It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point and the main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help get to grips with the theory. There are also links it the bottom to get your further research started.

Planned Happenstance Learning Theory

Krumboltz & Levin 1999 – 2004; Mitchell et al., 1999



First things first: Planned Happenstance Learning Theory is usually called happenstance theory, creating the impression that no one needs to do anything to plan their career and it will all just happen. Slight exaggeration of course. The main tenet of this theory is that ‘things will happen’, whether you like them to or not, and you can or need to prepare to see and take up the opportunities ‘things happening’ in your life brings.

The learning part

Why the learning in the name? Krumboltz background is social learning theory, which of course isn’t enough of a reason to make this a learning theory. However, this is a development of his insights working with social learning. In the case of this theory, what a client or individual does is the result of learning experiences of not only planned, but also unplanned events in their life. Each one of these events can be perceived as a learning opportunity with potential for change if the individual is able to capitalise on these. This brings us to the crux of Happenstance Learning Theory.

I can’t remember where but I’ve seen Planned Happenstance Theory described in the following way, which was surprisingly useful:

  • Planned: deciding what to do and putting things in place
  • Happen: to occur by chance and unforeseen
  • Stance: the view of attitude you take – being open

The crux

What was revolutionary about this theory was that Krumboltz et al. recognised that career planning didn’t necessarily depend on making the one career decision as a teenager (environmental theory) or a series of career decisions at different stages of life (developmentalism) but that career planning was ongoing, often unplanned or influenced by unplanned events, and unpredictable in when decision making events would need to take place.Planned Happenstance theory of careers by Krumboltz and Levin.

I hope this illustration clarifies the different elements and how it all fits together. It hopefully also gives us some hints as to how to approach this theory with clients. There are implied actions within each one of the elements above we can work on with clients to help them plan for the future and respond, rather than react, to ‘happenstance’.

The key points Krumboltz and Levin try to make are (Krumboltz and Levin, 2004, p.2):

  • “Be aware of your surroundings” – it’s important to see opportunities and to keep your options open.
  • “Take a risk, even with rejection as possible outcome” – trying is better than not trying at all. Not trying leads to lost opportunities
  • “Be adaptable and open minded” – accept changes and engage with them. Say “yes” when you can, not when there’s no other option.

What you can distil out of these three points is that it’s important to take action to create your luck. Luck doesn’t happen, or happens far less, if you are passive, are not open to it, can’t spot it or don’t take it up out of a feeling of apprehensiveness.

A key point Krumboltz and Levin are trying to make is about self-sabotage. They go on to say that there are internal and external obstacles (Krumboltz and Levin, 2004, p. 136).

  • External obstacles: not having enough money for a course – you can overcome this by looking for opportunities you can afford and that get you there in the longer term. Some of these are difficult to overcome or can’t be overcome at all. If you don’t have sufficient colour vision, you won’t be able to be an electrician.
  • Internal obstacles: not starting the same course out of fear of failure. These are generally more challenging to overcome because they are rooted in long held beliefs about ourselves and the world.

They go on to argue that both can be overcome, but I disagree to some extent for reasons I outlined above. Krumboltz and Levin go on to say that we generally have more control over internal obstacles (Krumboltz and Levin, 2004, p.137) and in a way they are right. We can’t control what is controlled by others or ‘the system’ active in the society we live in. At the same time, because they are so deeply engrained and the work of often years by our mind and often by those around us, untangling these unhelpful beliefs from the helpful ones we have is often a long term task, sometimes not.

Where I absolutely agree is that it’s important to make a first step to develop positive beliefs that set us on a path towards taking positive, constructive actions. They rightly argue that if you believe you will fail, chances are you will (Krumboltz and Levin, 2004, p. 137), because your mind will likely sabotage, without you realising, any successes you are experiencing. These points are where we can act with the client and as you can tell, this aspect of Planned Happenstance Learning Theory is very close to counselling and psychotherapy. This is where we need to be aware of our professional boundaries and the extent of our skills.


How do we use this theory?

When doing my assessment work for the level 6 and level 4 qualification, this is invariably the theory ‘that sticks’ with learners. In part this is undoubtedly because it’s so different from the other theories part of the qualification, but I think in part it’s also because it resonates. Learners usually feel they get the matching theories quickly and easily, and they are relatively easy to try out or at least see how they work in practice. Planned Happenstance Learning Theory on the other hand, works in a different way I think. It’s something that’s part of the experience of each one of us – we plan, things happen, plans often change – but applying this in practice is not as straightforward.

So let’s have a look. In short, we help clients build the skills and insight needed to take full advantage of events happening in their lives (happenstance).

What this isn’t asking us to do:

Planned Happenstance Learning Theory is not asking us to tell the client not to plan, nor does it aim at helping the client plan the rest of their lives.

It’s also not ab out planning a fixed point in time or career outcome, no matter what. At the same time, it does allow for planning towards certain goals but with a difference. Have a look at the illustration below and see the difference between the top way of planning, which is more linked to environmental theory and to some extent developmental approaches to planning, and the bottom way of planning, which allows for a lot of flexibility. 2 ways to plan your future or career.

The bottom way of planning allows for a lot of flexibility and arguably reflects reality for most of us a lot more. However, the top way of planning may be applicable to certain careers such as medicine, where you need to be very focused, dedicated and almost single minded (while still building in flexibility in case things don’t work out – happenstance happening here already!)

This isn’t quite planned happenstance yet, though. Now have a look at the next illustration to show you the difference:Krumbolz planned happenstance model of career guidance.

This way of seeing things is not unique to happenstance and is related to other, similar approaches, such as the chaos theory of careers.

At this point, I would like to summarise their key points, because they are important if you want to use Planned Happenstance in practice (Krumboltz and Levin, 2004. p. 143 – 144) and my interpretation for practice of these. Of course, you can and should make your own:

  • “You never need to decide what you want to be in the future” – we don’t need to get clients to some end point, only the next step. In fact, there is no real end point to planning.
  • “Unplanned events will inevitably have an impact on your career” – we can help clients plan all we like, at some point those plans will change. It would be more productive to help them cope well with unplanned events by encouraging resilience, an open positive attitude etc…
  • “Reality may be offering you better options than you could have dreamed” – dreams are just that, dreams. Engaging with reality is more productive and we can help clients do that by using LMI, work experience, etc…
  • “Engaging in a variety of activities will help you discover what you like and dislike” – we can encourage clients to try things out, to ‘have a go’ within reason, to discover what it’s like for themselves.
  • “Expect to make mistakes and experience failures” – we can support clients in reframing their mistakes and failures into seeing them as learning outcomes.
  • “You can create your own unplanned lucky events” – we can encourage clients to ‘put themselves out there’. This is especially important for certain career paths such as the arts.
  • “Every experience is an opportunity to learn” – we can help clients explore what they have learnt from unrelated events and help them put these in a different contextual framework.
  • “You can discover a variety of activities that are satisfying, even if you are not employed” – paid work is not the only way to create value and meaning. Encouraging clients to volunteer, to talk about their interests and hobbies to others, can in turn create its own unexpected outcomes.
  • “Beliefs that keep you open to new ideas and experiences will help you overcome internal obstacles” – we can help clients challenge any beliefs they have that may or will stop them from doing what they like. Have a look at social learning theory (remember where Krumboltz and Levin have come from in their work!) and structuralism.

Especially if your practice is based in environmentalism or matching, this approach and theory will create a substantial shift. Look again at the two ways of planning above and you’ll see what I mean.



I think this theory has a lot going for it and I use it, in combination with other approaches, on a daily basis in my own practice. I feel there are some significant dangers and drawbacks as well that are not necessarily inherent to this theory.

I’ve come across people where I’m suspicious that they only see the happenstance bit and forget about the learning and planned part of the name of the theory. What I mean is that it’s easy to think that no one needs to plan, get your next step sorted and leave it at that. I’m suspicious that some people will, without ill intent, only see the first bullet point in the section above: ‘there’s no need to decide what you want to be in the future’ and leave clients muddling on without any direction.

I think to counter this it’s very important to engage with this theory fully, rather than looking at it on the surface and ‘having a go’. There is a lot more there than the first impression someone might get. This is a popular theory for a reason, but the level 4 and level 6 qualification may not prompt you to engage with this theory to quite the depth that is needed for someone to apply it successfully and fully in practice.

My second point is that if someone does engage with this theory there is a danger that a practitioner may overstep their skills and apply a counselling approach when they haven’t been trained to do so. This is easily done. If you’re keen on working in a supporting role, you’re keen to support and to do whatever you can to do so. it’s easy to think that you can take just this one step further. I’ve been there myself where I had to pull back, realising there was a danger I was doing too much and not referring on to a professional who was able to take my support further. Consistent self reflection, as well as possibly increasing your skills base, is key.

These points of course extrinsic to the theory itself. What do you think? Do you agree with these points? When it comes to this theory, how powerful do you think Planned Happenstance Learning Theory is? If you can, come up with a couple of clients you worked with you didn’t use this theory with and imagine how it would have been different if you had used this.

  • Especially with this theory, have a look at Brown’s assessment criteria. How does it measure up?
  • Do you agree with the claim that you never need to decide what you want to be in the future?
  • How does this related to the matching theories and what are its strengths and weaknesses compared to those?
  • How could you as a practitioner use this theory and when would you not use it?
  • How far would you go using this theory and what skills do you need to acquire to use it responsibly and effectively?


Useful links:



You’ll have to skip the long intro if needed, but this is fromt he man himself.