Career Matters: Happenstance: Always, Always be Open to the Unexpected

by Deb Wojcik MEM’00, MAT’00, BS’97

Returning to the Nicholas School as part of the Career & Professional Development Center has provided a unique opportunity to reflect on my own career and what has led me back to Duke. Family legend says that during a family trip to visit my then-freshman uncle, I declared my intention to attend Duke while exploring Duke Gardens at age five. My two-and-a-halfyear- old brother declared the same when we entered Cameron Indoor Stadium.

We both ended up graduating from Duke, and this deep connection certainly fueled my desire to come back to where my heart can bleed its truest blue.

But why this job? While I’ve remained steadfastly loyal to the university over the years, my jobs have varied widely. I’ve always been passionate about the environment and decided my senior year that being part of the Nicholas School Master of Environmental Management (MEM) program was the best way to learn the skills that would set me on my desired course.

My MEM did indeed set me on that path, leading to work in high school classrooms, canoes in estuaries, offices in corporate technology firms, remote rural villages in southern Africa—while pursuing my doctorate—and most recently, teaching and advising at elite institutions of higher education.

None of these steps were ones I had laid out when I had started thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. In fact, to some, my career path might seem like less a path than a random walk of dart throws on a map of career possibilities.

For me, however, they make perfect sense—particularly in retrospect. The jobs I’ve held have helped me hone skills that allow me to help others be their best. The common theme in all of my career choices is wanting to develop others; this is what has resonated most in all of these roles.

My current Nicholas School job is a wonderful culmination of my passion and decisions to date, decisions that have been facilitated by two very different things: intentionality and happenstance. There are many things we can do to prepare for our “dream jobs”—learn the skills, attend the appropriate conferences, and so on. Doing our homework to learn what these things are and taking the steps necessary to make them happen is essential.

This intentionality in preparation makes us better able to do the jobs we seek. Perhaps more importantly, however, it also makes it possible for us to take advantage of happenstance when unplanned, unexpected opportunities pop up that we could not possibly foresee. So often, the dream job we land is one we didn’t know to dream about in the first place.

The notion of happenstance as a major factor in career trajectories has been written about quite a bit (I first became acquainted reading John D. Krumboltz). But beyond the literature, the ideas resonate with me because I have experienced it so much myself and observed it in the careers of many of my friends and colleagues.

It is, in fact, how I ended up in my current job: a conversation predicated on something completely unrelated led to an opportunity I could not have predicted. I had done the work to put the pieces in place—developed the skills and experiences to make this next step possible—but one casual conversation opened up an incredible opportunity and changed my career path in ways I still have yet to fully realize.

So what does this eye toward happenstance mean for the way I coach students?

You can do many things to make sure your career connects with your passion, develop important skills for the types of jobs you want to pursue, and make meaningful connections with people who can help facilitate your career. But in the end, it’s also important to acknowledge that there will be things in your career path you can’t chart, and the best thing to do is always, always, be open to the unexpected.

Deb Wojcik is the new director of Career & Professional Development at the Nicholas School.