Integrating Mindset and Happenstance Learning Theory in a Post-Secondary Setting

By Rachael C. Marshall and Erin Bennett

The implicit theories of ability (Dweck, 2008), also known as mindset, and Happenstance Learning Theory (HLT) complement each other in both understanding and intervention. Mindset is a framework for exploring the malleability of personal attributes that guide human behavior (Dweck, 1996). Career practitioners can help students engage in growth mindset to move from feeling stuck to action. HLT calls for curiosity, persistence, flexibility, optimism, and risk-taking (Krumboltz, 2009), effectively aligned with behaviors of growth mindset (Dweck et al., 1995). Career specialists in a post-secondary setting can use mindset with intentionality in their work with HLT. Specifically, career practitioners can work with students to explore growth mindset as they begin to orient student expectations at the point of entry when they declare majors or the time of graduation when they launch their careers. This will include working to prepare students for unplanned events such as the inability to secure an internship, changing their majors, or the shifting policy regarding classroom interaction and graduation expectations.

Happenstance Learning Theory and Mindset

Happenstance Learning Theory (HLT) explains that people follow different tasks through life and career. Tasks change based on experiences and lessons learned that impact cognitions (Krumboltz, 2009). It is the interaction between the individuals’ perceived reality and experiences that influence growth and constructs new opportunities (Hagevik, 2000). It is in the conceived reality element of HLT that the seeds of mindset can take root and promote cognitive changes. Students that hold a fixed mindset may find it more challenging to engage in career development as they perceive that failures or shortcomings reflect static abilities rather than opportunities to develop. For example, those with a fixed mindset tend to view challenges as threatening (Dweck, 2008), feel cynical about effort and the utility of trying (Blackwell et al., 2007), worry about their performance by being intimidated by others’ successes (Hoyt et al., 2012) and feel ashamed of shortcomings (Hong et al., 1999). In moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, career professionals help students notice and take advantage of opportunities that result from happenstance.

Career practitioners using HLT are tasked with facilitating learning skills, interests, beliefs, values, work habits, and personal qualities to satisfy living in a constantly changing work environment and explain how and why people follow different paths through life (Krumboltz et al., 2013). Mindset can help create a framework for students and career specialists to navigate the constantly changing world. Much like reframing in cognitive-based theories, career practitioners can use the cognitive strategies of mindset and the action-based strategies of HLT to encourage experiences, experiments, reflection, and acknowledgment of continuous development (Krumboltz, 2009). HLT presents opportunities for students to engage in growth mindset — viewing career decision-making as a process rather than a fixed endpoint.

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Krumboltz recommends using HLT to encourage students to move away from goals orienting around one lifetime occupation and instead encourage goal related to creating a more satisfying life for themselves. With the ever-changing world of work, the career practitioner can help students improve their feelings about work and life (Krumboltz, 2011), instead of fostering a fixed mindset around the need for perfection. Questions to ask students, which may promote growth mindset include,

  • Describe a setback you have faced; how could you persist in that area?
  • When have you taken advantage of a chance event?
  • How can you use your major/career exploration to generate an opportunity?

Together the career specialists and students can brainstorm next steps for career exploration. Career practitioners can then explore unplanned events, successes, and failures, which can reveal internal capacities for change (i.e., the opportunity for a growth mindset). Table 1 outlines HLT goals that work with mindset and suggestions for integration.


Table 1

Specific HLT Goals and Mindset Reframing Suggestions


HLT Goals

Fixed Mindset

Growth Mindset

HLT & Mindset Interventions

Orient Expectations

There are majors and careers I can and cannot do; they will not change.”

Economics, politics, culture, and technology impact and create new careers- I will keep developing”

Myth busting

Understand Self

If I fail this test, I fail this major; I am a failure”

I can succeed and fail at different things, which gives me opportunities to reevaluate my goals, and create new ones.”


Make Decisions

I must choose what I will do for the rest of my life. If I choose wrong I will be unhappy.”

There will be different career opportunities; they can be beneficial in different ways depending on my goals.”

Goals setting and decision making

Real World Application

What if I talk to someone in the field and they tell me I cannot make it or I try it and it is not what I thought it was. It’s too much of a risk.”

If I try something and do not like it, I gain more insight into not only the work, but also myself and what I am interested in.”

Informational Interview or Job Shadowing


If the interview does not go as planned, I will have no other alternative.”

Any opportunity is a networking opportunity I can use for more growth.”





HLT interventions and the use of activities to engage in growth mindset can be used in career counseling sessions, classrooms, presentations, and orientations. It can be beneficial to introduce students in higher education to multiple opportunities to engage with mindset, and present a common language of change. Career practitioners can advocate for career interventions and policies that helps students experiment (HLT) and then process the events (mindset) which moves students toward effective career decision making.



Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child development, 78(1), 246-263. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.14678624.2007.00995.x

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.

Dweck, C. S. (1996). Implicit theories as organizers of goals and behavior. In P. M. Gollwitzer & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), The psychology of action: Linking cognition and motivation to behavior (pp. 69-90). The Guilford Press.

Dweck, C. S., Chiu, C. Y., & Hong, Y. Y. (1995). Implicit theories and their role in judgments and reactions: A word from two perspectives. Psychological Inquiry, 6(4), 267-285. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli0604_1

Hagevik, S. (2000). Planned happenstance. Journal of Environmental Health, 62(9), 39-39.

Hong, Y. Y., Chiu, C. Y., Dweck, C. S., Lin, D. M. S., & Wan, W. (1999). Implicit theories, attributions, and coping: a meaning system approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(3), 588-599. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.77.3.588

Hoyt, C. L., Burnette, J. L., & Innella, A. N. (2012). I can do that: The impact of implicit theories on leadership role model effectiveness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(2),  257-268. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167211427922

Krumboltz, J. D. (2009). The happenstance learning theory. Journal of Career Assessment, 17(2), 135-154. https://doi.org/10.1177/1069072708328861

Krumboltz, J. D. (2011). Capitalizing on happenstance. Journal of Employment Counseling, 48(4), 156-158. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-1920.2011.tb01101.x

Krumboltz, J. D., Foley, P. F., & Cotter, E. W. (2013). Applying the happenstance learning theory to involuntary career transitions. The Career Development Quarterly, 61(1), 15-26. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-0045.2013.00032.x



Rachael MarshallDr. Rachael C. Marshall is an Assistant Professor at California State University, Sacramento in the Career Counseling Specialization for Counselor Education. With her Master’s in counseling she worked as a clinical and career counselor in universities, homeless shelters, and schools. Her work focused on trauma, grief, and advocacy with first generation college students, immigrants, international students, and LGBTQ+ clients. She then completed her PhD in Counselor Education from the University of Tennessee Knoxville where she worked as a career counselor. She currently researches career identity development for specialized populations and counselor identity development in relation to self-care, wellness, and mindfulness. She can be reached at Rachael.marshall@csus.edu


Erin BennettErin Bennett is a career counselor who currently serves as Lead Academic & Career Exploration Coach at the University of Tennessee Center for Career Development & Academic Exploration. In addition to helping students choose majors and career through individual appointments, Erin coordinates the Exploring Majors & Careers course and co-leads the CliftonStrengths UTK Campus Team. She is a member of the National Career Development Association (NCDA). She can be reached at ebennett@utk.edu


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