It’s Chaos Out There!

I recently obtained a copy of The Chaos Theory of Careers: A New Perspective on Working in the Twenty-First Century, a book on career development theory by Robert Pryor and Jim Bright, the two main forces behind the Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC). There were a few reasons why I wanted to read the book. First, it has direct relevance to my job, and keeping up with new developments in the field is important to me. Second, our centre has been implementing curricula inspired by this theory for some time, so I wanted to familiarize myself more with the underlying ideas. Third, I’m kind of a theory nerd—I like conceptualizing and asking questions about why things are the way they are.

Plus, you’d be hard pressed to find a cooler-sounding concept. Chaos theory? It’s just cool, people.

You may have heard about chaos theory before. It’s actually a mathematical theory that was developed, among other applications, for use in meteorology. You’re probably familiar with the term “butterfly effect”—maybe you’ve seen the movie by the same name—and you’ll recall that the phrase describes the phenomenon of small changes producing drastic results in a system over time. Heck, there’s even a Simpsons Hallowe’en special episode that touches on the same subject, using the dramatic example of a toaster that allows time travel.

So, how is chaos theory being applied to career development? And more importantly, what does it mean for students?

One of my favourite analogies explaining chaos theory goes something like this: imagine that you’re standing in an empty room and you drop a ping-pong ball onto the floor. It’s pretty easy to predict what’s going to happen to the ball once you drop it; you can easily determine and measure all the factors that will influence both the ball’s trajectory and its final resting spot. This can be thought of as a linear system, which is very predictable and measurable.

Maybe you’ve been given the idea that your career path is predictable and measurable, too. Some theories of career development would have you think so—that it’s just a matter of measuring all the relevant factors (e.g., your interests, skills, personality traits, and the qualities of different occupations and work environments) and coming up with a good match. Sounds pretty easy, right?

But we know that life’s not like that. In fact, there are probably more unpredictable factors in our lives than predictable ones. We can never know for sure what’s going to change and impact our life’s trajectory suddenly and unexpectedly. So we can therefore describe life as non-linear—it doesn’t unfold in a neat and tidy straight line.

So, let’s go back to the room with the ping-pong ball. But now, let’s bring in some unpredictability. Instead of standing on the ground, you’re now standing on a moving treadmill (everyone’s saying you should get more exercise at work). Even worse, it’s a broken treadmill that sometimes changes speed without warning. Also, because it’s a hot day, there are four of those rotating fans in the room, keeping every corner of the room filled with cool, moving air. You’ve also got two windows open to fully enjoy the sunshine. What happens now when you drop the ping-pong ball? Can you reasonably predict its trajectory? Suddenly it’s much harder to predict where the ball will end up, because there are so many dynamic factors in our non-linear system. A small change in any of those factors could lead to a large change in where the ball comes to rest.

I think it’s clear that this kind of thinking has very sensible implications for career development. What doesn’t make much sense is trying to apply static ideas to the dynamic, shifting and constantly changing world of work. As a student, you’re at a stage of your life where it’s especially hard to see where your ping-pong ball will end up. I’ve seen how frustrating that can be in the students I work with, and in myself as I went through university. We don’t like uncertainty. We want to know.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s not as important as people think it is to “know.” Maybe what’s more important is having the courage to drop the ball in the first place, and the flexibility to follow the path that it takes, accepting the fact that much of its movement is outside your direct control.

I think that’s a very positive message, and it leads to a whole new way of thinking, and more importantly, a whole new way of taking action in order to create a fulfilling career.

For a great resource on chaos theory as it applies to post-secondary students, check out You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career by Katharine Brooks.

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