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Career Choices: The Importance of Chance

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

You probably remember being asked that question when you were a child. If you answered, "I don't know," then the adult who asked the question most likely responded by listing a series of occupations and asking you to consider them.

Have you ever listened to college freshmen getting to know each other during the first week of school? A common question is, "So, what are you going to major in?"

Perhaps a family member asked you if you were avoiding the real world when you decided to apply to graduate school?

In American culture, we are expected to be decisive about the direction of our careers and it is generally unacceptable to be unsure about what we want to do with our lives. The importance we place on being "decided" in our society can make those who are uncertain about their future career feel as if something is wrong with them. However, an undecided person who is actively exploring and learning about career opportunities may very well find themselves following an unexpected, but fulfilling, career.

Typical career-planning techniques--such as matching interests, skills, and abilities to a particular job or laying out a plan of one's life for the next 10, 20, or 70 years--are often very helpful in planning and deciding upon a career. But sometimes, if we become too wrapped up in making the one right decision about our careers, we can forget the importance of chance.

According to John Krumboltz, a leading career theorist, chance or unplanned events do have a place in the career-planning process. Krumboltz has put forth a relatively new approach to career counseling called planned happenstance (see K. A. Mitchell, A. S. Levin, & J. D. Krumboltz [1999] Planned happenstance: constructing unexpected career opportunities, Journal of Counseling and Development, vol 77:115-124). Yes, planned happenstance is an oxymoron--you cannot plan chance events--but you can generate and take advantage of unexpected opportunities throughout your career.

Here's one example from my own life as to how chance influenced my own career. Believe it or not, I never planned to write a career column for Next Wave. I'm currently writing for Next Wave because I took a risk and attended a Next Wave gathering a number of years ago. This little adventure of mine sparked a series of events that led to my writing this column. My curiosity about the initial event spurred me to take the risk and attend, even though I was uncertain how the evening would turn out. I was optimistic that it might be fun; little did I know where it would lead.

Most of us plan our careers because we feel the need to have the security of an income so we can put a roof over our heads and food on the table. I want to be clear that planned happenstance theory does not say you shouldn't plan and that you should just leave your career to chance. But chance encounters that positively affect your career do happen, and you can increase their frequency.

Just like you can't win the lottery if you don't buy a lottery ticket, in order for unexpected events to impact your career, you must place yourself in positions in which chance events can happen. Planned happenstance theory suggests that five skills help individuals create chance events. The five skills are: curiosity, persistence, optimism, flexibility, and risk-taking. In my own example of attending the Next Wave gathering, I took action based upon my risk-taking ability, my curiosity, and my optimism.

Curiosity: Sometimes when we are stuck in the routine of our daily lives, we forget to be curious about the world around us. Curious people explore their world and are open to new learning opportunities. Some examples of how to express your curiosity are to do an informational interview to learn about an occupation, take a course to develop new skills or explore new interests, reconnect with members of your network, or surf the Web to learn about other occupations.

Persistence: When seeking new learning opportunities, some of your efforts may backfire or lead you nowhere. When feeling discouraged, be persistent. Persistence is also a useful skill for those of you who have not yet completed your graduate degree!

Optimism: By maintaining a positive attitude, you believe that there are new opportunities are out there for you and that those opportunities are attainable. This attitude can help you remain persistent, even when you experience setbacks.

Flexibility: If you remain open-minded enough to change your attitude or beliefs in response to changing circumstances, you are more likely to be able to take advantage of a chance event when one does occur.

Risk Taking: Sometimes you can't know everything about an opportunity before you decide to take action and pursue that opportunity. Each of us has a tolerance level to taking risks. If you find yourself not taking action to explore new opportunities or passing over opportunities because of your low risk tolerance, it may be time to reexamine your ability to take a risk.

As you start the New Year, I encourage you to stop and think about your own career. If you are undecided about your future, remember that this is normal and that even those who have clearly defined career goals often find that those goals change over time. If you have stated career goals and are striving to reach them, continue to do your best to reach your goals--but be open to chance events. Constantly seek to feed your curiosity by exploring new opportunities, and who knows what you'll end up doing!

You can send e-mail to Kathie at

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