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Making the most of chance in your career

Written by Executive Career Coach Donna Weston.

How often have you heard people say the following about their careers? You may have said the same about your own career too…

 “I fell into what I do now…I never planned to be a…”

“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time for promotion”

“I found this job through an ex-colleague, I just happened to meet them at an event and before I knew it, I had a job offer…”

So, what do statements like this tell us? Taking them at face value it would seem that no matter how much career planning we undertake chance events have a significant impact on how our careers develop.

However, when we unpick these statements further, we often discover that individuals have played a greater role in steering their career than it may at first seem.

This is the basis of Planned Happenstance Theory (Mitchell, Levin, & Krumboltz, 1999), let me explain:

Planned Happenstance Theory recognises that despite even rigorous planning careers rarely pan out as expected, however, they are not entirely a result of pure chance either; people often take deliberate action which enables them to make the best of chance events when they occur.

So, drilling deeper into the experience of the person who said …

“I found this job through an ex-colleague, I just happened to meet them at an event and before I knew it, I had a job offer…”

This person, lets call them Laura, learnt to constantly look out for activities that made her feel energised, which she knew was a good indicator that she was working in alignment with her values, strengths, and interests. Laura had spent time working on a clear response to the question “what are you doing now?”, which included explaining what she was hoping to do next. She consistently posted about her interests on social media establishing her credibility. And through social media, her ex-colleague was already aware that Laura would be at the event and planned to seek her out to talk about a newly created role. Laura often enrolled in events and had learnt that even if she felt anxious about attending she would forge ahead anyway as she knew she would always learn something new or connect with someone interesting.

Over time, Laura had developed a clear vision of how she wanted to live her life and had a good idea about what organisation would be a good fit for her so, when her ex-colleague suggested she apply for this new role, she was quickly able to determine that it was an opportunity worth pursuing.  Her enthusiasm, knowledge and experience impressed her ex-colleague who was happy to give a personal recommendation to Laura’s potential new boss. After that, everything fell into place quickly, Laura accepted her dream job and feels excited by further possibilities in the future.

The reality is that Laura was very active at making decisions throughout her career that enabled her to make the best of chance events when they occurred.

Planned Happenstance theory highlights that to make the best of unplanned events you need to cultivate 5 skills: Curiosity, Persistence, Flexibility, Optimism, and Risk Taking

With these skills in mind here are some questions you can ask yourself to help turn the dial in favour of Planned Happenstance in your career;

Curiosity: What are you most curious about and how can you find out more?

Persistence: What one small thing can you do every day to explore this topic further?

Flexibility: What is no longer serving you that you need to leave behind or change?

Optimism: What future possibilities relating to your topic of interest excite you the most?

Risk Taking: If you had unlimited resources and couldn’t fail, what would you do?

At this moment in time when we have all been impacted by Covid-19 in one way or another, Planned Happenstance Theory is one to hold close – you have more influence over your career than you may think.


Krumboltz, J. D., & Levin, A. S. (2010). Luck Is No Accident. Oakland: Impact Publishers

Mitchell, K. E., Levin, A. S., & Krumboltz, J. D. (1999). Planned Happenstance: Constructing Unexpected Career Opportunities. Journal of Counselling and Development, 77, 115-124.

Sharf, R. S (2013) Applying Happenstance Learning Theory to Career Counselling. In Applying Career Development Theory to Counselling (pp. 366-371). Belmont: Brooks/Cole