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Stanford Professor John D. Krumboltz, who developed the theory of planned happenstance, dies

John Krumboltz by Linda Cicero
Professor emeritus John D. Krumboltz died May 4, 2019. (Image credit: Linda A. Cicero)

Stanford Professor John D. Krumboltz, who developed the theory of planned happenstance, dies

Krumboltz, professor emeritus of education and of psychology, revolutionized career counseling by applying learning theories to decision making.

John D. Krumboltz, retired professor of education and of psychology at Stanford, died May 4, 2019, at his home on the university’s campus. He was 90.

Krumboltz, who came to Stanford in 1961, revolutionized the fields of behavioral and career counseling by applying social theories of learning to the making of life decisions.

In his six decades as one of America’s most influential psychologists, he was co-director of the Stanford Graduate School of Education’s program in counseling psychology and the widely read author of many scholarly and popular books, most recently Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win (with Ryan Babineaux, PhD ’04,  2014).

By demonstrating the value of counseling in a social context, Krumboltz inspired advances ranging from multicultural counseling to behavioral health care treatment.

“He was one of the first researchers in the field to place outcomes before process and to use scientific methods to determine whether certain psychological interventions worked,” said Teresa LaFromboise, Stanford professor of education.

“Especially among psychologists, he was the rare instance of someone who seamlessly stitched theory with practice,” said Kenji Hakuta, Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus. “He was a great teacher with an incredible diversity of students who admired and emulated his modeling. He also was a sympathetic and empathetic listener.”

Throughout Krumboltz’s sphere of influence, LaFromboise observed what she called “an air of veneration for his ability to treat people with enduring kindness.”

His honors include the American Psychological Association’s 2002 Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Knowledge and its 1990 Leona Tyler Award for advances in counseling psychology.

Other books he authored or co-authored include Behavioral Counseling: Cases and Techniques (with Carl E. Thoresen, 1969); Changing Children’s Behavior (with Helen B. Krumboltz, 1972) and Luck is No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in Your Life and Career (with Al Levin, 2004).

Retiring in 2015, Krumboltz remained active on campus, mailing copies of his books from his GSE office and writing a personal dedication in each.

John Krumboltz, right, with a simulation game for choosing careers. 

John Krumboltz, right, with a simulation game for choosing careers. (Image credit: Jose Mercado)

Planned happenstance

Krumboltz was born Oct. 21, 1928 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He completed his undergraduate work at nearby Coe College, where he played varsity tennis and where he was prompted to study psychology by his coach, who also taught the subject. Krumboltz learned tennis, he said, only because he once rode a bicycle down an unfamiliar street where he saw kids playing a game that looked like fun.

He often cited this experience when talking about planned happenstance, the theory he developed with Levin and Kathleen Mitchell that says arbitrary events have important influence on people’s lives.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to teach you to ride a bicycle so you will major in psychology,’” Krumboltz said in 2013. “All these events that happen in life are unpredictable – and let’s be grateful that they’re unpredictable.”

In addition to planned happenstance, Krumboltz’s key scholarly work at Stanford included pioneering research that verified the effects of behavioral counseling interventions on client behavior. He developed the social learning theory of career decision making and the construction and validation of the Career Beliefs Inventory.

“What I most admired was that John didn’t always follow customary theory and proposed unconventional counseling strategies,” said one of his first students, H.B. Gelatt, EdD ’64.

In co-leading the Counseling Psychology program with Professors Carl Thoresen and LaFromboise, Krumboltz said the first goal in its mission statement was for students to “develop a personally satisfying and balanced life.”

Krumboltz earned his master’s degree in counseling at Teachers College, Columbia University, and his PhD at the University of Minnesota. He was senior research scientist at the U.S. Air Force’s Personnel and Training Research Center at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, then taught educational psychology at Michigan State University.

He was recruited to Stanford by education Professor H.B. McDaniel, himself a guidance-counseling pioneer.

In tribute, Krumboltz would later help to found the H.B. McDaniel Foundation, which supports educational counseling through awards, student grants and annual conferences at Stanford.

Among his many activities, including a regular tennis game with colleagues on campus, Krumboltz supervised the student-led Stanford Institute for Behavioral Counseling on Alvarado Row, which served the surrounding community.

In the early 1970s, Krumboltz successfully argued against reinstating “F” grades at Stanford, which had been abolished in 1969.

“Making a permanent public record of failed attempts at mastery discourages academic exploration, instills a fear of learning, and impairs attainment of the purposes for which Stanford was founded,” he wrote in Campus Report in 1992.

He abhorred reliance on testing to decide individuals’ fates, writing in 1981 that counselors cannot “prescribe a single occupational pill that will produce future euphoria.” 

Rather, he said, they should teach people to ask, “What would be fun to try next?”

Krumboltz also believed that school counselors should not be limited to emotional problems or career guidance, which put them “on the fringe of the educational endeavor,” he wrote in 1987. Counselors should encourage students to love learning by integrating the insights of teachers, parents and others.

Krumboltz is survived by his wife, Betty; a brother, David; a sister, Margaret Ann Phillips. His blended family includes daughters Ann Krumboltz, Jennifer Krumboltz Somerville and Shauna Foster Nance and her two sons, Nicholas and Joshua; a son, Scott D. Foster; and four nieces and two nephews.

Memorial services are pending. The family asks that any memorial donations be directed to the H.B. McDaniel Foundation in Kingsburg, Calif.


John’s presence will greatly be missed, particularly by me. In Oakland, 1968, as a new school counselor, it was his first book on behavioral counseling that got my attention and later as a career counselor, his career belief’s inventory and book on planned happenstance that brought clarity. Definitely was “happenstance” that brought about a 40 year career in schools instead of industrial psychology. Yes, John was a professor of highest integrity who has influenced countless individuals to have more satisfying careers. Like H.B. MCDaniel before him, his doctoral students changed school counseling in California. John particularly has helped shape how school counselors view their students and are able to remove barriers to their successes.
That John became a personal friend over the years through the MCDaniel conference at Stanford has been most rewarding. He will be greatly missed by so many but his positive influence will continue for years to come.

There should be many well-deserved accolades for John Krumboltz in the days and weeks ahead. His legacy will be his many contributions to career development theory, yet I will remember him a gracious, down-to-earth professional who was a wonderful listener and great advocate for counseling on all levels.

I was the first and only post doc at the Stanford Behavioral Counseling Institute . Both John and Carl Thoreson were heroes to me when I arrived at campus in 1969. They were also role models for many cohorts of masters and doctoral students in the period of 1970 to 2000. Johns book Revolution in Counseling was the Rosetta Stone for my doctoral comp. questions. It was a very stimulating time to be at Stanford in the early stages of the application of behavioral techniques in the training and practice of counseling psychology. They continued to inform my teaching and practice as a psychologist throughout my 50 plus year career.

For many years John was involved in educational opportunities for career counselors and graduate students hoping to become career counselors. His sense of humor, kindness and availability endeared him to so many of us. Here in California he spoke at career conferences like California Career Development Association and the graduate career development program at John F Kennedy university’ summer institute. Planned Happenstance resonated with everyone! Clients could relate to its tenets in their own lives. It was and is relevant to today’s world. Most of all he was a really good guy easy to talk to and always with a twinkle in his eye. I feel fortunate to have known him especially in the company of other leaders in the field of career development.

I knew John for nearly 50 years. I could also say I studied him for nearly 50 years. He was as disciplined as an Air Force officer, as playful as a youthful prankster, and as competitive as the fiercest of tennis players. All with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He was a revolutionary who rejected the unnecessary. He respected competence over tradition. He could turn simple observations into the bases of elegant designs. On one of my earliest visits back to the Farm in the mid-1980s, I visited him. I had come to Stanford to learn to apply research methods to family therapy, yet here I was talking to him about my work as director of a clinic in a Behavioral Medicine clinic in a university hospital. "Walk me over to my class," he invited me. He introduced me, and smiled, "He's here to talk to you about life after Stanford." At the end of the class, I thanked him for the honor. And noticed that twinkle again.

What an amazing life and career. Thank you, sir. May light perpetual shine upon you!

I have known John for 25 years through the H.B. McDaniel Foundation. We both received the Individual Counseling Award through the Foundation in 1994. But I also came to know John previously through his Career Counseling Textbook in my graduate program even ten years earlier. I was thrilled to stand and collaborate with this well-known author and superstar in the field of school counseling. Even though he was a superstar, John was a humble and amiable individual with a terrific sense of humor. His talks always included humor. And he really championed school counseling. Rather than talk about the importance of the work he did, John would talk about how hard his wife, Betty, worked as a middle school counselor. Her work was the worthy work, in John's eyes. So I was pleased to join the board of the H.B. McDaniel Foundation to serve alongside John and Betty and so many other esteemed colleagues in the field of school counseling. John will be missed by many but he will remain an icon and beloved friend to many as well.

What a loss and what a legacy he leaves. His worked touched so many people in the career development industry. So sad to hear this news today.

John was my dissertation chair and mentor. I really appreciated his open mindedness. He supported my study on stepfamilies, which was very much outside the domain of the counseling program at the time. When I could not find an assessment instrument for stepfamilies in the very early 1980s, he said, “Well, I guess you will have to create one as part of your study.” I was touched that he believed that I could do that, and with his guidance, I was able to rise to the occasion. John has left a LENGTHY legacy and influence that probably spans the globe.
I am grateful for having had him as a teacher and mentor.

I wish I had the planned happenstance of knowing of him while I was a master's student at STEP.

On one of my first post-Ph.D. trips back to the Farm in the 1980s, I went to visit John in his office. I had come to Stanford to learn how to apply research methods to family therapy. Afterwards, I did a lot of different things, from selling negative-ion generators to directing community services in the Bay Area. My latest job at that time of my visit, I was directing a pain clinic in a behavioral medicine division in my home town of Louisville. I had not foreseen the job coming, but there the offer was, I explained: planned happenstance at work. "Come on with me," he invited, and we headed off to his class. He introduced me, and informed the class, "You all were worried about job prospects. He's here to talk to you about life after Stanford." He loved checking out our flexibility and adaptability. An hour later, John nodded his head in approval. "Great job!" with that bright twinkle in his eye.

John's personal kindness made a difference as much as his scholarly achievements.

John's quiet acts of personal kindness were as vital as professional contributions.

Upon John's invitation, It was an honor to give an annual lecture to his class, Mediation for Dispute Resolution, from 2006-2015. The course was available for Stanford undergraduates and was given jointly by the Departments of Education and Psychology. When John retired, the class was no longer offered. This is fitting, perhaps, and an apt use of the word "irreplaceable." John captivated his students with his wisdom, humor and deep understanding of the subject matter. We have lost a champion whom we will remember always.

John was one of my main advisors and I admired him as a scholar and human. He was always kind. He always had time. The weekend I graduated and earned my Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology (on Saturday) I also got married (on Sunday). I didn't have any contact with my biological father who walked out before I was born and John stepped into that role at my wedding. I asked him if he would and he said yes without hesitation. I wish the world had more teachers like him. Into the light, John.

I am so sorry to hear this news. John's Happenstance Theory was applied in Taiwan. We, with Eastern culture, believe in chances. John's ideas of happenstance facilitate our awareness and encourage the students grab and even plan chances for their career development. I am so appreciate to have opportunities learning from him...

It's with great sadness that I just learned of the passing of one of my key mentors and friends, Dr. John Krumboltz. I had the unique opportunity to hear him speak many times, as well as to travel & co-present with him at conferences in Madison, Iceland, and Hawaii.

I admired John for more reasons than I'm able to capture into words. Even though I'm sure I won't do him justice, I'll give it a shot. John was always incredibly positive, encouraging, and humble. His dry sense of humor and irreverent attitude about anything and everything always kept me laughing! Along with his sharp intellect, he had a big heart.

John's contributions to the field of career development are immeasurable. During the 10 years I taught career development classes at Adler Graduate School, his theory of Planned Happenstance was the one my students resonated with most in a field filled with many rock star contributors. He advocated confronting fear and confusion by taking action on our inspirations, thereby creating serendipity. Even though he was an introvert, he made himself very accessible. He wasn't burdened by a huge ego and didn't take himself too seriously.

I remember the time we flew to Iceland to speak at the Nordic Network Careers Conference. First, our flight was delayed for 6 hours because there was a volcano eruption. When we finally made it to Reykjavik, we only had a short time to check into our hotel before John was due on stage as the keynote speaker. Since we didn't have time to unwind, we decided to grab some fresh air before our Icelandic colleagues were scheduled to pick us up. We took a short, 2-block stroll around the hotel. On our way back, John, who was in front of me, tripped over one of the cobblestones on the sidewalk and went down hard. The first thing that hit when he fell was his face! Fortunately, there was someone right next to us who quickly came to the rescue. He happened to be a doctor, and was able to bandage John up just as our ride showed up to take us to the conference. Poor John had to give his keynote address on zero sleep sporting a black eye that made him look as though he'd gone 10 rounds in a boxing ring. As always, he was able to bring lightness and humor to that situation- and relate the experience to his topic of Planned Happenstance!

Another fun memory was the time I hosted John for the MN Careers Conference. In addition to taking him out for dinner, I had volunteered to pick him up from his hotel and bring him to the University of Minnesota for his keynote. Unfortunately, we both neglected to take note that his keynote had been moved up to an earlier time; consequently he made it on stage 5 minutes late. Yikes. There were a couple of conference committee members who were pretty irked with me for that massive blunder! But once again, John was able to leverage Planned Happenstance to his advantage, and his presentation was totally dynamic and funny, resulting in a standing ovation.

What I will miss most about John is the wonderful, deep conversations we had about almost every topic under the sun - from UFO's (he had seen one, and had even snuck his kids into a Star Trek conference in Vegas) to spirituality, religion, the meaning of life, and his heartfelt advice for my love life. I admired his brilliance and childlike curiosity, which seemed to continually fuel his zest for life. He always asked great questions and was fully present.

RIP, John, and thank you for your friendship. How fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to hang out with you many times over the years, and that I got to see you at NCDA in Phoenix last summer. I'm glad I saved your last voice mail message so that I can replay it and still hear your voice!

To John's family, please accept my deepest condolences. He was the embodiment of a life well-lived, and left an amazing legacy.

John was a great teacher and mentor, relentlessly helpful to me and the other Ph.D. students who had the good fortune to work with him.

I am a graduate student one quarter away from graduation, and at the very beginning of my program, I watched a video in which Dr. Krumboltz has a session with "Robin." Of all the videos I viewed for my theories, Dr. Krumboltz was one of my favorites; however, for the longest time, I could not remember his name when searching for the video to re-watch. Finally, after some online sleuthing, I found the video! After re-watching the video, I decided to see what Dr. Krumboltz was up too. I was saddened to learn of his passing; please accept my deepest condolences.

As a graduate student in counseling I always admired Dr Krumboltz. When Planned Happenstance theory and in the scene, it helped me personally as well as my students. I hope Betty sees this message as I knew her back in Michigan in the counseling association.

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