Expect the Unexpected

Our recent vacation took an unexpected turn when my husband came down with the flu. Unfortunately, it was also our last day in Colorado, the day he’d promised to take our 10 and 12 year-old sons skiing.  They’d been stuck in ski school for two days and couldn’t wait for the freedom to explore the mountain with their dad, an avid skier.   Now understand, I’m not much of a skier.  I do try – I take lessons, and I dutifully, grudgingly work at it.  But given that I started this sport as an adult, we go infrequently, and I hate careening off any kind of height, I would not say I enjoy skiing.   I had planned a rejuvenating day at the gym, instead I was pressed into service as the family ski guide.  As I headed out the door with my kids and our gear, I realized how apropos my blog topic was to this moment – it wasn’t what I expected, but with some trepidation, I was going to take on the challenge!

I had been thinking about the degree to which unforeseen events factor into the careers and lives of those I coach. Everyone knows a story about how a chance encounter or a serendipitous moment changes someone’s life.  Or someone will tell you that a new job “just fell into my lap”.   We have lots of terms for surprising things that happen  – “blind luck”, “dumb luck” and even karma or fate.  But can we really count on “luck” to further our careers?  Most of us believe that planning is essential to getting ahead.  Indeed, most of us sought out an MBA education from Darden in order to create a better, clearer professional path.  We took the self-assessment tests, did our due diligence and felt our careers would unfold with some measure of rational planning.  But as most of us learn in the ensuing years, our careers don’t often follow a straightforward or logical path.   We can face any number of personal challenges and unfortunate events like getting a bad boss or an unexpected layoff.  Yet there can be many positive forces at work in any unexpected circumstance, if you know how to look for them.

There is an old academic article from the career counseling field that coined the term “planned happenstance”.  This on-purpose oxymoron was meant to highlight how unplanned events in one’s career should be seen as both inevitable and desirable.  The fact is no one can predict the future with any accuracy and chance plays an important role in everyone’s career.  “Planned happenstance” is a concept that teaches us to seize the moment and discover how the unexpected can work to our favor.  The key is to embrace five traits:

Curiosity – exploration, a seeking quality coupled with openness to change and new things

Persistence – the determination and resolve to continue on, even in the face of setbacks

Flexibility – an attitude of adaptability and willingness to cope in a positive way with the unpredictable

Optimism – cultivating the skill of self-encouragement, seeking encouragement from others

Risk Taking – pursuit of new interests, a bias toward action, challenging the status quo

I see these qualities evident in many Darden alumni – a tenacious and resilient spirit that helps them succeed.  I got a call this week from a recent alumna who had joined a large and well-known corporation.  She had landed in a great division and was advancing rapidly as she gained invaluable skills working on difficult projects, managing people, and dealing with clients.  However, she’d recently learned that the parent company intends to sell off her division.  Suddenly, her professional track seemed murky and out of her control.  As we talked through the various options she could take I emphasized that there were still many things within her control.  If she approaches the transaction with curiosity she’ll have a chance to learn from the inside how a buy-out works; if she’s persistent in taking on new projects she’ll have a chance for continued recognition; if she’s flexible she may see that there is a unique path for her in the new firm; if she remains optimistic and takes a few risks during the transition she may discover opportunities she never expected.

“Planned happenstance” thinking gives you a positive framework to view uncertainty.  You lay the groundwork for positive serendipity everyday with your attitudes and actions.   You can create an environment where happenstance events give you an opening to make progress.  When you are willing to shift gears, change your plan, take risks, and work hard to get around stumbling blocks, you’ll find that you really are making your own luck.

I was way out of my comfort zone as I headed out to ski that day in Colorado, but my past curiosity and persistence had given me enough skills to try.  As luck would have it, I had a great time, took a few risks (blue hills!) and I now have some fantastic and unexpected memories with my sons.

If you’re dealing with the unexpected in your career, let The Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services help guide your way. 

Marty Speight MBA’96, Associate Director of Alumni Career Services, University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business

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