Stop Saying Career “path”!

By Eric Anderson

Career “Path” makes career plans seem predictable
The image of a career as a “path” is a barrier because the visibility and stability of a footpath implies that the analogous career paths that our clients plan to implement are also visible and stable, and therefore predictable. We all know that careers do change, and that they are unpredictable, but the way we work with clients using conventional career development theories suggests that we are confused. Many of us explain this unpredictability within the “path” image by incorporating “the unknown around the next bend in the path” in an attempt to allow for happenstance. This is unwittingly problematic because, as George Lakoff demonstrates in both Metaphors We Live By, and Philosophy in the Flesh, our reasoning is shaped by the metaphors we use, and in spite of adding bends to the image, the metaphor of a career “path” continues to embed in our minds the ideas of visibility, stability, and predictability. I believe that this is one of the reasons why, in spite of plentiful anecdotal examples of happenstance, the reality of chance and unpredictability has trouble “sticking” in our minds.



Historical Perspective
The concept of happenstance in career planning has been around since Mark Miller’s 1983 Vocational Guidance Quarterly article, and the concepts of chance and accident playing a role in career planning have been around since the early 1950s, yet most of us still don’t routinely incorporate happenstance into our career planning conversations. But we should, and there is a simple way to do this.



Career “Voyage” provides a more accurate image
A better term is the career “voyage”, a journey in a sailing vessel, perhaps visualized complete with crew members from a client’s community who help keep the vessel headed in the desired direction. In the “voyage” metaphor, as in life, there is still some degree of control (turning the rudder, adjusting the sails), and there is also some degree of happenstance (shifting wind direction and moving water currents). Clients also react to the concurrent voyages of others; the boats of other voyagers affect their journey in both expected and unexpected ways, too. A “voyage” intrinsically embeds some unpredictability into our concept of planning, and makes happenstance less surprising. It normalizes happenstance.



Using Career Voyage with Clients
When meeting with my traditional-age college students, I use the career voyage as a response to their perception that they are making plans “for the rest of their lives”. Telling traditional students that they will have several unpredictable careers during their working life is too vague to be helpful. When I explain how the unpredictability of career and life planning is more like a voyage than a path, they see that it’s okay to stop taking responsibility for controlling every aspect of their careers.


With my alumni and adult degree students, it’s more a matter of awakening them to what they already know about the unpredictability of life. These clients accept the replacement of “path” with “voyage” readily, as if their intuitive minds have been waiting for a more sensible metaphor. And sometimes they come up with their own appropriate unpredictability metaphors, like “whitewater rafting” or “rock climbing” that work better for them.


So let’s replace “career path” with “career voyage” as our standard term for the career experience. It would go a long way toward removing a significant barrier for our students and other clients who struggle to understand the realistic influence they can expect their career plans to have on their career outcomes.



How to do this:


  • Replace the “career path” with “career voyage” in your print and online materials

  • Integrate the voyage concept during conversations that focus on predictability in career planning

  • Affirm flexibility with clients’ own unpredictability metaphors that work well for them.





Krumboltz, J. D. (2009). The Happenstance Learning Theory. Journal of Career Assessment, 17, 135-154.


Krumboltz, J. D., & Levin, A. S. (2010). Luck Is No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in Your Life and Career. Atascadero, CA: Impact.


Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live by. Chicago: University of Chicago.


Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic.


Miller, M. J. (1983). The role of happenstance in career choice. The Vocational Guidance Quarterly, 32, 16-20.





Eric AndersonEric Anderson is the Director of Career Development at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. He began his professional career as an industrial chemist, and then made a transition to college student development. He has over 23 year of experience in career development, and has provided a variety of national conference presentations, including: The future is actually behind us: why chaos and happenstance theories are counterintuitive (2012), Postmodern career development and eclecticism (2006), Spiritual career retreats (2004), and Challenging the rational, structured approach to career development (1995). Eric can be reached at eanderson@capital.edu, and you can find some of his other work at www.capital.edu/careerdevelopment.



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Mary McCormac   on Sunday 02/03/2013 at 04:44 PM

Good point but elementary children get the idea of paths, but I like voyage metaphor too.

Lynn M. Levine   on Sunday 02/03/2013 at 05:13 PM

I enjoyed your comments very much as Dr. Krumboltz' Happenstance Theory has always resonated with me--both in terms of my own professional career counseling practice and my personal journey from college student to classroom teacher to school counselor, all the way to my present 32-year career as a private career and educational counselor. Thank you!

Yvonne Raffini   on Sunday 02/03/2013 at 08:02 PM

The power of 'serendipity' should never be underestimated. Your efforts to clarify this point are appreciated.

Darcie Callahan   on Monday 02/04/2013 at 10:09 AM

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have often thought that if I wrote a book I would call it "Paths, Waves, and Spirals" because I see so many other patterns than just paths. I like "voyage" very much. When I was younger, an employer looked at my resume and told me I had "an interesting career non-path." I wish then I had thought to say, "That's because it's not a path, it's a voyage!"

Ray Davis   on Monday 02/04/2013 at 03:27 PM

Hi Eric,

Nice article, my friend. Kudos! However, I disagree on the terminology issue. Our state's 2,000+ GCDF certified career specialists in K-12 learn about Krumboltz's happenstance and use it as they counsel and guide students with choice. This student centered choice can, our students are taught, can always change throughout a lifetime. They are also taught that the person determining their "career pathway" is themselves. Because they are taught that any career action or plan is always tentative, and they understand that the "career pathway" is non-tracking, not predictive, nor non-binding. They are in control! Career pathways also aligns nicely with the national career clusters, assessments, and printed material used extensively across K-12 in the nation. Thus, the beauty of our NCDA GCDF-certified career specialists in South Carolina!

Gary Swisher   on Monday 02/04/2013 at 05:13 PM

Good thoughts Eric. I think this issue might depend somewhat on the students' mindset. Our students actually rely too much on happenstance--i.e.: "I have a major, therefore I will have a career." This is why we use the term, "career GPS" instead of "career path."

Jim Bright   on Tuesday 02/05/2013 at 03:40 PM

Great article Eric! Darcie I like your point about patterns. When you start talking about spirals you are getting close to talking about Fractal patterns - the signature of the Chaos Theory of Careers (Pryor & Bright, 2003 AJCD, 2007 JVB, 2011 Routledge, Bright & Pryor 2005 CDQ etc).

Metaphors can be seen as ways of navigating around the fractal pattern of your life. As my friend Norm Amundson says in his books Metaphor Making, and Active Engagement, we need more that one metaphor for our careers if we want to maintain flexibility and creativity in addressing our career concerns.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeDKjlPwt3w&sns=tw via @youtube
I have used the nautical metaphor in a Youtube video from last year called, Goals are not enough for a Chaotic world

Michael McClure   on Tuesday 02/05/2013 at 09:16 PM

I really enjoyed this article and you've make some excellent points. I particularly like the idea of concurrent voyages of others as they influence our own. I'm "older" and a recent graduate of a career development program in Canada and I also have two teenagers in high school and I still see some rigid metaphors used such as "paths" and "blueprints". I find these equally challenging especially when I look back on my own career that has been tossed and turned on the waves of uncertainty despite all my best efforts to follow a path. My career has been a storm, not a path, and my kids are keenly aware of that fact. If there ever was a path it got washed out long ago. It has been my personal experience that any attempt to control career outcomes is a waste of my resources. Like the ship on the ocean, I can see where I've been with much greater clarity than where I'm going. And in fact looking back provides greater clues as to the direction I'm headed than any new attempt to control that trajectory. So I might not be the best example for my children to follow with regard to what a successful career looks like (whatever that means) but it certainly proves that it is unpredictable and I hope I can provide some insights into how they can better prepare for whatever metaphor best describes their own career "voyage". Timely article - thank you.

Lamonte BLades   on Thursday 02/07/2013 at 11:08 AM

I truly enjoyed youe article on career paths. I do agree with your point of view. I usually have my students to present their career ladder. This empowers them to think upward mobility. Especially those who are down about lays offs or down sizing. The only way to look is up. This voyage will continue to grow and move them up on thier ladder of success. Love your articles.


Janice Hastings   on Friday 02/08/2013 at 02:20 PM

I agree with Ray Davis comments. Ones chosen pathway allows for self-determination and choice at many different junctions in an individual’s journey. Anyone who has hiked the Appalachian (AT) from GA to ME would find many difficult stretches, twists, turns, and seemingly “non path” (decision points) along the way, as in one’s life. With each encounter (choice point), an individual decision is largely determined by the travelers skill level, experience and education etc. hopefully coupled with helpful efforts of able mentors (“hiking’ partners) along the way.

Gail Gibson   on Friday 03/15/2013 at 08:52 AM

I love the use of the word 'voyage' and I use it all the time with coaching clients and within team development and leadership training days. A voyage becomes your own and it's all about the discovery made along the way.

Nancy J. Miller   on Monday 12/15/2014 at 11:46 AM

You really stirred up conversation with your title, Eric. The voyage is a great metaphor for the path since the captain would have a plan or path that is unpredictable. I like both analogies. I like Dick Bolles What, Where, How path going over and above the many challenges job seekers face. I always enjoy a metaphor that involves boating and water. Thanks!

Janet Wall   on Sunday 01/11/2015 at 06:56 PM

Seems to me journey is the right word (as in life is a journey, not a destination). Happenstance gives some people the impression that they can float along and let the environment and outside forces) decide for them.
When the right circumstances happen it is good to grab the ring, but don't wait for the right circumstance to occur. It may not.
I prefer to think that it s more important to take some control of our journey (or path - a word you don't seem to like).

Eric Anderson   on Sunday 01/11/2015 at 07:18 PM

Thanks for the comments! You might find my February 2014 article (A Practical "Happenstance" or "Voyage" Exercise) interesting and useful. I think it makes sense to embrace both happenstance and control.

Jim Bright   on Sunday 01/11/2015 at 07:28 PM


this is where the Chaos Theory of Careers comes into its own, as the theory provides an account of both change (planned and unplanned) and dynamic stability. Order and disorder are seen as composites not opposites. There are limits on the degree of control we can muster, and paradoxically attempts to exert too much control can leave us rigid and inflexible. or "fragile" as Nassim Taleb describes it in his book Antifragile. Embracing uncertainty purposively and strategically is the approach that flows from the Chaos Theory of Careers. This does not mean the flaccid fatalism of Doris Day and que sera, sera, rather taking action in the knowledge that our actions can and will have unpredictable consequences.

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