Stop Trying to Plan Your Career — Manage Your Luck Instead

by Pat Joachim Kitzman

There’s an unfortunate belief entrenched in American culture — that career planning is a logical and linear activity. You set a career goal, then reach it through strategic steps. Your choice could be based on an aptitude test, projected job demand or whatever seems most interesting. The problem with this approach is its unrealistic expectation — to pluck a career from among thousands of possibilities, often without a chance to truly explore any option. Further, it’s difficult to predict the economic, social or political events that will impact future employment. Job seekers get a better result from a different approach.

You Are Luckier Than You Know

If you ask people how they discovered their careers, you’re likely to hear about coincidences, chance events and twists of fate. They found themselves in a new situation, and something sparked their curiosity. One thing led to another, and they followed the opportunities. Everyone who works with students knows many such stories.

Using chance events to build your career is an idea popularized by Kathleen Mitchell, Al Levin and John Krumboltz. According to their Planned Happenstance theory, you’ll benefit more from taking advantage of spontaneous openings than trying to plan your way into a career.

It’s a new way of looking at life. If you are open to the possibilities all around, you can turn unplanned events into career opportunities. The key is to be well prepared and open to the breaks presented by chance events. It may seem like planned happenstance is just plain luck, and some people are luckier than others. However, we all experience chance opportunities. The difference is, some people are better at managing their luck — or putting themselves at the right place at the right time — and following through on chance encounters.

I am a fan of helping students find their way through this philosophy — it works.

Manage Your Own Luck

So, how do you explore career possibilities through planned happenstance? Live your life in such a way that your eyes and ears are open to possibilities — and take action on opportunities that grab your attention. It’s about living with the expectation that interesting things are going to come your way. Investigate further when they do, and take some risks, even when the outcome isn’t clear.

One of your most valuable tools is always available but rarely acted upon — the informational interview. This is simply a conversation with someone familiar with your area of curiosity. You aren’t interviewing for a job; you’re just gathering information. Most people are more than willing to talk about subjects where they’re knowledgeable! They may also offer some helpful advice. The point is, no matter what you’re interested in, there’s someone who is either doing it or knows more than you do. Even if they’re located halfway around the world from you, you can engage them in a 20-minute conversation electronically.

Make the most of your conversation — consider asking these questions:

• How did you get started in this field? Is that typical of most people?

• What skills and personal qualities are most important for success in this job?

• How would you describe the professional climate in your office? In your industry?

• What are the greatest rewards of your work? What are the greatest frustrations? How do you deal with them?

• What are some growth areas in this field and what impact is that likely to have on job opportunities?

Another great way to explore opportunities is to learn through volunteering. If you hear about an intriguing project, take the chance to learn more and make new connections. Central College students discover opportunities each year through service with non-profits and members of the community. Every open door could lead somewhere great.

Talking with strangers is another way to capitalize on the unexpected. We run into fascinating people when we ask for directions, pursue a hobby or travel on vacation. Take advantage of surprising opportunities — even when you think you’re lost.


Pat Joachim Kitzman is director of career and professional development at Central College.


At Central College, curiosity is encouraged and exploration expected. This post is intended to stimulate vigorous, open inquiry, and opinions expressed belong to the author.