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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Cutillo

Planned Happenstance and Your Career

There’s a new conceptualization of

 out there, concocted by vocational psychologists borrowing from chaos theory and dynamic systems theory. Essentially, everything in the world is in flux, but tends to find stability somehow in an unpredictable way out of the chaos. Think of a mountain stream—does the stream simply stop flowing when it encounters trees or boulders? No—it winds its way around them, or even, over time, carves its way through them.

When it comes to careers, this adaptability during chaos translates into something known as planned happenstance: chance or luck plays a major role in what happens to us in our lives, but we can behave in ways to maximize luck happening for us and enhance our response to it when it appears. In other words, we need to cast a wide net, which takes flexibility, persistence, optimism, curiosity, and open-mindedness. Meticulously plotting out our lives step by step only gets us so far, because there are always unknowns in this chaotic universe of ours, always random events, good or bad, to contend with.

Look no further than Covid for an easy example: there’s no way that individuals could have predicted that the year 2020 would turn out the way it did, with many Americans working from home or getting laid off from their jobs. But also look at how our concept of work has evolved since then, with more normalcy around the convenience of telecommuting.

When you’re in a career rut, planned happenstance is urging you to get back out there in creative ways: instead of passively sitting by, waiting for things to happen to you, you have to talk to people, take new risks, and fully participate in what’s going on around you. Like that oft-used buzzword “networking,” you must take action to generate opportunities. Unlike networking, this can take the form of a variety of approaches. For instance, going to a community learning center class, a support group, or a jogging club might not seem relevant for an underemployed person looking to build their career. However, you might get the skills you need to ace that next interview. You might be sitting next to someone building their own startup who needs someone like you to help out. You might develop supportive relationships that provide you with deep insight and the confidence to finally step out of your own way.

From this vantage point, it’s riskier to not get out there and take risks! Otherwise, you can be so stuck in one set way of doing things that you might miss out on great opportunities just around the bend, something you wouldn’t see by staring straight down at the path beneath you rather than looking around and taking in the full view. As Bruce Lee teaches us: “be like water.”

Failure and other losses are an inevitable part of life in a complex, ever-changing world. There are no guarantees that this holistic, balanced-life approach will land you the career you’ve been waiting for—but hey, it might land you something even better. Something altogether unpredictable.


Richardson, M. S. (2021). Planned Happenstance; A Relational Approach; Chaos Theory. Lecture presented for Dynamics of Vocational Development at New York University, New York.


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