An Unplanned Encounter

[Article reprinted with permission from Vocation Works!]


“Yes, I have a few minutes,” I replied. “What do you need?”

This was a bit out of the ordinary, even for me. I was at this particular workforce center for the day to do a training. We’re often asked to go on site to train workforce and career development professionals. But this man was not on staff there. He was a customer. He was a client. He was one of the many locals who use workforce centers all across America for help with finding a job or surviving a layoff or something else like that.

“You’re the teacher for the people who work here. Right?” the man asked.

“Well, yes …” I replied, drawing out my response as I tried to anticipate what this man might actually want to talk to me about.

“These people need to know something,” the man went on. “Whenever I come in here, I’m thinking they’re really missing the point. Do you know what I mean?” he asked. “Do you get what I’m saying?”

“Honestly, no!” I said to the man, trying to be both polite and professional. “I don’t understand, but please tell me.”

“You know what a career plan is — right?” he asked.

“Yes, of course.” I said. And then, as if to make the point that I have some expertise with career planning, I went on to tell him, “I travel all around the country teaching career planning.”

“Oh,” he said. His eyes suddenly looked down and his disappointment was impossible to miss. He said quietly, “I’m sorry.”

“There’s no need to be sorry” I said. “Why would you be sorry?”

“For a moment, I thought you might be able help, but then,” he said, “when you said what you said, I thought you could actually be the reason they got this problem in the first place. I mean, after all, you are the one teaching them this stuff.” 

A bit surprised, I tried hard not to react to his unexpected response. I asked as professionally as I knew how, “Why don’t you just tell me about the problem. Let me try to figure out if there’s anything I need to do about it.”

The man stood quietly for a moment and then said, “Okay! I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but this stuff you’re teaching these people, well … it just don’t work.”

“Of course, it works,” I said with a smile on my face. “You’ll have to tell me what you’re actually talking about though. What exactly doesn’t seem to be working for you?”

“Fair enough,” the man replied. “The whole thing! This whole career planning thing! It just doesn’t work. It ain’t for real! That’s what I’m talking about. The career plan they make us do ain’t real.”

Now I was intrigued. I really did want to hear more.

“You gotta have a plan!” I told the man. “Plans are important.”

“But these plans don’t work,” the man answered. “They never work. At least, not the way they make us do them. Nothing ever happens the way you plan it. Most of us who come in here already know that. We know the career plans don’t work. But the people working here — either they don’t know it, or they don’t care! They just keep making us work on these stupid plans. I don’t know nobody who ever got a job because of their career plan. And I was thinking that, well … maybe, if your job was teaching them, then you might be able to tell them to start having us spend more time on things that really do work.”

The quiet that followed lasted only a moment or two, but it seemed longer. The man finally broke the silence by asking, “Does that make sense to you, sir?”

“Yes,” I answered. “It makes a lot of sense. And I agree with you.”

I went on, “I agree that nothing ever seems to work the way we plan it. But still, we have to have a plan. As long as it’s flexible, your plan will actually give you the vision and direction and hope and inspiration you need to take those important, next steps in life. That’s what I teach the people who work in this workforce center. And I hope it’s something you might understand too.”

The man slowly turned and started to walk away. I called after him gently, “Does that make sense to you? Is that something you think I should tell the staff who work here?”

He stopped and turned around again.

“Maybe,” he said. “But why don’t you tell them that, in life, stuff happens. It don’t matter how good we plan! Stuff always happens. Tell them there’s more to life than the stuff we put in our career plans. So tell them not to fall in love with their plans. People and life! That’s the only stuff that really matters in the long run!”

With that, we parted company. We went our separate ways.


We learned a lot from that brief, unplanned encounter with a client (customer) in a workforce center. Here’s what really stuck with us:

  • While it’s true that most plans don’t work the way we plan them, it’s still important to plan.
  • Because plans never work out exactly right, a good plan is flexible. The easier it is to make adjustments, the more likely we are to succeed.
  • To make a good plan, we have to know (1) where we’ve been, (2) where we are, (3) where we’re going and (4) how we’ll get there.
  • A good plan delivers four great benefits: (1) vision, (2) direction, (3) hope and (4) inspiration.
  • Remember, it’s easier to adjust a good plan than to succeed with no plan.