Stanford professor and career coach John Krumboltz coined the term “planned happenstance” years ago, but the concept is becoming more applicable than ever in today’s ever-changing job market.  Reflecting on my own trajectory, and speaking with others in Bozeman, illustrations of the theory in action are abundant.

Engage your passions
The theory deconstructs old school notions, such as: work and play don’t blend; goals must always be detailed; follow your dream; learn skills then get a job; don’t make mistakes; complete your education; and wait for a lucky break.  Strict definitions of work and play can be abandoned because embracing your passions often leads to good things.

Growing up on the water, my family half-joked that I then went to college to study sailing.  I somehow trusted that even if I did not have the best GPA, it wouldn’t matter as long as I pursued my interests with vigor.  Sailing led to coaching, and coaching eventually led to parallel interests and opportunities.  While I knew I wanted to coach college sailing and become a sport psychologist, these explicit goals actually terrified me rather than helped.

Wilderness advocate (and my spouse) Jennifer Miller provides a good example of how a career can evolve organically from following one’s interests.  She grew up sharing her father’s passions for nature and the outdoors. After leaving a PhD program in English and a short career in college administration, she reconnected to this passion, moving to Montana and taking an entry-level position in conservation.  Motivated by work she loved, she rose professionally as an advocate, then on staff for a respected foundation.  Today she is The Wilderness Society’s Montana Program Manager.

Keep options open, dip your toes in, and get a learning job
When I graduated from college, I looked at my resume and freaked because I appeared qualified to coach sailing but had no idea what the formula was to reach my ultimate career goal.  My solution?  Run.  I spent the next year of my life working on boats in the Caribbean then wandering the globe. I bought an around-the-world plane ticket, hitting Thailand, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, and Europe before accepting a job coaching at the US Merchant Marine Academy in New York.
Through my travels, I discovered that I had a knack for connecting with people quickly and handling crises well.  That year, I dipped my toe into my dreams and liked the temperature. When I arrived stateside, a package arrived with a card from family I visited in Germany, stating, “Courage is doing what you are afraid to do.  You cannot have courage, unless you first have fear.”  Rather than entering the job with all the skills I needed, I figured it out along the way.

Take risks – Make mistakes
A few years later, after completing a Masters in Counseling/Sport Psychology, I was ready to open my own performance consultancy… or was I?  To pay the bills, I took a head coach job at Boston College.  While working 80 hours a week, I realized I did not know enough yet, as a coach or as a consultant.  I made plenty of good mistakes that year (good because I learned from them), and after leading the team to a 5th place finish at North Americans, and to 4 All-American honors, I enrolled in a Clinical Psychology Doctoral program.

Risks often are not insurmountable.  When Robert Keith began the ecological property investment company, Beartooth Capital, he thought the venture was, “totally crazy compared to anything I’ve done in my life,” but he said, “it worked!”  Justin Bigart, founder of a learning-focused company called Wisetail, shared that risk is “a necessity for growth in business and in life.”

Never stop learning and create your own luck
I was recruited for a position as a Performance Consultant with the Army.  Degree or no degree, I was enthralled with everything I learned in this new setting. I was ready to settle down in Bozeman and excited to start my own performance consulting and therapy practice.  I yearned to finish my degree and “stumbled” onto a Counseling Psychology Doctoral program in Oakland, CA after casual conversation with the director of their Masters program.

Researcher Raina Plowright shared a similar story.  She headed to Antarctica to research seals.  On a “whim” the Australian Broadcast Company loaned her a professional camera to get footage.  A popular documentary was produced and a career based on science communication was launched.

We create our own luck. I completed my “blended” doctoral program, whereby I could keep my home, family, and business in Bozeman, while doing some intensive weekends in California that were complemented by online training.  But, I’m certainly not done learning.  My dreams continue to unfold, and like Jennifer, Robert, Justin, and Raina, I’m both an active participant and an active observer.