Remember John Krumboltz -- And Be Sure To Seek Out Luck In Your Career

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Stanford University professor John Krumboltz died in May after a distinguished life as a careers scholar. He leaves behind a singular contribution on the influence of luck, or happenstance, in the development of everyday careers.  Some of his last words on the subject are captured in a readable and highly relevant book, Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win, co-authored with career counselor Ryan Babineaux. Here are some highlights.

Fail fast to learn fast. The book invites you to focus on opportunities that luck may bring your way, rather than on problems that get in the way. Since success is “usually preceded by bumbling starts and false efforts” the idea is to get beyond your bumbling as fast as you can. A Failing Forward Checklist invites you to a) identify your fear – about something you would like to try, and look beyond that fear; b) reverse your thinking – don’t fear failure, but find a way to confront it; c) do it anyway – that is, make mistakes and have fun making them; d) fail forward – use exploratory actions to discover what you need to know, and e) find the next challenge – that is, seek out what to try next and return to step a).

Reject “career matching.” The message here is that “career matching” – taking tests to inform you of what career to pursue – is “like asking you to choose your future spouse before you have gone on the first date.” Why so? Your interests are (or ought to be) constantly in flux; the world is evolving, and forever giving rise to new career opportunities; you are a multifaceted, unique person that cannot be matched to any single occupation; true joy comes from creating your own approach to life; and committing to a long-term plan makes it difficult to adapt and capitalize on new opportunities.

Act on your curiosity. As Todd Hunter, the author of The Accidental Creative, has written, curiosity provides the “mental food” that drives wider creative efforts. Babineaux and Krumboltz describe five keys to curiosity, a) it keeps you aware and present – the more you exercise it, the more you can recognize and grasp opportunities; b) it has an expiration date – it stems from a particular setting and relates to actions you can take now; c) it provides energy – it is the power you draw on to experiment, investigate, change and grow; d) it helps you learn quickly – it provides a natural bridge to relevant information-seeking, skill acquisition and action-taking, and e) it gets things moving – it’s the crucial first step, like freeing a ship that’s been stuck in the mud.

Be a relentless learner. The authors ask “When did you learn the things that really matter to you, and have been the most important in determining the course of your life?” They emphasize that important lessons often come from outside the classroom. Moreover, it is impossible to predict what new skill or understanding will be essential to opening new career opportunities. Realizing that important learning can occur any place, any time makes you value what you do, as well as stay open to unexpected discoveries. This includes situations of personal hardship – loss of a job, or a loved one – where a focus on learning can help you move beyond the pain you are presently experiencing.

Map your luck. This last highlight returns to Krumboltz’s principal message about luck, to accept it as fundamental to your career, like oxygen is to life. You can find luck when you are out trying new things, visiting places, meeting people and challenging yourself. Look back on your last month and ask questions like where you had lunch, whom you talked to, where you went at weekends, where you shopped for groceries, what you did first thing in the morning and last thing at night, what books you read, what shows you saw, where and how you exercised, and what neighborhoods you visited. Convert these into a map of your life and its constituent regions. How “lucky” are those regions and how can you change your luck? Find, and keep finding, ways to open up new territory.

Managing your luck is not all there is to managing a successful career. For example, in earlier articles I have emphasized the prior importance of sensemaking, to better understand the uniqueness of your own career situation and the doors that may be open to you. However, luck is an inherent contributor to any career, and it is vitally important to seek it out, and take advantage of it on your own terms. Babineaux and Krumboltz show you the way.

I am a professor emeritus of Suffolk University in Boston and a visiting professor at Cranfield School of Management in the U.K. I am an award-winning careers scholar, a...