I believe in the power of the unplanned, the science of serendipity, the miracle of the moment and the wisdom of waiting to see what unfolds. Believing thus makes me a hypocrite, or so I once thought.
In more than thirty years as a career counselor and educator, I’ve harangued hundreds of college students with the importance of planning. “Successful students set goals and plan ahead,” I tell them. Or, borrowing a 1970s book title, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up someplace else!”
Nearly as often, though, I’ve described my own serendipitous career path. How a dorm mate’s confiding a suicide attempt nudged me away from a career teaching English and toward work in the helping professions. How a friend’s summer visit influenced me to transfer to his small human services-related college. And how a job offer from the same college, to be its placement director, turned my counseling work toward career development. From there, led by curiosity, intuition, and love of variety, I followed often unexpected opportunities to do career development work in the private and government sectors before returning to higher education.
Over these many years, a pale thread wove itself through the fabric of my career: writing. I wrote journal articles, newsletters, how-to manuals, lesson plans and resumes. Friends and colleagues sought my help composing important letters. Bosses and co-workers praised my way with words. The most rewarding responses revealed how my writing—or editing of theirs—helped others to perfectly express that for which they’d been at a loss for words.
In the late 1990s, I encountered a new concept in career development: Planned Happenstance. Based on the work of Stanford professor John Krumboltz, a renowned career theorist, the term “planned happenstance” was coined by counselor Kathleen Mitchell. The idea is not to discard planning altogether, but to notice what you’re naturally drawn to and develop your skills accordingly. Then, be open to unanticipated chances to pursue what calls you.
So, it wasn’t just the chaotic ramblings of a hyperactive brain that paved the circuitous route to my calling! It was the calling itself—following the path of an endlessly curious and creative mind, and noticing that consistent thread.
Counseling and teaching form the core of a career in which I help others to discover and express their innermost truths, passions and longings—to find their own words to define their lives and futures. Writing is a more overt form of the same process, digging for the essence of a story and crafting just the right words to convey it.
Yes, I still promote planning. Do the research. Set good goals and map sensible paths toward achieving them. But stop from time to time and let the winds of chance blow softly on your awareness. Receive the gifts of happenstance in your life and contemplate where they might lead. Notice the pale threads that follow you through life. They just might reveal unforeseen perspectives and unimagined opportunities.
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