Need a job but no career plan mapped out? Try a ‘Planned Happenstance’ approach

uncertain-future3-225x3001If you’re in your final year and you’re not one of those people who already has a clear plan for what you’re going to do after June, then you probably have a nagging voice in your head that won’t go away asking you “what next?” A lot of people get stuck at this point in a circular and troubling thought process which goes something like this.

“What should I do next year? Should I go travelling, try to get a job or do a postgrad course?”
“OK, well what do I want to do for a career in the longer term? Perhaps that will help me decide.”
“Hmm, no idea.”

At this point, in my experience as a careers adviser, people usually do one of three things:

  • Panic and opt to either take time out to go travelling or do a masters next year to buy themselves more time, because next year they will make a decision.
  • Start madly applying for any and every job they see, because they feel they’ve left it a bit late and they just need to get something.
  • Take a step back and start thinking about ‘the whole career thing’, look for ideas online and talk to friends, family and perhaps visit the Careers Service.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m going to say that no. 3 is the right way to do it and that’s what you should be doing. Well OK you’re right, I would say that, but this post is more about how you can make the uncertain future less scary and still do positive things which will enhance your employability even when you’re not really sure what you want to do for a career in the longer term.

There’s a theory of career which says it’s all about planning: you set yourself clear career goals and then you work towards them in a logical, orderly manner. But when you actually speak to people in different jobs and ask them how they got here, the ones who set out to achieve a particular career goal and had a clear and straight road through tend to be in the minority. Most people talk about how they just ‘fell into’ their jobs or how they got some work experience in x company and through that they met such-and-such at a conference and worked on a project for y which led to  z job.

When I talk to students about the ‘higgledy-piggledy’ nature of many people’s career trajectories and how it’s OK not to have already nailed the whole career goal thing, I tend to get one of two different reactions.

Those who are natural planners and need to have it all mapped out so they know exactly where they’re going to be and what they’re going to be doing every step of the way in 3 years find the  idea of an uncertain future just too scary. They need to feel in control and have a plan, and it’s frustrating for them to find that for a lot of jobs these days there just isn’t necessarily a clearly laid out ‘A leads to B which then leads to C’ sort of careers roadmap that they can follow with confidence.

For some people though, this discovery is quite liberating and a real relief. They’d been looking enviously round at friends and course mates who seemed to have their futures all mapped out, while they still hadn’t ‘decided’ on a career and they felt inadequate and under pressure to come up with a definitive answer to that elusive question “What shall I do with my life?”.

So if you can’t follow a clear ‘careers roadmap’, what’s the alternative? Well there is a career theory which says that instead of having a very rigid idea of what you want to achieve and how you might get there, you have some vague ideas and do some generally positive things in broadly the right direction and have confidence that if  you do that, things will happen. The theory is called ‘Planned Happenstance’.

Let me get one thing straight. Planned happenstance is definitely not about sitting in your bedroom and waiting for ‘the right thing to show up’. It’s about actively doing things that are likely to open up opportunities for you. With a planned happenstance approach,  you acknowledge that you might not know exactly what kinds of opportunities the actions you are taking will ultimately lead to, but you feel confident that if you keep actively doing the right kind of things, great things can and will happen. A planned happenstance approach is particularly suited to career areas like media and creative industries which rely much more on  you making your own opportunities rather than following a clear, logical plan, although most people see elements of ‘happenstance’ playing a role in their career paths.

There are 4 core steps to the Planned Happenstance approach, developed by Mitchell, Krumboltz and Levin:

  • Clarify Ideas: Follow your curiosity and identify your interests
  • Remove the Blocks: Wonder “how can I” rather than “I can’t because…”
  • Expect the Unexpected: Be prepared for chance opportunities, such as unexpected phone calls, chance encounters, impromptu conversations and new experiences
  • Take Action: Learn, develop skills, remain open and follow up on chance events

Two books which may be of interest for anyone who wants to explore these ideas further are: The Unplanned Career: How to Turn Curiosity into Opportunity by Kathleen Mitchell, and Luck is No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in Your Life and career by Al Levin and John Krumboltz.

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