Chance and luck play a huge part in the direction our lives take, not least when it comes to finding jobs and opportunities to work.
One friend of mine, who had been frustrated with her lack of progression at work, finally found her perfect job as the training manager for a group of Care Homes, by chatting to an acquaintance at the school gate. Another friend, a university Careers Adviser who liked her job but had become rather fed up with the long commute, just happened to be chatting to a colleague in the canteen and he mentioned that one of his students was applying for a Careers Adviser post down the road from where she lived. She applied – and got the job!
In the last month, I’ve come across:
- a sixteen year old client who was offered an apprenticeship with his uncle who happened to be building a house (he’d never thought of construction as a career before)
- an adult client who set up a wedding planning business after having been asked by two friends to plan their weddings,
- a young woman who happened to be shopping in the local corner shop when she noticed a sign saying they needed a part-time assistant. It just happend to fit perfectly around her family responsibilities!
- a computer programmer who was under notice of redundancy, and happened to mention this to a client who then offered him a job in their IT department, doing more practical work that he thoroughly enjoyed
Ask a random group of people how they got their current job, and the chances are, many of them will have got their job through a friend or acquaintance. In fact, the CIPD estimate that 70% of jobs are found through informal means – through friends and family, proactive networking, speculative applications and cold calling. There is always a huge element of chance involved in this – whether we happen to meet that random stranger, make the right phone call at the right time (just when gap in the organisation has appeared) or get chatting to the right person at the school gate. Of course, the more approaches you make, they better your chances of succeeding.
Even in more formal job search methods, there is still an element of chance – whether we happen to buy the right paper, visit the right agency or look on the right internet site on the right day. These chance encounters can lead not just to a new job, but to a whole new occupation that we might never have considered if we hadn’t happened to see a particular advert or meet a particular person. Like it or not, most of us are not particularly rational when we choose an occupation. We don’t research the full range of occupations; we stick to what we know about. We don’t carefully match our likes and dislikes against the demands of the job; we take what happens to be available and looks vaguely suitable. Chance plays a very big part in this.
So, if luck and chance play such a big part in career choice, is there anything we can do to make ourselves luckier? I came across some descriptions of psychological experiments designed to find out just this. In the first, some volunteers were given a newspaper and asked to go through it counting the photographs. Unbeknownst to them, the researcher (Howard Wiseman) had inserted an ad which said “Win a £100 by telling the researcher you found this”. People who rated themselves as lucky before the experiment were more likely to see the advertisement – perhaps because they tended to have their eyes on the bigger picture and spot opportunities that the unlucky people missed.
In another experiment, he asked people to help him get a letter to a random person – say Kate, an events manager, in Cheltenham – by passing it on to someone they knew by name, who might be able to pass it onto someone else who could get it to her. Amazingly, many people around the UK could get it to her through just 4 contacts. Some people who had volunteered for the experiment, however, didn’t pass the letter to anyone at all. When questioned about this, they said it was because they didn’t know anyone who they thought could help. These people also tended to be those people who rated themselves as unlucky before the experiment began.
He concluded that lucky people tend to have a wider social network and to see that network as being full of people who could help them. Lucky people are living in a “smaller world” and are more socially connected to other people around the country. When they need a plumber in a hurry, a new client, some good advice or a new job, they are more likely to know someone who can help them. Happy coincidences are a frequent occurrence, because of their wide social network.
So, if we want to improve our luck, the key seems to be in widening our social networks – taking the trouble to talk to people, being friendly and interested in the random strangers we meet, smiling at the neighbours we recognise, starting conversations with people around the coffee station, using social networking sites and getting out and about in our communities.
This is not a new conclusion. There is a whole approach to career planning known as Planned Happenstance, which suggests that rather than setting ourselves an end goal, we should keep an open mind, and develop the skills and attitudes necessary to generate positive chance encounters and be prepared to make the most of them when they present themselves. The “Happenstance” refers to the luck element in this approach, while the “Planned” refers to planning to maximise lucky events and our ability to make the most of them.
Attitudes such as curiosity, enthusiasm for learning and willingness to take risks are a key part of this approach, as are networking skills. Advocates of Planned Happenstance suggest taking part in lots of activities that interest us, developing new skills and trying out many new experience (work, travel and leisure), which will generate many chance encounters, and thus increase our chances of something really lucky happening to us.
So, next time you think about going to a professional conference, a party, a yoga retreat or an evening class, remember that another good reason to go is that expanding your social network could improve your luck!