Posts Tagged ‘planned happenstance’

How To Make Yourself Lucky

Chance and luck play a huge part in the direction our lives take, not least when it comes to finding jobs and opportunities to work.

One friend of mine, who had been frustrated with her lack of progression at work, finally found her perfect job as the training manager for a group of Care Homes, by chatting to an acquaintance at the school gate.  Another friend, a university Careers Adviser who liked her job but had become rather fed up with the long commute, just happened to be chatting to a colleague in the canteen and he mentioned that one of his students was applying for a Careers Adviser post down the road from where she lived.  She applied – and got the job!

In the last month, I’ve come across:

  • a sixteen year old client who was offered an apprenticeship with his uncle who happened to be building a house (he’d never thought of construction as a career before)
  • an adult client who set up a wedding planning business after having been asked by two friends to plan their weddings,
  • a young woman who happened to be shopping in the local corner shop when she noticed a sign saying they needed a part-time assistant.  It just happend to fit perfectly around her family responsibilities!
  • a computer programmer who was under notice of redundancy, and happened to mention this to a client who then offered him a job in their IT department, doing more practical work that he thoroughly enjoyed

Ask a random group of people how they got their current job, and the chances are, many of them will have got their job through a friend or acquaintance.  In fact, the CIPD estimate that 70% of jobs are found through informal means – through friends and family, proactive networking, speculative applications and cold calling.  There is always a huge element of chance involved in this – whether we happen to meet that random stranger, make the right phone call at the right time (just when gap in the organisation has appeared) or  get chatting to the right person at the school gate. Of course, the more approaches you make, they better your chances of succeeding.

Even in more formal job search methods, there is still an element of chance – whether we happen to buy the right paper, visit the right agency or look on the right internet site on the right day.  These chance encounters can lead not just to a new job, but to a whole new occupation that we might never have considered if we hadn’t happened to see a particular advert or meet a particular person.  Like it or not, most of us are not particularly rational when we choose an occupation.  We don’t research the full range of occupations; we stick to what we know about.  We don’t carefully match our likes and dislikes against the demands of the job; we take what happens to be available and looks vaguely suitable.  Chance plays a very big part in this.

So, if luck and chance play such a big part in career choice, is there anything we can do to make ourselves luckier?  I came across some descriptions of psychological experiments designed to find out just this.  In the first, some volunteers were given a newspaper and asked to go through it counting the photographs.  Unbeknownst to them, the researcher (Howard Wiseman) had inserted an ad which said “Win a £100 by telling the researcher you found this”.  People who rated themselves as lucky before the experiment were more likely to see the advertisement – perhaps because they tended to have their eyes on the bigger picture and spot opportunities that the unlucky people missed.

In another experiment, he asked people to help him get a letter to a random person – say Kate, an events manager, in Cheltenham – by passing it on to someone they knew by name, who might be able to pass it onto someone else who could get it to her.  Amazingly, many people around the UK could get it to her through just 4 contacts.  Some people who had volunteered for the experiment, however, didn’t pass the letter to anyone at all.  When questioned about this, they said it was because they didn’t know anyone who they thought could help.  These people also tended to be those people who rated themselves as unlucky before the experiment began.

He concluded that lucky people tend to have a wider social network and to see that network as being full of people who could help them.  Lucky people are living in a “smaller world” and are more socially connected to other people around the country.  When they need a plumber in a hurry, a new client, some good advice or a new job, they are more likely to know someone who can help them.  Happy coincidences are a frequent occurence, because of their wide social network.

So, if we want to improve our luck, the key seems to be in widening our social networks – taking the trouble to talk to people, being friendly and interested in the random strangers we meet, smiling at the neighbours we recognise, starting conversations with people around the coffee station, using social networking sites and getting out and about in our communities.

This is not a new conclusion.  There is a whole approach to career planning known as Planned Happenstance, which suggests that rather than setting ourselves an end goal, we should keep an open mind, and develop the skills and attitudes necessary to generate positive chance encounters and be prepared to make the most of them when they present themselves. The “Happenstance” refers to the luck element in this approach, while the “Planned” refers to planning to maximise lucky events and our ability to make the most of them.

Attitudes such as curiosity, enthusiasm for learning and willingness to take risks are a key part of this approach, as are networking skills.  Advocates of Planned Happenstance suggest taking part in lots of activities that interest us, developing new skills and trying out many new experience (work, travel and leisure), which will generate many chance encounters, and thus increase our chances of something really lucky happening to us.

Being too focused on an end goal can actually blind us to seeing opportunities when they do present themselves.  Two people might read the same newspaper, but one person will pass right over the job adverts, on the grounds that they aren’t looking for work, while another will, just out of curiousity, scan them and their eye might be caught by something, even though they hadn’t thought they wanted a new job.

So, if you really do want to improve your luck and improve your career prospects at the same time:

  • Be curious and look at the bigger picture
  • Chat to people everywhere you go, including random strangers
  • Do the things you enjoy doing, particularly when it involves meeting others
  • Seek out new experiences
  • Develop your skills – you never know when they might come in handy!
  • Expect the unexpected – you never know when good luck will strike, so be ready to recognise it!

To Plan Or Not To Plan?

I recently asked a group of professionals how many of them had a long-term career plan.  About half said yes, about half said no.  Perhaps you would expect that the go-getting dynamic characters would be the “yes” group, and the plodders would be the “no” group, but it wasn’t the case.  There were plenty of able, ambitious people in the group who couldn’t really say clearly what their long-term career goal was.

Traditionally, career guidance assumes that having a long-term goal is a desirable state, progress towards vocational maturity.  We expect teenagers to be able to work out what they want to do for the rest of their lives.  We write action plans, detailing short, medium and long-term goals.  When a client doesn’t have a long-term goal, we struggle.  What should we write?  How can the client plan?  Is there a plan at all?  We feel there is something wrong with our guidance if the client emerges without a long-term goal.

And clients tend to book career guidance sessions because they feel they want a long-term plan.  The more high-achieving the client, the more pressure they feel to have everything mapped out.  Clients tend to leave a guidance interview with a goal.  But when you start to follow-up those same clients, you find them split, between those who have more or less followed the plan, and those who have ended up doing something different, perhaps because circumstances changed, perhaps because another opportunity presented itself or perhaps because when they started to research in a little more depth, they found out things that put them off.

I only need to look around at my friends and acquaintances to see that real life career planning is rarely so neat as identifying a long-term goal, a progression route and moving towards it in a series of logical steps.

Of the people who have planned in this fashion, many are now established in the more traditional, structured professions but complain that they are stuck in a “sausage factory”, moving onto the next step without ever thinking about whether it is the right one.  They diligently climb each rung of the career ladder, yet when they finally get to the top, will they like what they see?  Or will they just feel they put all their effort into climbing the wrong ladder?

A much more common pattern is to make decisions without much of a plan in mind.  Many of my friends chose university courses because they liked the subject, took a job because it sounded interesting, went travelling because they wanted the experience, had children by mistake and then went part-time, jacked in a job because they couldn’t stand the boss, got made redundant, found a better job through personal contacts, retrained because of an advert they saw in the paper, moved to a new city so they could afford a house.  It’s a random hotchpotch of decisions, each one seeming right at the time but not leading towards any long-term goal.  And yet some of my friends are extremely successful.  Most of them have jobs that they enjoy and pay the bills.  So they must be doing something right.

Modern approaches to career guidance are divided on the benefits on having a long-term career goal.  The  Neuro Linguisitic Programming approach (often used by life coaches, amongst others) is clear about the benefits of knowing what you want.  A common NLP technique is to visualise how your life would be in five years, if everything had gone as well as it possibly could.  What sort of work will you be doing?  What will you look like?  Where will you live?  Making this visualisation very clear, and returning to it creates a long-term focus.  And by focusing on what you want, you will pay more attention to things around you that could help you achieve your goals.  Your energy will be directed to where your focus is – your long-term goal.  The more you visualise your goal, the more you will move towards it.  It’s a positive self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s certainly true that without any goals at all, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut, doing the same old things and never moving on.  Lots of people do the same job year in year out, feeling bored, but never finding the incentive to do anything different.  They get comfy, they enjoy the security and don’t feel motivated to trade this security for challenge, variety or fulfillment.

There is something very inspiring about allowing yourself to dream about what you really want to do – what you would do if the mortgage, the kids, the pension plan and the bills weren’t an issue? What you would do if fear of failure didn’t get in the way? What you would do if you had plenty of time and money on your hands?   A lot of the time, we don’t allow ourselves to dream about things that seem unrealistic, fearing that it will only lead to a sense of frustration and failure.  But sometimes, allowing yourself to dream can lead to small actions (or even big actions) that actually do take you in a new direction.  The challenge can be to find a manageable, bitesize action to get started with.

An alternative approach is “Planned Happenstance” (see, an approach to career planning which encourages people to plan without having long-term goals.  The “happenstance” is a reference to the role of chance and luck in real careers – jobs found through acquaintances, random adverts responded to, life changes that we have no control over, experiences stumbled into.  However, there is an acknowledgement in this approach that we do “make our own luck”.  And this is where the “planned” comes in – we can consciously seek out experiences that we enjoy, network with interesting people, research things that interest us, develop our skills and interests, do plenty of the things that we enjoy most.  By doing all of this, we put ourselves into situations in which opportunities are likely to come up.

There are a lot of advantages to this approach – by concentrating on doing things we enjoy, we are likely to be moving into fulfilling and enjoyable work.  By networking and seeking out new experiences, we are putting ourselves in line to discover the “hidden jobs market” – the 70% of jobs that are never advertised.  It’s also approach that is more likely to lead to being “in the moment” – just enjoying the present, rather than deferring happiness until some distant goal is achieved.

I’m not sure that NLP and Planned Happenstance are entirely inconsistent.  It depends on how specific you are about your dreams.  If you use NLP to identify that your dream job is to be the HR Manager of your company, that is pretty specific.  But if you use NLP to identify that you want a job where you can be an expert, have good work-life balance, have enough money for a bigger house or help others to sort out their problems, your goal is pretty broad and there is plenty of room for Planned Happenstance in there as well.

Both approaches encourage people to move in the direction of things they want and enjoy, to seek out people and experiences who can help them.  Both approaches encourage a proactive stance, looking out for opportunities and making the most of them when they present themselves.  Both approaches encourage a focus on developing skills – in research, networking, managing emotions and communication.  And afterall, the world of jobs and careers is always changing, and surely it is these skills that will enable people to better manage their careers, to find themselves doing work that they enjoy (and also paying the bills while they are at it).