Vol 5. Issue 2 / January 17, 2005

Luck Is No Accident

By Mika Ono

By most measures, Al Levin has built a successful career. He is associate professor at California State University, Sacramento; former assistant director of the Career Development Center and adjunct faculty at Stanford University; and co-author of a new book well-received by colleagues and rated five stars on Amazon.com.

Yet Levin didn't initially plan to be a professor. He didn't even plan to go into the field of counseling. In fact, as a child he thought he would be a lawyer, he majored in African history at the University of California, Berkeley, and his first job was as a technician with Xerox Corporation.

Yet somehow Levin managed to have a productive, rewarding, and even prestigious career anyway. How?

Levin shared his thoughts on this and related topics at two seminars on "Luck is No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in Your Life and Career" at The Scripps Research Institute last week. The workshops, sponsored by the Scripps Research Department of Counseling and Postdoctoral Services and the institute's Society of Fellows, drew an audience of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, scientists, and staff from across the La Jolla campus.

Luck is a reality, according to Levin. "When you ask people how they got their job, or how they met their spouse, most people will say, 'I was at the right place at the right time' or 'it was pure, dumb luck,'" he notes. "Almost everyone can think of an instance when an unexpected event influenced their life."

But the traditional—and still predominant—model of career counseling developed by Frank Parsons back in 1908 has no room for luck. Instead, it encourages the job seeker to rely on a rational and controlled process, in which he/she assesses interests, goals, and skills; researches the job market; and then determines the best match between the two. Chance encounters, detours, mistakes, and second tries are nowhere to be found in this model.

While acknowledging that planning and goal setting can be valuable, Levin also advises individuals to make the most of happenstance.

"Have a game plan, but write in pencil," he advises. "Or, to use another metaphor, approach life and career like a jazz musician who knows what key to start playing in but also responds to what the other musicians are doing."

To maximize your benefit from chance events, Levin suggests the following:

  • Position yourself for luck. Make good luck possible by sharing your career concerns with other people, volunteering to help others, trying out new tasks, and doing the best work you can.
  • Recognize opportunities. Levin points out that success stories such as Viagra, Rogaine, and Liquid Paper were the result of unexpected events. Yet they were also made possible by people alert and flexible enough in their approach to recognize they had something better than originally planned.
  • Take appropriate action. Opportunities are lost if you don't respond to them. Follow up on leads. Persevere in the face of obstacles. Reassess and redirect your efforts when necessary.

Levin's advice is reminiscent of the joke about the man who prayed to win the lottery. Every day the man would look to the heavens and say earnestly, "God, please, please, help me win the lottery."  Day after day, year after year he continued. Finally, the man lost his patience. "God, why haven't you helped me win the lottery?" The heavens opened up and God spoke: "I have been hearing your prayers about the lottery. I understand. But do me a favor—buy a ticket!"

Levin emphasizes the importance of playing the lottery of career and life, but also of buying a ticket.

For more information, see the book "Luck is No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in Your Life and Career" by John Krumbolz and Al Levin (2004: Impact Publishers). For more information on sponsors of the event, see the web pages of the Counseling and Postdoctoral Services Department and the Society of Fellows.


Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu







"Approach life and career like a jazz musician who knows what key to start playing in but also responds to what the other musicians are doing."

—Al Levin