Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What to Do When Your Life Takes an Unexpected Turn

As much as we like to plan for the future, we might not see what’s ahead.

Throughout life, we are constantly setting goals for ourselves, both in the long- and short-term. Major turning points, such as entry into the job market, getting married, or having a first child bring these goals into focus. However, on a smaller scale, perhaps without realizing it, you’re constantly evaluating your experiences in terms of how they impact your ability to achieve those big plans you have for yourself.

Plans are great because they help you make decisions about what to do, or not do, in order to help achieve your goals. Like any plan, though, unexpected changes can occur that either help or hinder your life goal achievement. The changes might be completely accidental, such as becoming injured or losing your home in a fire. They may also reflect your evolving set of life priorities, such as the ticking of the biological clock when people who want to be parents get close to the upper limits of childbearing age.

Changes in your life plans may also differ in whether you see them as positive or negative. Typically, we regard life changes as positive when they help us get closer to an important goal and as negative when they thwart our progress. It’s also possible that a change you first saw as negative evolves into a change that you see as moving you closer to a life goal. After being injured, you might take up a new exercise regime that, over time, actually improves your stability and health. Although you had to take a detour to get there, you’re back on the path toward better functioning.

It’s in this context that we can view intriguing research on the concept of career shock. Many career development theories focus on how people achieve their vocational goals through the decisions they make. For example, the widely-used RIASEC model of vocational development proposes that people will continue to seek change in their career paths until they are able to achieve congruence, or a match, between their personalities and their job environments. However, this model fails to take into account the fact that jobs that match your personality may not necessarily be available. Furthermore, it doesn’t consider the impact of external forces on careers, such as being laid off due to downsizing, or having to move to accommodate your partner's job change.

University of Iowa’s Scott Seibert and colleagues (2013) decided to tackle this limitation of career development theories by focusing on a step that many people take in their lives—the decision to enter a graduate education program. Central to Seibert et al.’s was the notion of a career shock, which they define as “any event that triggers deliberation involving the prospect of a change in an important career-related behavior such as seeking further education, changing occupations” (p. 172). Negative career shocks occur in those downsizing situations, but also when a mentor leaves the organization or changes occur due to other, unseen, outside forces. Positive career shocks can also occur when people receive a promotion or salary increase earlier than they expect.

The Seibert team surveyed over 1,300 college alumni 2 to 5 years after they received their bachelor’s degree, all of whom were employed. Participants answered questions about their career goals, extent of career planning, career satisfaction, and intention to pursue graduate training. They also answered a “Career Shock” questionnaire in which they rated the extent to which they were affected by shocks, both positive (“received an unexpected, attractive opportunity,” “quick raise or promotion”) and negative (“organizational change,” “did not receive an expected promotion”).

Two years later, participants reported on what career changes they’d made in the interim and whether they had actually applied to and/or entered graduate school. This follow-up procedure allowed Seibert and his team to compare what participants said they wanted to do with what they actually did. The key question in the study was whether the researchers could predict how much a participant’s intention to enter graduate education was affected by his or her own efforts toward “career self-management” (personal goals and plans) vs. the career-related shocks, both positive and negative.

The findings showed that, in contrast to the predictions that Seibert and his team made, it was the positive—not the negative—career shocks that resulted in a greater tendency to apply to graduate school. It seems that a positive career boost can give people a bump in their self-confidence that, in turn, prompts them to seek further education and training. No longer bound by worries about their adequacy in their career, they can shoot for higher goals.

Random events can, then, influence the trajectories our lives take That jolt from out of the blue can get you to think differently about your life plans. We saw how this worked with careers in the Seibert and coauthors study. How about in relationships? Perhaps a similar process would work as well.

You might have planned to settle down with one person in your late 20s or early 30s, which is a relationship “career” that many people plan for themselves. However, just because you think your relationship life should follow this pattern doesn’t mean that it will. You might meet someone in your early 20s, for example, who rocks your world and even if you don’t end up settling down with that person, your relationship self-esteem gets a huge boost.

Conversely, what if the person you’re in a relationship with cheats on you or otherwise decides to end it? This negative relationship shock not only challenges your self-esteem but derails you from your goals of having a family by a certain point in your life.

The Seibert et al. study didn’t examine how people cope with setbacks, but it shows that people can be motivated, when things don’t go their way, to explore alternate paths to fulfillment.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015


Seibert, S. E., Kraimer, M. L., Holtom, B. C., & Pierotti, A. J. (2013). Even the best laid plans sometimes go askew: Career self-management processes, career shocks, and the decision to pursue graduate education. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 98(1), 169-182. doi:10.1037/a0030882