A theory is simply an explanation for understanding how things happen and why. A learning theory about career development explains how people discover their current occupations through a variety of different learning experiences. Within the learning theory framework, how occupations—accountant, senator, plumber—developed from life’s learning experiences can be explained. Our society advocates that people plan and declare an occupational goal early in life. A common question asked of children is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Paradoxically, very few adults are doing exactly what they planned at age 18. Unplanned events play a major role in everyone’s career development. If serendipity is included as a crucial part of the learning process, we have what can be called a happenstance learning theory.
Throughout life people have innumerable learning experiences. Every minute people are engaged in learning activities whether they know it or not. Some experiences are planned, many are not. Every time a person talks to another person, he or she learns something. Every time a person watches TV, listens to the radio, or plays a game, he or she learns something. The happenstance learning theory categorizes learning experiences into two major categories: instrumental and associative.
Instrumental learning experiences are those in which people take some action and observe the consequences. For example, if a child is playing a game of baseball, comes up to bat, and hits well enough to get on base, the child has succeeded in an activity and has positive feelings as a result. Another child may come to bat and be unable to hit the ball at all, striking out. The happenstance learning theory posits that it is more likely that the first child would develop greater aspirations for a baseball career than the second child. The more children actively engage in activities, the more likely they are to encounter valuable learning experiences. Every time people do something—that is, engage actively—they find out what happens as a result and discover how they feel about it.
All instrumental learning experiences take place in a cultural and opportunity context. Baseball is a popular sport in the United States. Cricket is popular in England and India. In some other countries both sports are virtually unknown. The environment in which one is born and raised provides only certain types of learning opportunities.
Associative learning experiences occur as people watch, listen to, or read about others. For example, listening to a rock concert might inspire some people to become a rock singer. Reading about a science experiment might inspire some people to train to become chemists or biologists. Watching a carpenter at work may inspire others to discover the glories of wood working.
All of these associative learning experiences also depend on cultural context. For example, the opportunity to read about a scientist’s experience depends on access to books. Some people live far from the nearest public library. Some families subscribe to magazines and newspapers that children might spontaneously browse; other families may not. Some parents read to their children at a young age, opening a world of imagination and early literacy; other parents may not.
As a result of these continuous learning experiences, people form generalizations about their own interests, abilities, values, and beliefs. Some experiences might generate memorable interests and passions; others may not. People tend to gravitate naturally toward activities that yield emotional, social, and financial benefits. They tend to avoid activities that are distasteful and yield few benefits. Over time these tendencies lead people to engage in various types of occupations. For example, if through skillful instruction, often in a problem-based learning style, some children learn the fun of working with numbers, they might be more likely to gravitate toward occupations like accounting. Other children, enduring inadequate pedagogy in schools, might come to fear mathematics and gravitate far away from occupations that involve manipulation of numbers.
Innumerable unplanned events influence the experiences of each child. There is no way to know in advance what experiences a child might stumble across and what the consequences will be. However, it is known that the more a child is encouraged to be curious, to take risks, and to engage actively in learning opportunities, the more valuable the learning is likely to be. Learning occurs whether the opportunity is planned or unplanned. Children benefit from having multiple opportunities to observe others and to engage themselves in a variety of tasks and activities.
There is sometimes a misunderstanding that the word happenstance means that luck will occur if one waits passively for something to happen. That is far from the truth. One increases the probability of a happenstance event occurring by engaging in new activities. If one does nothing, nothing happens.
Sometimes people are told that they should complete their education. The happenstance learning theory advocates that one should never complete an education. People should continue learning throughout life. People can create their own luck by putting themselves in environments in which they can try activities and learn from them. People can change their occupational endeavors at any time in their life. Now, most people change career direction a number of times over their lifetimes. There are many advantages to keeping one’s options open through active engagement in new experiences.
One no longer has to answer the question, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” Since one never knows what opportunities may be just around the bend, one can now respond, “I’m open and prepared for whatever is down the road.” Contemporary career advice encourages people to keep an eye open for opportunities and to follow up on opportunities when the time is right. Past experience is not investment that must be continued when it is no longer satisfying. Remaining open to opportunities provides a better strategy for creating a satisfying life.
In the 1990s, “follow your bliss” became a well-known phrase in the popular career literature and was promoted as the secret to pursuing satisfying career and life experiences. However, under this premise those without a defined passion are left adrift. Passions are learned. When people do something that they enjoy and think it is important, they develop a passion for it. Through active engagement in new experiences, one learns what activities resonate personally as interesting, fun, and worthwhile. No one is born knowing that they will become a passionate singer. People who listen to others sing, begin singing themselves, and find it inspiring may well develop a passion for singing. However, one has to engage in singing first in order to develop a passion for it.
The happenstance learning theory has roots in behavioral psychology, ties to emotion theory, and moves in the direction of positive psychology in terms of resilience and adaptation to a rapidly changing world. The emphasis is on perpetual openness to new opportunities over a lifetime.
Work in the 21st century is destined to be a tremendous adventure, dynamic, fluid, and global, with a level of variety over the life span that could have never been imagined in prior centuries. Successful people will demonstrate a certain occupational resiliency characterized by flexibility, optimism, lifelong learning, daily networking, and a clever eye for opportunity. The happenstance learning theory explains how a lifetime of active involvement provides learning opportunities that may have been planned or unplanned. It is neither possible nor desirable to predict exactly what people will be when they grow up. The process continues throughout life, so people need to keep their options open at all times. Perhaps it is therefore more productive to ask children, “What are you enjoying and learning to do right now? What would be fun to try next?”
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- Krumboltz, J. D., & Levin, A. S. (2005). Luck is no accident: Making the most of happenstance in your life and career. Atascadero, CA: Impact.