The February 2013 Career Convergence article “Stop Saying Career 'Path'!” advocated for a new metaphor, the Career Voyage, that reflects the real interplay of control and happenstance that exists as we plan our careers and lives. Now I would like to share a related exercise that has helped clients viscerally understand the presence of happenstance in their lives, and also understand how to approach it.
Following in the spirit of the Voyage metaphor, this exercise embraces both the predictable and the unpredictable – what is both within our control and what is outside of our control. Clients reflect on their life experiences, which illustrate the realities of the voyage metaphor. Raising awareness of what is within their influence (and what is not) has been meaningful for these clients.
A Happenstance Exercise
I invite you to try this:
First, focus on your future. Consider your life plans (regarding issues like relationships, education, job/career) for either transition or stability over the next couple of years. Are you planning for change in any of these areas, something new? Or are you planning for no change to take place? Maybe you are content with your residence, your partner, your job, or other aspects of your life.
Next, shift your focus to the past. Think about some of your life-changing, life-altering experiences. This could include meeting the person who became your current partner or spouse, insights and new ideas that directed you professionally, an event that changed the way you think about your own life, or any other experience that has significantly shaped your direction.
Now consider this: how many of these life-changing, life altering events did you plan, predict or control? If you’re like most of my clients, that number will be close to zero. The events that shaped the direction of their lives in the most profound ways are usually outside of their control, beyond their ability to plan or predict. And yet, we all continue to confidently plan our lives even though our most important life events are unpredictable.
Two Types of Unpredictability and Practical Approaches
Our lives contain two types of this unpredictability: serendipity (unexpected good things) and disruption (unexpected bad things). In spite of the fact that our lives are often profoundly unpredictable in both of these broad areas, I continue to believe that “planning” is a worthwhile activity. Life without any planning would likely be directionless, haphazard, and meaningless. Our plans can incorporate meaning in the face of unpredictability.
We can make provision for enhancing the unpredictable effects of serendipity (Krumboltz offers many helpful approaches to this, including sharing your interests with people you meet, and taking risks that are likely to pay off), and we can make provision for mitigating the effects of disruption by increasing our resilience (including maintaining supportive relationships, renewing professional relationships, building an emergency fund, and – perhaps surprisingly – practicing mindfulness meditation).
Through a simple reflective experience, we can engage our clients in an understanding of the very real presence of happenstance, and then provide them with practical tools to maximize the positive effects and minimize the negative effects.
Experience in Practice
After formally presenting this exercise (called “What Happens Next” -- slides and handout links at: www.capital.edu/contact-career-development) to groups, participants have shared with me that the experience “was an eye opener”, “was unexpected and surprising”, and “provided insight about what looking into the future is actually like”.
A similar and briefer strategy has become useful for me in a variety of my one-on-one advising sessions. I often use it with my clients who experience stress that is related to their belief that they are making decisions about a career “for the rest of their life”. I tell them that while they should make the best decision with the information they have, it’s helpful to remember that the most life-changing, life-altering events they have experienced (and I ask them to think of some) were probably things they didn’t plan, predict or control. And I remind them that there will be more of these events in their lives.
This brief awareness-raising moment for my clients has been a powerful reminder of the limits of their control, and it has opened them to conversations about the power of serendipity and resilience in planning their lives. Far from constraining their sense of agency and self-direction, clients find this thought-experiment to be liberating. It provides them with a more realistic, integrated window into the reality of their life situation as well as the choices and reactions that are actually within their control.
Krumboltz, J. D. (2009). The Happenstance Learning Theory. Journal of Career Assessment, 17, 135-154.
Krumboltz, J. D., & Levin, A. S. (2010). Luck Is No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in Your Life and Career. Atascadero, CA: Impact.
Zolli, A., & A. M. Healy. Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. New York: Free, 2012.
Eric Anderson is the Director of Career Development at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. He has over 23 year of experience in career development, and has provided articles and conference presentations, the most recent and related of which are “Stop Saying Career 'Path'!” (2013) and “The future is actually behind us: why chaos and happenstance theories are counterintuitive” (2012). Eric can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can find some of his other work at www.capital.edu/careerdevelopment.