Career planning; change, chance and chaos


Image licensed under CC0 1.0

Concerned about career planning? This post gives you a different perspective on the traditional concept of career ‘planning’ and some tips on how to approach this in a world which can be random and unexpected.

At this time of year many of our thoughts turn to the coming year: What we might try to achieve or change in our lives. It is for many, a time for goal-setting and thinking about where they want to be. It is also a time when many people’s thoughts turn to their careers.

I have never particularly subscribed to the view that a career can be planned per se: Life is too random and there are far too many variables involved to make the construction and implementation of a rigid plan feasible.  As such, I have always been drawn to theories of career development which acknowledge the impact of outside influences, unexpected or chance events and encounters on our careers.  Theories such as Planned Happenstance (Mitchell, Levin & Krumboltz, 1999) and more recently, the Chaos Theory of Careers (Pryor & Bright, 2003) particularly resonate with me. You can find out more about Planned Happenstance and how to use this here and more about the Chaos Theory in this video or in the journal articles referenced at the end of this blog.

Chance & change

Although different, common themes in both theories are the impact of chance events and constant change. If you reflect on how you have ended up where you are today, there will probably be a huge number of variables and usually some chance, or seemingly small factors, which have affected the choices you made, or what you were aware of.

One recent example of this was a student I saw who found a career idea she was really interested in by going to a talk by a Leeds graduate about his career. She hadn’t planned on, and wasn’t particularly interested in, going to this talk beforehand. She only went because her friend was going and she had nothing else to do at that time: Completely random. Yet she found an interesting career idea to begin exploring, where previously she had none. She may never have discovered this career if her friend didn’t happen to be going.

I recently attended Jim Bright’s insightful and entertaining inaugral lecture at the University of Derby to learn more about the Chaos Theory of Careers.  Professor Bright emphasised how ridiculous is the tacit assumption that we expect to be able to plan our careers when life is so random.  This in turn reminded me of a sketch by comedian Demetri Martin.  The original sketch – about success – features in his book This is a book (2012), but can equally apply to career. Here’s my interpretation of this in a careers context:

Career expectation reality

So can you plan your career?

The short answer is “somewhat”.  Whilst you don’t know what will happen tomorrow – let alone in 2, 5 or however many years time – and how this might impact you, you can still take some control of your direction in life.  I prefer terms like ‘manage’ or ‘navigate’ when I talk about career, rather than planning. It is a subtle distinction which means that the factors which will help you are still largely the same – i.e. developing your self-awareness, opportunity awareness and developing goals and strategies to achieve these (see our website for more on this). However, alongside this it is important to develop an outlook on, or approach to, life to underpin these and enable you to thrive.  To quote Jim Bright;

“We need to focus on how people deal with complexity, change, chance and uncertainty”

How do feel that you cope with those factors? Do you welcome them or do they alarm you? Some people naturally will fare better with them than others.  Here are some suggestions to work on:

  • Accepting change and chance events as part of life:  Be open to modifying, changing or perhaps even abandoning a goal/s.  Be open to taking a chance and explore unexpected opportunities as they arise.
  • Change your mindset: Re-frame issues or challenges that result from change or chance as the great opportunities they can be rather than as mistakes or failures.
  • Adaptability: Change and chance require adaptability, and this has been widely discussed as a key skill, both of today and in the future. See my previous post about this.
  • Develop resilience: Things will not always go “right”. You may make mistakes or decisions you later regret. Experiencing these things and developing the resilience to not let them overwhelm you will help you. Indeed resilience was a key skill an employer panel told us last year that students should develop.
  • Don’t worry about not “knowing what you want to do”: Most people probably don’t have one true calling. In any case, most of us are likely to change jobs – or even careers – many times during our working lives.  Life is about exploring, learning and developing. Make sure you do these things and you will likely find your interest/s.
  • Try new things: Put yourself in new situations with different people and be curious. Get outside of your comfort zone. Talk to people. You will likely learn about yourself, your interests, or entire new fields of which you were previously unaware.
  • Talk to a careers consultant: We can’t make decisions for you but we can help explore ideas, develop strategies or suggest starting points. We can also help you reflect, spot patterns or inconsistencies and give you a useful impartial perspective. See how to access this support on our website

Appropriately for this theme of change and trying new things, this TED Talk by Matt Cutts is a great source of ideas and inspiration on the value of trying new things.


You may also want to check out the TED playlist Talks to watch when you don’t know what to do with your life


Martin, D. (2012) This is a book. New York: Hachette Book Group

Mitchell, K. E., Levin, S., & Krumboltz, J. D. (1999). Planned happenstance: Constructing unexpected career opportunities. Journal of counseling & Development, 77(2), 115-124. [accessed 4th Januray 2016]

Pryor, R. G. L., & Bright, J. E. H. (2003). The chaos theory to careers. Australian Journal of Career Development, 12(3), 12–20. [accessed 4th January 2016]

1 Comment

Filed under Advice, Autumn career essentials

One response to “Career planning; change, chance and chaos

  1. Pingback: Is My Career Goal Realistic? | University of Leeds Careers Centre Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.