The Reasonable Adventurer Approach to Career-Life Planning

By Michael J. Stebleton

Do your students have a flare for change? Do they know what it means to be fully alive? A historic college student development framework can infuse new energy into career-life planning strategies for all ages. This framework reveals the qualities of a successful student, providing a direction for career services practitioners to encourage a focus on the development of these traits. Over 50 years ago, a clinical psychologist named Roy Heath conducted a longitudinal qualitative study of undergraduate students at Princeton University (Heath, 1964). Heath’s overarching research question was: “What student attributes contribute to career-life success?” After numerous observations and interviews, he analyzed his data to generate five different student types based on temperament.

Although each group of students possessed notable qualities, Heath asserted that the most successful student type was the Reasonable Adventurer.


Challenging and Supporting Students

Why and how should students be encouraged to become 'reasonable adventurers'? Several years ago, I developed a course and led a group of students on a three-week study abroad experience. The topic of the seminar was “Examining the Good Life in Denmark and Sweden,” (Stebleton, 2016). Applying positive psychology and happiness studies frameworks, we explored why the Danes perform near the top of various surveys on happiness and well-being (Garfors, 2017). I wanted to create experiential opportunities that would engage students in innovative ways. As professor of psychology Nevitt Sanford articulated, generating learning opportunities that provide the right balance of challenge and support is critical (Patton et al, 2016). Furthermore, Sanford believed that educators should support students in their own self development. After reviewing Sanford and Heath’s work, I decided to intentionally push and encourage my students to become “reasonable adventurers.”


Traits of the Reasonable Adventurer

Although Heath worked primarily with college students, his “Reasonable Adventurer” concept can be applied to all learners of all ages. Heath concluded that Reasonable Adventurers (RA) are fully engaged as learners—and “they know what it means to be fully alive” (p. 36). They demonstrated the ability to create their own opportunities for satisfaction, and their adventures tended to make sense for them. Moreover, the Reasonable Adventurers held a flare for change and possessed a world-relatedness (i.e., they were open to new experiences and expressed a desire to engage in opportunities outside of their comfort zones). Other traits included intellectuality, close friendships, independence in value judgements, tolerance of ambiguity, breadth and depth of interests, and a strong sense of humor. According to Heath, these students were able to “attack the problems of everyday life with zest and originality” (p. 30). As career educators in an ever-changing world of work, we can play an important role in helping students develop and apply the RA spirit and traits to their career-life planning.


Strategies to Promote the Reasonable Adventurer

Infusion of RA traits can begin early in students’ educational experiences. I introduce the concept to first-year college students during welcome week at our first class meeting for a required course titled, “Multidisciplinary Ways of Knowing” (Stebleton & Jehangir, 2016). After a brief introduction, I provide a writing prompt that states: Describe a recent adventure that you experienced in the past year that resulted in personal change—yet “made sense” for you. What did you learn about yourself? About others? As a reasonable adventurer, where will you go this year as a first-year student? How will you challenge yourself?

This exercise allows students to consider how they might use past experiences as pathways into new adventures during their first year of college. In the past, students have shared experiences such as engaging in travel, sports, service opportunities, and new relationships.

Here is a brief list of practices for career educators that can foster the RA traits that Heath outlined from a career development lens. They can be applied to a variety of K-16 learning environments, and the ideas can be transferred to non-educational contexts as well.

  • Breadth and Depth of Interests: Discuss with students the idea of “crafting experiments” and gaining experiential opportunities (Ibarra, 2003). Certain experiences are recognized to be high-impact in nature: internships, part-time employment, directed research, first-year experience programs, and global opportunities (Kuh, 2008; Skipper, 2017). From a career development perspective, crafting experiments allows individuals to make short-term commitments and hone interests during these trial experiences.
  • Independence and Creative Thought: Identify and tackle “wicked problems” from a design perspective (Burnett & Evans, 2016). Rather than solely rely on traditional ‘test and tell’ strategies of career counseling, encourage students to identify the world’s problems that need to be addressed –and then focus on helping them develop the meaningful skills needed to generate solutions to those challenges (DuRose & Stebleton, 2016).
  • Tolerance of Ambiguity: Nudge students to become uncomfortable in the learning process – including career planning and the uncertainness of future work (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2014; Maitland & Thomson, 2011; Pryor & Bright, 2011). This concept is not entirely novel; legendary psychologist Fritz Perls reminded his students to always be aware of situations when they start to feel uncomfortable – primarily because they are about ready to learn something new (Perls, Goodman, & Hefferline, 1951). This strategy also relates to “problem-solving” which is a key trait sought out by employers according to the National Association of Colleges & Employers Job Outlook survey (2017).
  • World-Relatedness: Promote perspective-taking through multicultural awareness, diversity, and social justice as part of your career development work with students. Encouraging students to see new situations, including career/work inequities, from divergent angles will help students now and as future leaders in the workplace (Nash & Lang, 2015).


The Reasonable Adventurer concept was introduced over 50 years ago, yet the traits can still be applied to today’s learners. Integrating the RA spirit is a responsibility of all educators – and career development practitioners can infuse this concept into their counseling philosophy and practice.



Brynjolfsson, E. & McAfee, A. (2014). The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. New York, NY: Norton.

Burnett, W., & Evans, D. J. (2016). Designing your life: How to build a well-lived, joyful life. New York, NY: Knopf.

DuRose, L., & Stebleton, M. J. (2016). Lost in translation: Preparing students to articulate the meaning of a college degree. Journal of College and Character, 17(4), 271-277. doi: 10.1080/2194587X.2016.1230759.

Garfors, G. (2017, March 23). Step aside Denmark: Norway takes world’s happiest nation crown. The Guardian. Retrieved: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2017/mar/23/norway-worlds-happiest-nation-report-beats-denmark

Heath, R. (1964). The reasonable adventurer. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Ibarra, H. (2003). Working identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Job Outlook 2017. Retrieved from:  http://www.naceweb.org/talent-acquisition/candidate-selection/the-attributes-employers-seek-on-a-candidates-resume/

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Maitland, A., & Thomson, P. (2011). Future work: How businesses can adapt and thrive in the new world of work. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nash, R. J., & Jang, J. J. (2015). Preparing students for life beyond college: A meaning-centered vision for holistic teaching and learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Patton, L. D., Renn, K. A., Guido, F. M., Quaye, S. J., Evans, N.J., & Forney, D. S. (2016). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (3ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Perls, F., Goodman, R. F., & Hefferline, P. (1951). Gestalt therapy. New York: NY: Julan Press.

Pryor, R., & Bright, J. (2011). The chaos theory of careers: A new perspective on working in the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Routledge.

Skipper, T. L. (2017). What makes the first-year seminar high impact? An exploration of effective educational practices. (Research Reports No. 7). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition.

Stebleton, M.J. (2016). Challenging students to become reasonable adventurers. About Campus, 21(4), 14-21. doi: 10.1002/abc.21246. 

Stebleton, M. J., & Jehangir, R. (2016). Creating communities of engaged learners: An analysis of a first-year inquiry seminar. Learning Communities Research and Practice, 4(2), Article 5.
Available at: http://washingtoncenter.evergreen.edu/lcrpjournal/vol4/iss2/5



Michael StebletonMichael J. Stebleton, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Higher Education, located in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. His teaching and research interests focus on: career development, multicultural student development, college student success, and retention issues of historically marginalized student populations. Current studies focus on understanding the experiences of first-generation and immigrant college students, including factors that influence career decision-making.

Stebleton teaches in the First Year Experience and in the graduate program at CEHD. His publications appear in a variety of academic journals and publications, including the Career Development Quarterly, Journal of Employment Counseling, Career Convergence, Journal of College Student Development, and the Journal of Career Development. Stebleton is a 2017 NCDA Merit award recipient. He can be reached at steb0004@umn.edu.


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Deneen Pennington   on Thursday 11/02/2017 at 08:23 AM

I enjoyed your article! And congratulations again on your NCDA National Award; you are very deserving!

Jan Moore   on Monday 11/20/2017 at 06:26 PM

This is exactly the kind of information people of all ages need to understand to be able to succeed in the Future of Work. It's in complete alignment with what I teach midlife career changers. How can this not be common-place knowledge when it has been around for 50 years? Thanks for sharing this Michael. I will help you spread the word.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.