A Practical Look at Chaos

My post last week was an adventure into the magical land of theory—a wonderful place full of ideas and untold possibilities. It’s where I like to go when life seems messy and it’s hard to put things into perspective. I contemplate this and that, throwing ideas around in different ways until things seem to fall into place. This is a pretty typical reaction for an introvert like me: to retreat into thought, to process things internally. In fact, I’m so fond of it that I have a pretty hard time seeking help when I could really benefit from external processing (i.e., talking to someone).

I sometimes feel guilty when I write about concepts, theories and ideas without providing any suggestions or practical advice that people can act upon. I love to visit the rather impractical land of theory, but on the return trip I often feel obligated to make a stop at the land of practice, a very practical place. It’s just that all the concrete buildings there don’t look as nice.

So here I am, making my stop. The ping-pong ball analogy last week introduced a few interesting ideas: the world is an unpredictable place; career paths are non-linear; small changes in your life can have drastic implications for your future.

So what?

Well, here are five servings of what, in a very practical list format:

1. Reframe indecision as open-mindedness: It’s likely that in the face of all this talk of unpredictability, you’ve decided that you are undecided, lost, directionless. That’s not a very happy realization. Wouldn’t it be nicer to think of yourself as being open-minded instead? This is where it all starts—with your outlook, your attitude.

2. Take lots of small actions: Like writing a big paper or putting together a large project, it’s easier to motivate yourself and to achieve goals when your actions are aimed at taking care of smaller parts of a bigger whole. When it comes to your career, you may not cannot know what the bigger picture is going to look like, so it doesn’t make sense to focus all your effort on accomplishing huge, loosely defined goals on the way to your “dream career.” Instead, focus your energy on the small things you can do now or in the near future, like volunteering, participating in clubs and groups, or just talking to people working in fields you’re interested in.

3. Look for clues: Have you ever found yourself in a situation and thought to yourself, “I’m so lucky this happened to me!”, only to look back some time later and realize there was much more to it than just luck? That if you hadn’t made the decisions that put you in that situation, the lucky thing never would have happened? There are all kinds of connections we just don’t see in the present moment that seem easily explainable when we recall them (social psych students—recall the hindsight bias). The point here is to make choices and do things that increase the likelihood that positive, unpredictable results will come your way. Call online casino it intuition, call it whatever you want, but when something feels right, go for it.

4. Be curious: Have you ever gone to a restaurant with someone who orders the same thing every time? Maybe you are that person who experiences change—even at the level of choice of entrée—as unpleasant. Why take a risk on something that you might not like, when you know your favourite pasta dish tastes great every time? But then one day someone forces you to try something new, and you LOVE it. How did you ever live your life without this wonderful flavour? What else have you been missing out on? Being curious about new things, even if they seem scary, is the first step towards opening new doors in your future career possibilities. (See, even when I try to be practical I can’t help using metaphors.)

5. Take stock: In many systems, things only appear chaotic and unpredictable when you look at them up close, but inevitably patterns will emerge as you look at the bigger picture. An example of this in nature is a coastline. Up close, the various twists and turns, nooks and crannies don’t appear to contain any semblance of order. But, when you take an aerial view from farther and farther away, you can see that the whole coastline looks quite similar. Chaos theories call this self-similarity, but it’s probably easier to just think of it as stopping to look at the bigger picture from time to time. Knowing where you’re coming from makes this process much easier, and taking time to reflect on the patterns emerging in your life will give you as good an idea as you’ll ever get of your strengths.

So, there you have five of the most practical things I could come up with. Some of it’s still very conceptual, and for all you concrete thinkers, I do apologize for that. Let’s just say I’m working on it.

…Just as soon as I get back from my vacation to the land of theory.

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