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Planned Happenstance: Make Your Own Career Luck

Careful planning isn’t the only way to get ahead in a career. We like to think we’re in control of our lives, but the truth is that events often unfold in an unpredictable way.

John Krumboltz’s theory of planned happenstance says that we should position ourselves to take advantage of those events.

Happenstance means coincidence—so planned happenstance may seem like a contradiction. How do you plan for something you can’t predict? Well, it’s all about putting yourself in the way of lucky breaks.

Some people seem to know exactly what they want to do with their life. They see their future self clearly: working in a hospital, growing flowers, driving a truck, teaching in a classroom. Whatever it is, they know it's the right choice for them.

To most of us who have only a vague idea of what career we want, those people can seem like the lucky ones. But if you ask people who are happily working in successful careers how they came to do what they do for a living, you might hear something like this:

“It’s actually a funny story. I never thought I’d be doing this.”

They’ll go on to tell how they ended up doing something completely different from what they set out to do. Maybe they wanted to work as a photographer but started working in retail stocking shelves. Then one day an interesting opportunity came up, and they took a chance. One thing led to another, and here they are today working as a visual merchandiser for a designer boutique.

With planned happenstance, you’re not locked in on a straight path. You’re free to swerve and explore. And you never know what exciting career opportunities you might discover when you do. Unplanned events can bring unexpected rewards.

Build the skills to seize the moment

You just never know where planned happenstance might take you, but you can prepare for the journey. Career-defining opportunities can fall into your lap, but they’re only opportunities if you have the skill set to take advantage of them.

There are 5 skills that will support your success. Enhanced curiosity, persistence, flexibility, optimism, and risk taking can help you make the most of opportunities when they appear. Develop these, and luck will have a little less to do with landing your dream career.


A curious mind is open to exploration and opportunities. Curiosity helps you engage with the outside world, come up with questions, and process what you learn. Expanding what you know makes you want to know even more. Here are some ways to spark your curiosity:

  • Join an online forum or a class in something that interests you.
  • Go out of your way to spend time with people who have a wide range of interests.
  • Ask lots of questions and always listen to the answers.
  • Commit to lifelong learning.

You will grow, as will your social circle, and both those gains will better your chances of bumping into unexpected opportunities.


Some things are harder than we expect. Your efforts might not always pay off right away. You might have to make a few attempts before you succeed, try different approaches to achieve your goal, or sometimes even change your goal. When you feel discouraged, you may start to doubt yourself. In those cases, remember:

  • When something doesn’t go your way, try a different way.
  • Learn from each attempt.
  • Ask others for help.
  • Get creative.

Believing in yourself goes a long way.


Have an open mind and you’ll keep your options open. Welcome views that differ from your own, and learn from them. You’ll expose yourself to diversity and to new possibilities.

To gain flexibility:

  • Approach people and situations without passing judgment.
  • Listen to the opinions of others.
  • Learn as much as you can about as many viewpoints as possible.
  • Allow others to be right.
  • Be willing to change your mind.

If you’re flexible and open to change, you’ll have more opportunities and more capacity to take advantage of them.


A positive attitude can make a huge difference in how you experience the world—and in how others experience you. When you’re positive, you bring good energy to a room. You’re happy when things go your way, and, when they don’t, at least you know it’s nothing personal. Optimistic people bounce back from disappointment quickly. They are strong. Practise optimism:

  • Surround yourself with optimistic people.
  • Avoid focusing on past mistakes or disappointments—both your own and those of others.
  • Be mindful of how you phrase your thoughts and opinions.
  • Be thankful.

Optimistic people set a standard others will want to live up to.

Risk taking

Taking a chance isn’t always easy. The unknown can be scary. But if fear of the unknown keeps you from taking advantage of chance career opportunities, it will also prevent you from reaping any rewards. It’s not enough to be in the right place at the right time. You have to act, to engage. If you’re afraid of risk:

  • Consider what you have to lose in the situation.
  • Consider what you have to gain.
  • Step a little outside of your comfort zone and see how it feels.
  • Trust yourself.

If you don’t take a chance, you’ll never know what you missed.

Luck is no accident

The theory of planned happenstance is about making your own luck. This approach does not mean that you should stop all of your planning and leave your career path entirely to chance. It is meant to be paired with structured career planning, not replace it.

Different people have different opportunities for networking. But whatever your situation, opportunities can come your way. And you can do a lot to prepare yourself to make the most of a chance encounter.

Opportunity knocks, sometimes very quietly, and then it moves on. Your job is to plan for those chance opportunities. Recognize when they appear—and then jump on them.

Check out other career development theories

Choosing a career is a big decision. Exploring different ways to approach it can make the process a little easier. Here are some other career development theories to consider:

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