, ‘never go to plan’. However a vision for the future, a long term, not too specific goal is a very good idea. It gives you something to chase after and aim for. Its also a good motivator.


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