Conventional wisdom on wise career decision-making is to start by setting some goals. We tend to imagine that the most successful people are extremely goal-directed, setting their sights on something and then doing everything in their power to achieve it. Why? Because “if you don’t know where you’re going,” says the book title by legendary vocational psychologist David Campbell, “you’ll end up somewhere else.”
Ina Garten, the best selling-author and Barefoot Contessa host, offers up a different strategy. “I think if you set goals, you keep yourself from really interesting sidetracks,” she recently said in an interview published in TIME. “Before I bought my store, Barefoot Contessa, I’d thought I was going to go into real estate. Something similar happened later, after I had been running the store for 20 years. I knew I wanted to do something else, so I sold the store to some of my employees, not having any idea about what exactly I would do next. About nine months later, I thought, I’ll write a cookbook while I figure out what I should do. But then I turned out to really love writing cookbooks.”
As a vocational psychologist, I appreciate Garten’s perspective on how her career progressed the way it has. I doubt, of course, that she has really sworn off goal-setting entirely—authors can’t finish books without goals, at least not on time, and it’s hard to imagine running a store successfully without any sense of quarterly targets to orient to. But maintaining a sense of openness to new and unexpected opportunities is an eminently wise rule of thumb. Venerable Stanford psychologist John Krumboltz coined a term for the seemingly serendipitous events that many people, like Garten, describe as catalyzing a new and unexpected direction in their careers: “planned happenstance.” Such events seem like happenstance because we don’t really see them coming. Krumboltz suggests that we can make such unexpected opportunities more likely to occur, however, by living an active life.
The more often we put ourselves out there, expand our social network, strike up conversations, and share what we are doing or what we are hoping to do, the more likely serendipity will strike. It’s a fascinating concept, because it helps answer the question of why some people have all the luck. Maybe some people are better at creating the conditions in which positive unexpected events of one form or another are more likely to occur.
Unlike much of the career-advice industry, the Barefoot Contessa’s approach strikes a balance between planning and happenstance. If you consistently create the conditions for planned happenstance (even while pursuing goals!), expect the unexpected, and take action when such “chance” events present themselves, you’ll probably find a few “really interesting sidetracks” yourself.