A Lucky break

Where do you see yourself in five years time? This is such a common employment interview question that it is almost a cliché. The question reveals some interesting assumptions about the way that we often assume careers and the world of work play out. The assumption is that careers are planned and predictable. However consider the following examples.

Jazz musician James Morrison and his brother were trying to make it big in New York, but were struggling and busking on the streets. They made enough money to get a burger from Burger Boy and within hours of eating a burger, James was sitting in Business Class eating smoked salmon on his way to Europe for a major Jazz tour. It turned out that a waiter in Burger Boy spotted the trumpet and put the Morrisons in touch with an agent who urgently needed a replacement for a sick soloist.

Or what about John Aloisi, who one minute was a journeyman soccer player, who was unknown to most Australians, until he kicked a ball into the net and secured Australia’s place in the Soccer world cup. He went from anonymity to hero in one kick.

These examples point to another view of careers, and that is that luck, or chance events play a bigger role in people’s careers than we typically realise. The research backs up the idea that chance events are much more common in peoples’ careers than they are given credit for. Studies of chance events in careers typically reveal that between 60% – 100% of respondents are able to point to chance events having had a significant impact upon their career plans.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that chance events in careers are widespread, we still like to cling to the myth that careers are stable and predictable things and this is a big mistake. One of the reasons we prefer the stable view, is that uncertainty is unsettling. If we don’t know what is going to happen next how can we prepare or plan? Uncertainty can make us feel out of control, and a sense of control (or lack of it) is one of the best guarantees that we will feel stressed.

Another reason why we don’t like uncertainty is that we appear to have an in-built bias to see uncertainty as threatening. Typically if you ask a bunch of people to name an unplanned event, it wont take long before someone mentions a car crash. A car crash is the classic example of an unplanned event that often has serious consequences (we are seriously injured) but it is also a situation where we may have little control – either in preventing the accident or in the medical procedures we require subsequently. So we tend to think that chance events are equal unpleasant and uncontrollable.

Because such events are so serious they tend to blind us to all the other sorts of chance events that happen to us routinely, but where the outcome is of little apparent consequence, or the event still leaves us in control. For instance we readily forget incidents such as accidentally not punching a clean hole with a hole punch first time because it is trivial. However, think about the voters in Florida who used faulty voting machines that left “hanging chads” of paper on the ballot sheets. This resulted in George Bush and not Al Gore being elected US President and so a hole punch can change world history (and a lot of peoples’ careers). We also appear to overlook those “James Morrison” moments where a chance meeting provides us with an opportunity.

Most chance are the seemingly trivial or events where we have a lot of control over how we follow up on the event such as being in the right place at the right time or the chance encounter. The key is to spot the opportunity and then have the courage to follow up on the chance encounter to make it work for you. Consequently as well as developing great technical skills or amassing lots of industry experience, developing opportunity awareness, and the attitudes that underpin this such as flexibility, curiosity, optimism, persistence, risk-taking, and self-belief are also likely to be important in forging a satisfying and successful career.
By Jim Bright. (an edited version of this first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2007)