Plan for the Unplanned: Nine Chance Events to Optimize Opportunities in Happenstance Toward Career Goals

By Zhiqiong Ai

To help students prepare for a changing job market with constantly unexpected landscapes, career practitioners are not only faced with an imperative to prepare students for jobs that do not exist yet (Weise, 2020), but also with an emergent need to improve students’ ability to optimize happenstance in their life. Planned happenstance theory (Mitchell et al., 1999) purports creating and transforming chance events into learning opportunities leading to career development, which implies generating beneficial unplanned events by engaging students in exploratory actions through five Planned Happenstance Career (PHC) skills (curiosity, persistence, flexibility, optimism, and risk taking). Expanded on the chance events identified by Betsworth and Hansen (1996), this article proposes nine chance events that career practitioners could create and utilize to transform happenstance into students’ learning opportunities.

#1 Professional and Personal Connections. Career practitioners need to guide students to seize opportunities to attend career affairs, campus events, classroom learning, club activities, etc. Examples of chance events include casual talks with professors and professionals, which may lead to unexpected outcomes; class lectures, presentations, discussions, or projects, which may inspire unplanned actions; or a random walk in an art show, which may result in knowing somebody who turns out to offer them valuable job seeking advice, or even a job.

#2 Unexpected Changes. Chance events may exist in students’ part-time, full-time, or internships due to the leaving of a colleague, the change of the part-time nature to a tenure one, or expansion of a department. Career practitioners may need to emphasize persistence and efforts despite failures and setbacks, positivity to look for new opportunities in good or bad happenstance, and courage to take actions even when faced with uncertainty in students.

#3 Right Place and Time. Betsworth and Hansen (1996) argue that job opportunities come when students are fully prepared. Only when students have the required qualifications, can opportunities be activated at the right place at the right time. In order to prepare students for the opportunities, career practitioners should improve students’ awareness and motivation to secure related academic expertise, degrees and employability skills.

#4 Family Influence. Examining the influence of family on students’ career decision making is another chance event that career practitioners could use to develop a constructive attitude towards changes, including anxiety, distress, even setbacks and failures. No matter what influence students inherit from their family or no matter what changes happened recently in their family, remind them of the value of flexibility in shifting attitudes and mindset based on circumstances.


#5 Encouragement from Significant Senior Professionals. Good stories of significant senior positions in related fields offer students living examples and encourage them to intentionally gain new experiences, obtain one more certificate, set higher goals, and even accidentally alter their previously planned career path to better fit their vocational goals. Inviting such people to campus to share their experience might be a great inspiration for students in career exploration.


#6 Experiential Learning. The impact of experiential learning may create great chance events, particularly through volunteer work, summer jobs, field experiences, the military experience, a study abroad trip, a cross disciplinary workshop, etc. These may help students know more about themselves, unlock their new passions, and increase their confidence or self-efficacy.


#7 Obstacles. When students are suffering from illness, loss of jobs, or mental issues, it would be hard for them to see the hidden benefits in chance events. However, it will make a difference if career practitioners intentionally plant positivity in students who experience downturns and help them develop a growth mindset with optimism, persistence, curiosity, openness and flexibility. For example, encouraging students to gain new skills despite temporary loss of job might unlock new job opportunities to them.


#8 Impact of COVID. The pandemic has been changing the nature and number of many jobs. Some industries have been badly hurt and lost a lot of labor and market. Teaching students to look beyond the pandemic by guiding them to search for new opportunities might challenge them to rethink about their original dreams and replan their career path.


#9 Exposure to New Things. Chance events happen when students are exposed to varied activities. New things might lead to ground-breaking moments that inspire students to recognize and restructure their unknown potentials. For example, when students happen to attend a new and/or challenging community project, they are more likely to unlock their new interests/passion than just staying in the room doing nothing. Career practitioners could aid students’ curiosity and provide exposure moments by encouraging them to learn new skills, interact with a new culture, make new connections, try new experience, visit new places, interact with a new culture, etc.

Photo By Frank Eiffert Unsplash

Planned Happenstance Career Skills for Life

In conclusion, developing PHC skills help students recognize the positive possibilities of chance events in their career development and encourage them to “take constructive action and create opportunities to achieve personal career goals” (Rhee et al., 2016). The above chance events could lead students to new opportunities if career practitioners instill PHC skills when designing or generating chance events in students’ academic and career activities intentionally.



Betsworth, D. G., & Hansen, J.-I. C. (1996). The categorization of serendipitous career development events. Journal of Career Assessment, 4(1), 91–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/106907279600400106

Mitchell, K. E., Levin, S. A., & Krumboltz, J. D. (1999). Planned happenstance: Constructing unexpected career opportunities. Journal of Counseling and Development, 77(2), 115–124. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6676.1999.tb02431.x

Rhee, E., Lee, B. H., Kim, B., Ha, G., & Lee, S. M. (2016). The relationship among the six vocational identity statuses and five dimensions of planned happenstance career skills. Journal of Career Development, 43(4), 368–378. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894845315602120

Weise, M. R. (2020). Long life learning: Preparing for jobs that don't even exist yet. John Wiley & Sons.



Zhiqiong Ai (Alias: Alice Ai), Ed.D. serves as a career and academic planning coach in the CAP Center and an adjunct professor teaching Intercultural Communication and Second Language Acquisition at George Fox University. For questions, contact Dr. Ai at aai@georgefox.edu.


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Libby Scanlan   on Monday 04/04/2022 at 01:53 PM

Nice article Zhiqiong! I love John Krumboltz' happenstance theory and appreciate how you broke it down into clear actionable steps that can easily be applied with job seekers of all kinds.

Scot Headley    on Monday 04/04/2022 at 06:41 PM

Clear and helpful. Good work, Alice.

Jim Peacock   on Tuesday 04/05/2022 at 03:35 PM

Great job Alice in showing specific action steps people can take to create luck in their career search.

Karen Lomas   on Wednesday 04/06/2022 at 05:05 AM

Very good article! Am I permitted to share this with a client of mine, for whom I think this might be helpful?

Alice Ai   on Wednesday 04/06/2022 at 04:52 PM

You are welcome to share if it is helpful in any way, Karen. Thanks!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.