Mount Rushmore USA

Rationalising Luck in Your Intelligent Career

When it comes to careers and getting jobs, people often say “You make your own luck”. They also often say “I just happened to be in the right place at right time.”  Can they both be true?  I think so.

Years ago I trained as a paper conservator – that is to say, someone who conserves and preserves  books, archives, prints, drawings, watercolours – basically anything made of paper that might be kept in museums, galleries and archives.

Three years into my training, I saw an advertisement for a job in America. I was at college in London at the time and the advert had been sent there because it was one of the few places in the UK that offered the training.  I still had one year of my degree course to go so I knew I couldn’t apply. 

As far as I could tell, none of my fellow students had shown any interest in the job at all. I felt embarrassed about this – ashamed almost – that a company in the USA had gone to the trouble of sending us a job opportunity and none of us had responded.

So I sent the company a letter. I explained that I had been interested to see the advert but that unfortunately I couldn’t apply because I still had one more year of training to complete. I mentioned I’d appreciate being told of other opportunities if any happened to materialise further down the line.  

I got a pleasant letter back thanking me for my interest and informing me that the company was indeed in the process of interviewing applicants but that they would let me know if anything else cropped up.

So… that was that. I felt a bit better having ‘done my bit’ so-to-speak and rather assumed I wouldn’t hear from them again.  

Early spring the following year, I was pottering around in the kitchen on a dark and miserable Friday evening when the phone rang. I assumed it would be a friend calling to ask: ‘Fancy going to the pub?’  But it wasn’t. Instead, a deep American male voice said, ‘Hullo…. Is that Charlotte?’ and I thought ‘Heepers jeepers, who the hell is this?!’ and said ‘Yes, this is Charlotte.’ The voice said, ‘This is Bob…. calling from [Company Name] in America.  I was wondering whether you might still be interested in the job we advertised last summer?’  

Crikey, that was a bit unexpected!  Of course, I said (somewhat nervously) ‘Er…yes!’ And we ended up speaking for about an hour. It turned out that none of the newly-trained paper conservators they had interviewed had wanted to up sticks and move to the Midwest where this small (but growing) business was located.  Perhaps not surprisingly, they wanted to stay on the east or west coast where the big name museums and galleries were located (and the more prestigious jobs, presumably).  

So the long and short of it was that I went to work in a small town in the Midwest straight after completing my training. Who’d have thought it? Certainly not me.  This career move wasn’t planned at all.  It turned out I had made my own luck by contacting the company in the first place.

Interestingly, the above story is a good example of something called ‘planned happenstance’ – a notion was developed in the late 1990s by career theorists Kathleen Mitchell, Al Levin and John Krumboltz. They suggested that individuals can plan, be prepared for, and even generate ‘chance’ career events in their lives.

Fast-forward to 2019, and I’m now working as a career coach.  In fact, I’m self-employed.  And what I – and probably most people who go into self-employment – quickly discovered when I started out was that clients don’t just miraculously find me.  Well… one or two do…. but generally speaking I have had to make my own luck, i.e. be intentional about going out there and connecting with people who might need my services.

One tool that has helped me to do this is the Intelligent Career Card Sort® ICCS® Career Exploration System.  Having gone through the ICCS® myself, I’ve come to see first-hand that it is perfectly possible to rationalise luck in one’s career and bring about those chance events that can result in work.  

The ICCS® Career Exploration System was developed by another career theorist, Michael B. Arthur, professor of management at Suffolk University, Boston, USA. Professor Arthur is widely known in the field of career guidance for his books The Boundaryless Career and An Intelligent Career: Taking Ownership of your Work and Your Life (co-authored with Svetlana N. Khapova and Julia Richardson).  He has worked extensively on the concept of “intelligent careers” and from this work, Arthur and his colleagues developed the Intelligent Career Framework

The term ‘intelligent career’ refers to the notion that in today’s constantly changing world of work, we need to assume ownership of our careers. In essence, an ‘intelligent career’ involves actively using our ‘intelligence’ to pursue our careers rather than passively allowing circumstances or other people to determine what we do. So it connects rather nicely with the notion of ‘planned happenstance’.

The Intelligent Career Framework defines three areas of competence that underpin our employability:

  • Knowing-Why – being able to describe one’s personal motivations, beliefs, interests, values, sense of purpose, etc.
  • Knowing-How – being able to describe one’s occupational skills and expertise; refining other life/career management skills (e.g. decision making, career planning etc.); and being aware of occupational and environmental factors impacting one’s work.
  • Knowing-Whom – being able to build & maintain personal and work relationships that link you to employment opportunities, keep you in touch with developments in your field, and facilitate movement within the job market.

It is the latter form of ‘knowing’ that is often overlooked by people wanting to make changes in their careers (and indeed, self-employed career coaches who need to earn a living!).

Taking ownership over building those connections with people both inside and outside work is essential for generating chance opportunities or ‘luck’ in your career.  You never quite know who might be on the end of the line when the phone rings on Friday night.  You might be going to the pub… Or you might be going to America!

More information about the ICCS® Career Exploration System can be found here:

Photo: Igor Ovsyannykov (

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