Planning for the Unexpected in Your Career

I’m a planner, which means that I like knowing what’s coming next and anticipating changes in my future. I’m so much of a planner that you’d be surprised how long it took me to come to terms with the fact that things just don’t always go as planned.

For example, if you had told my 23-year-old self that one day I’d go to graduate school or move across the country, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. These things weren’t in my “plans.” My guess is that you’ve experienced a shift in your plans a time or two as well.

We can plan all we want, but when things don’t go as we originally expected, it’s often due to a chance meeting or opportunity.

When it comes to career development, we sometimes forget what a large role chance plays.

But when we ask professionals how they got where they are today, many respond with a reaction like, “an opportunity just popped up” or “one thing just led to another.” The old idea that careers follow a straight and linear path is out the window, as we’ve all witnessed career paths today take many unexpected twists and turns.

But somewhere along the way our expectations to plan and control our futures have prevented us from preparing for the unexpected.

Stanford professor John Krumboltz acknowledges the non-linear career path that is influenced by chance in his theory, “planned happenstance.” Recognizing that we live in a complex and constantly changing environment, Krumboltz argues that we should plan to construct chance career events.

What does planned happenstance mean for you?

It means not expecting to follow a linear career path, but instead staying open and curious about where your next career move will lead. It does not mean waiting around for luck to find you, but instead putting yourself in situations to encounter new people, ideas, and opportunities. It means planning to create a career that is open to happenstance.

So how can those of us who like a plan do this? Krumboltz outlines and defines five skills that we can build to create, recognize, and capitalize on chance career events:

  • Curiosity: exploring new learning opportunities
  • Persistence: exerting effort despite setbacks
  • Flexibility: changing attitudes and circumstances
  • Optimism: viewing new opportunities as possible and attainable
  • Risk-Taking: taking action in the face of uncertain outcomes

In addition, you can follow four steps that Krumboltz outlines to set yourself up for success when it comes to embracing the unexpected in your career development:

1.     Reflect upon how planned happenstance has already been a part of your story.

As you begin to think back to previous transitions and life choices, you’re likely to recall chance events that led to where you are today. In doing so, you’ll also likely begin to see how the actions that you took helped to generate these chance opportunities. Ask yourself:

  • How have unplanned events influenced my career?
  • How did I enable each event to influence me?

2.     Use your curiosity as a tool for learning and exploration.

Many of us hold the idea that there is one “best” career choice for us – something that will align exactly with what we are looking for.  This can often be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Rather than expecting one clear-cut answer to present itself, investigate and follow what makes you curious. This act will expand career options and potentially take you down a new and exciting path that you never even imagined. Ask yourself:

  • What peaks my curiosity?
  • How have chance events contributed to my curiosity?
  • How could I explore the career implications of my curiosity?

3.     Create your own chance events.

Don’t just wait passively for chance events to occur. Be proactive, creating actionable steps to be open to chance. Examples of ways you can do this include: attending networking events, taking a class, exploring a hobby, surfing the web, or conducting informational interviews. Ask yourself:

  • What chance event do you wish would happen to you?
  • What can you do now to increase the likelihood of that event happening?
  • How would your life change if you acted?
  • How would your life change if you did not act?

4.     Overcome barriers to action.

Is something getting in the way of you taking proactive action steps? Perhaps you’re listening to an inner critic, afraid of how people might react or feeling overwhelmed by the tasks ahead. Remember to stay curious, persistent, flexible, optimistic, and open to risk. Ask yourself:

  • What’s stopping you from what you want to do?
  • How have other people overcome obstacles like that?
  • How could you begin overcoming that obstacle?


How are you planning to incorporate opportunities for chance into your career development? My guess is that by releasing the expectation to have everything perfectly planned, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the fun and fulfillment you experience in generating your own happenstance.