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Weird Careers and Planned Happenstance Theory

Ever wondered how you ended up in the job or career you have presently? Was your career planned out with a prescribed course and action plan? Are you still doing the job you set out to do when you left university or school? My guess is not.

My work with clients constantly reminds me of a career theory that only the academic mind could create – planned happenstance. Now planned happenstance is an approach to career development based on chaos theory. Indeed, planned happenstance theory has gained popularity in recent years for very good reason. Though how popular is popular with people outside of psychology is a moot point. In principle, the theory accepts that people can sometimes have difficulty making decisions about their career paths. As a result, will become derailed by factors outside of their control that can influence career or job choice. Such as a feeling of “stuckness” family commitments, financial constraints, illness, or not getting the qualifications expected etc.

How weird is a weird career?

Planned happenstance then offers a different perspective to the more traditional approach of guiding you to make specific career goals and choices. Those goals are set and then you work towards them in a logical, linear and orderly manner. So planned happenstance asks you to loosen up the idea of mapping out a hard and fast perfect career right from the start.

For example, I vividly remember asking a number of college career and educational grandees, why they push students to make significant career choices at 16? I went on to ask them how many were doing jobs or had careers that they planned when they left university or school. The silence was deafening. Thus highlighting the randomness of opportunity and changes to career paths through life stages.

Planned happenstance then suggests that a career is something that will gradually unfold and encourages us to make the most of sometimes strange and interesting opportunities as they arise. These elements and the randomness of careers and jobs were discussed in a previous post – Zig Zag Careers Paths. This highlights the sometimes ad hoc nature of careers paths through time and how opportunity presents itself.

What does it all mean?

The table below offer a quick comparison between traditional “plan & Implement” model and planned happenstance approaches to career management

Traditional Approach

Planned Happenstance

Makes clear decisions for you Embraces Indecision
A logical and systems path Understands the future is uncertain
Identifies an ideal job/career Opportunities offered by unexpected events
Matches your skills and interests Driven by curiosity
Narrows the choices available Adapts to change flexibly

Using Planned Happenstance

Let’s start to make sense of planned happenstance and what it may mean for you. Let’s also assume that you have experienced difficulty in starting out at work or even changing your career. It might just mean you are trying too hard to rationalise it.  Instead just start to be open to events and when they present themselves to embrace the change that it brings. Needless to say, the change or opportunity may not be what you have been expecting or planning for. Allowing yourself time to investigate and see how this chance happening may just take you off in a new and interesting direction.

This, of course, may well be a little too freestyle for some career planners. Letting go of the pre-described plan made by yourself or others can be a liberating experience. Not being pinned down to defined a career path for young people helps remove some of the pressures brought to bear by institutions and well-meaning career advisor.  Clearly, there is no suggestion that anyone just sits waiting for an opportunity to come-a-knocking as this plan is unlikely to yield results. However, get out and find work that you are curious about, find an entry-level that helps you build career capital in the area of interest. Start to collect those important rare and valuable skills through deliberate practice that will help you create control over your future work and career path.

Planned happenstance then is a particular viewpoint that allows you to create opportunities by taking action on your curiosity. As a result, utilising the chance events that will happen from the curiosity. Planned happenstance is not just good fortune or being in the right place at the right time, it’s about being receptive to the opportunities that change can bring.

Here are things you can do to take full advantage of the opportunities brought by chance events:

  • Try to become more self-aware and clarify your ideas, think about what your interests are and follow-up on them
  • Don’t dismiss apparently “odd” or strange (for you) jobs, are they really that bizarre? Consider how you might be able to develop them into something you hadn’t planned for but may lead you toward something interesting. More “how can I” rather than “I can’t because
  • Be positive and don’t dismiss an idea before you have had a chance to think about it
  • If things don’t go according to plan, then find a different path and look for new opportunities as they crop up
  • Network as widely as possible, especially in the career options that interest you
  • Consult a career specialist and ask trusted people for advice
  • Look for opportunities to learn and develop new skills
  • Try not to worry about views of how things should happen,  there is generally never a clear path toward a job or career
  • Follow up on your curiosity and take action. Don’t worry about whether you will be successful or where it will lead. If you don’t try new ideas you’ll never know where they might have led.


Now, this is just one of many theories of career management and may not suit you. You may be the sort of person that likes to plan everything down to the last detail. However, this may well blindside you to opportunities that planned happenstance may present. Indeed many of my clients find the framework of planned happenstance a blessed relief. As the overwhelming sense of “stuckness” in their careers can be as a result of over intellectualising the whole business and what they “should” be doing in their work. This theory can go some way to help our sense from the malaise of our job choice or career paths. Although by any stretch of the imagination no theory is perfect but can at least provide us with a way of thinking about what we do and why.

To conclude, planned happenstance theory then is all about being more conscious, purposeful and adapting to an on-going process of career development that can help to build a more satisfying and fulfilling career. Aren’t we all after that after all?



Krumboltz, J.D. & Levin, A.S. (2004) Luck is no accident: making the most of happenstance in your life and career. Atascadero, CA: Impact Publishers

Mitchell, K.E.., Levin, A.S. & Krumboltz, J.D. (1999) Planned happenstance: constructing unexpected career opportunities in Journal of Counseling and Development, . 77, p115-124.

Yates, J. (2014) Career Coaching Handbook, Routledge, London