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When Opportunity Knocks – more Planned Happenstance Theory


Some of us like to think we have a clear career path in our minds. A bright golden future off in the distance. It may be your calling, vocation or a right of passage perhaps. Many of us have our careers mapped out and know (or rather believe we know) what it will look like both now, as in a few years time.

Each new job or step up the promotion ladder will take us one step closer to career Valhalla. Perhaps the markers of earning a certain amount of money, the right car badge in the driveway or the right job title? Most of us leave school or university with words of a career advisor ringing in our ears about possible jobs and careers paths. We study for a degree or gain the qualifications to head off into the sunset the finished article.

Questions questions.

All right enough of the questions I hear you cry. However, hands up anyone who has had this type of experience? Hands up anyone where the career hasn’t quite panned out the way you had planned? Don’t worry you are not alone, as the theory of Planned Happenstance kind of predicts this career chaos and anxiety.

Following on from my article “Weird Careers and Planned Happenstance Theory” it may well be a good point for a revisit this interesting theory and practice. To carry on the development of the theory and how it can ease the stress and strain of career planning.

Swimming Upstream?

Career planning can appear like a duck swimming on a pond, on the surface, all is serene progress. Appearances promote the impression that every twist and turn in our working life is planned. Underneath the surface, of course, there is frantic action going on just to keep us moving forward. There are moments in our working lives when we feel things just don’t “fit” and not enjoying work. Perhaps you might just have missed that promotion or that new job by coming in a close second. Then we start looking for a new job in a fit of disgruntled peek that it wasn’t us moving on. We can then cling to the careers self-help book section in Waterstones for reassurance that we are on the right track. We feel that change is afoot though not sure if its part of the grand plan or a well-formed persecution complex.

Goers & Slowers

Of course, many careers advisors and coaches are sometimes reluctant to admit that their own career choices were not always the result of a definite career plan. The traditional plan and implement approach of matching individual qualifications, interests, skills, abilities and knowledge is seen as a way to reduce the role of chance and ambiguity. In fact, the careers advisor generally prefer clients who seem to be heading in a definite direction or “on the right track”.

These are the “Goers” as they were affectionately known in the Welfare to Work sector. This policy is mainly in place to help the advisor believe that they had defined and planned it that way for the client. Interestingly the clients that are given a “career path” from any number of tools and then reject it, are branded “difficult” or just “ungrateful”. These are “Slowers” in the Welfare to Work sector. These difficult people can be seen a lot in schools and colleges due to push toward certainty and to plump up the institution’s success stories. It’s not that they are difficult at all just not happy with the options delivered to them via dodgy job matching software.

Planned Happenstance Theory revisited

To recap, Planned Happenstance was developed by learning & career theorist John D. Krumboltz and focusses upon the idea that unpredictable social factors, chance events, and environmental factors are important influences on our lives.  Planned happenstance theory then is best considered as an amendment to the learning theory of career development (Krumboltz, 1996), which was also an expansion of the social learning theory of career decision making (Krumboltz, 1979).

Krumboltz states that within career planning “indecision is desirable and sensible, as it allows the opportunity for clients to benefit from unplanned events” (Krumboltz, Levin 2004). Planned Happenstance then is viewed as a conceptual framework for career development and coaching. To include transforming unplanned events into opportunities for learning, career planning and development.

Managing Uncertainty

Uncertainty about goals and career “wants” is actually a positive, leading onto new discoveries. This is at the core of the theory planned happenstance for career development. The goal, therefore, is to make it okay with the fact that unplanned events are normal and sometimes desirable. In the context of both our work and learning. Most importantly a recognised and necessary component of career planning and subsequent strategies for managing the ebbs and flows of our working life.

Using Planned Happenstance

A theory is great but how can we use it. These are the main components of the application of the planned happenstance theory for career development:-

  • Help to alleviate anxiety about future career planning
    • Its normal and can be managed.
  • Negotiating a career path is a life-long learning process.
    • This is a fluid process and can be used to find your career “sweet spot”
  • Make decisions in response to unexpected events.
  • The goal is to facilitate the active learning process.
  • To facilitate curiosity to promote a sense of excitement about the opportunity
    • Encouragement to take advantage of unplanned events
    • Position self to create future beneficial unplanned events.

(Adapted from Kumboltz et al 1999)

Making the most of the opportunity

Now then I am conscious of waffling on and on about a theory that can help you manage the ambiguities of our career swings – thing is how do we use it? What I’d like to do is to find out what you can do to get you looking for these opportunities with a few thoughts.

  • Start to explore things you are curious about. They may be hobbies, different jobs/career paths, try a new activity, look up that career, job or organisation you are curious about, volunteer or attend a workshop on a topic that interests you.
  • Don’t let indecision be a barrier in exploring new opportunities. Try to be open-minded about applying the knowledge to your career and work.
  • Be more flexible. Sometimes the opportunities that come our way don’t match our perceived “ideal”, yet sometimes they just might turn out to be great experiences for us?
  • Be more optimistic. Assume good things may result from accepting unexpected invitations, attending networking events etc.
  • Take more (calculated) risks. It’s not always comfortable to contact people to ask them about the work they do, apply to a job, attend a networking event where you may meet important people.

NB: It is accepted that it can hard for some people to step outside their comfort zone. The key here is the stretch yourself sufficiently enough to know you are doing something new and novel.

As a result –

  1. When the unplanned event happens you take the action necessary to position yourself to get the most from it.
  2. As the event unfolds, you realise the potential opportunities.
  3. Reflecting on the event, you create actions that enable you to benefit.

In principle than for those that like certainly, we may have to accept that unplanned events inevitably occur. They may well be unsettling to think that chance can influence career choice and life choices for that matter. The goal is to prepare us for the career development process in which unplanned events are a normal and necessary component. We can take on board that constructive action will no doubt generate more desirable chance events. If of course we are open-minded and learn to tolerate the ambiguity with our career choices. Moreover, that chance events will open up new and novel opportunities we just hadn’t planned for.


Career development practice may have been labouring under an over-simplified theory of plan and implement, that will be distorted how career choices are actually made. In the past, the career advisors I have worked with had the feeling that their work was boring and had little meaning. Worse still the client is left mystified about essential steps necessary in advancing their job prospects and careers.

So if you have experienced difficulty in developing or even changing your career, it might mean you are just trying too hard to rationalise it.  Instead just prepare for events happening and embrace the open-mindedness and change that it brings. To apply the theory of planned happenstance successfully, you might just have let go of the should’s, have to’s and must’s that are barriers to new opportunity.

Even if you have a preferred direction you want to head toward, you can stay open to whatever new opportunity presents itself.  By that aim, you move toward your longer-term goals and interests. These interests are more likely to “fit” with your values, your work and the business you work in. Planned happenstance theory is not just about good fortune or being in the right place at the right time. It’s more about engaging in active learning, being receptive and open to the opportunities that change life can bring to your work and career. So when opportunity knocks answer it and enjoy the ride.




Krumboltz, J. D. (1979). A social learning theory of career decision making. In A. M. Mitchell, G. B. Jones, & J. D. Krumboltz (Eds.), Social Learning and career decision making (pp. 19–49). Cranston, RI: Carroll Press.

Krumboltz, J. D. (1996). A learning theory of career counseling. In M. L. Savickas & W. B. Walsh (Eds.), Handbook of career counseling theory and practice (pp. 55–80). Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing.

Mitchell, K. E., Al Levin, S. and Krumboltz, J. D. (1999), Planned Happenstance: Constructing Unexpected Career Opportunities. Journal of Counseling & Development, 77: 115–124. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6676.1999.tb02431.x

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