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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.

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