On Happenstance: Wisdom from Dr. John Krumboltz

Last week I had the opportunity to hear Dr. John Krumboltz speak on happenstance and careers. Dr. Krumboltz is one of the best vocational psychologists in the world and I have admired his work since grad school, so this was quite a fun event for me. This article outlines some of my favorite parts of his talk..

Happenstance and Luck
If you don’t know what you want to do for work or you need to land a job, the single best thing you can do is to start taking actions likely to generate happenstance. “Happenstance” means the unplanned opportunities that occur when you get out into the world and start doing things and meeting people.

Career counselors love assessments (I love them, too!) but only because they help to narrow the universe of possibilities before you start translating the theoretical into concrete action steps. It is the concrete action steps that lead to positive outcomes in the real world.

Dr. Krumboltz doesn’t want career counseling to get stuck at the reflection and self-introspection stage. He views career counseling as a process where a counselor helps a client to brainstorm the next constructive action that the client can take to deal with his or her concerns, then supports the client as the client undertakes those actions. The counselor’s role is to recognize and reinforce progress and then to help the client to undertake more action steps after that.

(It occurred to me during this part of the talk that social media has made it possible to “get out into the world” in more ways than one. I believe digital interactions count, too…)

Career counselors are also useful because we can teach clients how to have conversations that build and maintain connections rather than jeopardize them. For a few people, the ability to connect comes naturally. For many other people, it is a learned skill.

Every occupation has the goal of helping other people.

When you really think about it, this is true, right? Just try to think of an occupation that doesn’t help anyone. Some occupations are directly helping, such as those that interact with the public in a customer service or sales capacity, and some are helping indirectly, such as researching cures for disease or writing technical manuals for software products or picking up garbage to clean up streets.

One way to view career choice, then, is to decide which people you want to help and in what ways. This is similar to the traditional career counseling question, “Which problems do you want to solve?”

Any job is better than no job.

Because we hear about some really crummy jobs, you won’t hear many career counselors say this one out loud, but Dr. Krumboltz argues that even bad jobs serve two major purposes other than money: (1) Jobs bring you into contact with other people who can introduce you to better opportunities. (2) Jobs offer the opportunities to learn new skills that can lead to better employment. Dr. Krumboltz says this is true even when the job seems like a dead end and he has case studies of successful clients to prove it.

Of course, jobs aren’t the only way to accomplish these things. Volunteer experiences, membership in professional associations, and pursuit of hobbies are other methods. The important thing is that you are doing things and with an attitude that is open to taking advantage of happenstance. He says that you shouldn’t wait for a lucky break…you should make luck happen. This reminds me of the quote by film producer Samuel Goldwyn, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

The goal of career counseling is not to make a career decision, but to keep your options open.

Life is no longer about making a career decision at as young an age as possible, finding a job with a big company, and staying there until you retire 30 years later. The world now changes too quickly for that.

Instead of “following your dream,” test steps in your dream. Instead of “completing your education,” never stop learning. Instead of “planning carefully to avoid mistakes,” take risks and use failures as stepping stones to new places.

Dr. Krumboltz says that indecision is a sensible reaction to a complex and unpredictable future. He advises clients to embrace uncertainty.

Dr. Krumboltz’s fondness for uncertainty made me chuckle because if there is one thing most of my clients hate, it is indecision. I should have asked Dr. Krumboltz if he is a “P” on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator because his vocational theories seem very appealing to people who love to keep doors open and less appealing to people who value focus and clarity (in the Myers-Briggs world, people who score high on “J”).

Probably the universal truth for all personality types is that the ability to take action despite uncertainty is a needed life skill, especially during periods of life transition. Since periods of life transition are more frequent in today’s labor market than in the past, uncertainty is a more common life experience than in previous decades. For those of us who like to plan, the plan helps us to tolerate uncertainty while we take action. No matter how detailed the plan, it is advantageous to remain open to happenstance so we can benefit from pursuing unpredictable opportunities as they arise.

Happenstance occurred in my own career when I visited a volunteer match agency and asked them to send me somewhere to do volunteer work. They sent me to a community agency that offered free classes in employment-related topics and I became a trainer. The experience launched my career in vocational psychology. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if they had sent me to do something else!

No matter what your career philosophy, your career happiness is likely to be higher if you understand and leverage happenstance. Because of this, I highly recommend Dr. Krumboltz’s book, “Luck is No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in Your Life and Career.”

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