We assume that our career paths will follow a logical, pre-planned sequence, outlined nicely by the powerpoint presentations we attend. When children arrive on the scene, we are totally thrown by the different factors that all of a sudden play with our nicely designed, planned and coordinated lives.
I’m going to take you into a very important concept and component of our careers that NOBODY prepared us for. Whether you are working, taking a break to be with your kids and be a home-maker, or building a side hustle or business on the side.
As usual, this is a longer blog with a back story, so bear with me as I lay out the content.
I know I certainly expected that as an undergraduate student. I’d finish my Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and be off to the foreign service, as I’d been planning since I was about 16. Life was good, school was going well and I had it all figured out.
That is, until I took an Economics course and really liked that too. It led me to the oil and gas industry and fascinating work in the Offshore and International Division of an oil and gas company after graduation. I had applied to hundreds of jobs with a great resume and experience without luck, but a chance run in with a school mate led to me applying to an unadvertised student position that led to a full time position.
I didn’t realize it then, but that was the beginning of many unexpected events that, seemingly mundane at the time, forever shifted my career trajectory.
I returned to graduate school and completed my thesis, looking at how the fast changing nature of the internet was influencing terrorist recruitment and radicalization. It tapped into my passion for the frontiers of human-technology interaction. I was also excited to reignite the international and foreign affairs passion I had.
Once again, I followed the career preparation powerpoint slides and all of the advice. I networked, prepared my resume, gained extra skills and experience. The hard work paid off and I flew out to Ottawa to interview. Finally, life was making a bit more sense, was predictable and was flowing along the nice clear path that I still assumed was the way it was supposed to go.
Well, I was proven wrong again.
On the plane home from my interview, I had a really strange gut feeling that I couldn’t ignore. I just didn’t feel right about taking the job. It was the first time I ever decided to listen to my gut, and it was one of the most difficult choices I ever made.
It proved right as I unexpectedly stepped into the full time role of cancer caregiver to my Mum. Those 18 months were the greatest life (and career skills) I could ever have obtained and though I was truly torn apart at the time when I decided to stay in Calgary, it all made sense. Even had I taken that role, just a short time later I would have been resigning to spend 18 critical months in my life that again, shifted my world on its axis.
While I figured out what the heck I’d do next, I decided to work at Lululemon and at least focus on my growing love of wellness and fitness. Again, happenstance. I was introduced to the world of personal development and professional coaching through colleagues and the company’s professional development. On campus one day to pick up some supplies, I ran into another old classmate who happened to be on campus that day visiting a friend. We grabbed coffee, I talked about my interest in coaching and she mentioned a new department being started up on campus.
I decided to follow this sliver of opportunity that coincided with my budding interest and it led me into my true calling, coaching. I wouldn’t have found a rewarding role, or my professional coach training and certification (covered by my employers’ generous continuing education program) had I not “happened” to run into my friend at that precise time on campus, and had she not detoured from her route to coffee, to grab supplies in the same store.
These are all examples of happenstance. You may also be familiar with the term synchronicity.
There is synchronicity in our careers, also.
You see, life is a funny thing. We emerge from our educational training prepared with a sequence of steps, equipped with expectations, and armed with logic. If we’re lucky (and had a good mentor) we’ve also had the sense to do some extra self development and have come out with a north star – a good sense of our core values, personality and strengths. That north star becomes a guiding light through the twists and turns that working life is, so I recommend anyone do that work.
BUT. Happenstance happens. We simply can’t predict it or calculate the probability of it. It isn’t part of the equipping and planning and prepping and arming ourselves with logic in the career process.
We can’t plot it out on a powerpoint or even anticipate it. It comes at the most random of times and could be the simplest moment, or… a massive moment. Maybe your world will tilt on its axis when you run into someone on a street downtown, or catch the train late and sit beside someone who, that one day, you happen to strike a conversation with instead of putting your earphones in.
Our human minds prefer logic and evidence and predictability. We want to be in control, but we have to ask ourselves, what if we’re not? And how can we place ourselves in a good place to take opportunity of chance events.
Here’s the thing. Most people I have talked to who are mid career or late career have said happenstance had a major role in where they wound up. Some followed a fairly straightforward sequence and trajectory, but those people interestingly enough have been a minority in my coaching work.
I encourage you to do some googling and read up on happenstance theory. It’s a fascinating body of work.
I also encourage you to do the work, establish your north star and take all of the right steps in career preparation to align the stars, but also know that the stars do their own aligning and may have an entirely different constellation from the one you had in mind.
I had the opportunity to run a webinar today on the shifting sands of work and careers in the year 2019 for the University of Calgary Alumni Association. One of the seminar participants made such a great point, that I’d love to repeat here (and credit to them, it led me to writing this article today.)
They said that their career has, much like the image above, been about walking with two different feet.
They’ve had one foot in preparation, logic, and the human tendency to control and sequence life. But… of course, you need two feet to move forward. Their other foot they said, has been in the world of happenstance, chance, synchronicity, whatever term you use to describe that which escapes our best attempts at control and planning and anticipation. and the other foot was coincidence, chance, happenstance, synchronicity, whatever else we try to call it.
Does it make us uncomfortable to know there are twists and turns ahead that we simply can’t predict? Absolutely. Is it confounding to imagine that a chance meeting could shift our entire world? Yes!
What I can say having worked with hundreds of people is that each and every time these unexpected or chance events happened, and they went with it, stayed open and curious, they wound up moving their lives in the right direction and elevating their career.
Be prepared and diligent, but also be open, trusting and engaged to whatever may come.
Things are unfolding exactly as they should.
And they are unfolding on their own schedule.
As much as we’d love to, we humans cannot bend down and tell a tomato plant to grow faster or tomatoes to ripen on Wednesday next week.
It’s sort of the same way with career shifting. Do what you need to, put in the work and self-development so that the soil is fertile, trust what you’ve done, and watch with curiosity and appreciation to see what comes about.
And if someone says hello to you in a coffee shop? Say hello back.
You just never know.