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Chaotic Careers

OH5IPJ0Now I am sure most of you have heard of Chaos Theory in one shape or form. It may be the Butterfly effect – you know a butterfly flaps its wings, it blows my fence down.  Or perhaps the funky mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) in Jurassic Park. He’s the one that predicts the downfall of the park through a version of chaos theory. Now whether this is a good depiction of chaos theory matters, not a jot – it’s still a great film on a wet Sunday afternoon.

All that aside, are you aware of the Career Chaos Theory? Can chaos theory be applied to your career and how you plan for your career development? Are you the type of person who plans everything down to the nth degree. Or perhaps have a more laissez-faire laid-back approach to your job opportunities? This post is going to rummage through the deep sock draw of career chaos theory.  To look into the possibilities of applying the theory to your career and potential career choices. However, for those that feel a bit queasy about leaving things to chance it might well be a bumpy ride.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory then suggests that non-linear events are effectively impossible to predict or control. Perhaps like the weather, the stock market, my wife or nine-year-old son, so on and so forth.  It is difficult to go into too much detail on chaos theory here, suffice to say, the theory has been around in physics since the 1880s. Whilst being refined during the 20th century. Notably with work by meteorologist Edward Lorenz trying to predict the weather patterns.

So what has all this got to do with your career or the choices we make about the work we do? Surely our work life is planned out and follows on in a systematic manner? I will argue career choice is highly chaotic at best and particularly random in nature, thus difficult to predict.

Careers & Chaos Theory

The book Chaos Theory of Careers by Robert Prior & Jim Bright published in 2011, suggests the theory deals with the career reality of the individual lived experience of their careers. The theory goes on to suggest that our careers, and the choices we make about our careers, become richly complex, non-linear, and ultimately serendipitous in nature.

Career chaos theory points to some of the neglected realities of career decision making, such as chance and uncertainty. Indeed the sheer unpredictability of events in our lives can test the limits of our knowledge at any of the points of our decision-making process. Highlighting the limitations of our career goals or objectives and the non-linearity of change. Therefore Chaos Theory of Careers links to career development with conceivably some of the most profound thinking in other parts of science & psychology (Pryor & Bright, 2004).

This theory then can provide a theoretical framework of career chance, the unplanned and the unanticipated in career development. No accident the theory of Planned Happenstance are cut from the same cloth.

What Influences our Career Choice?

Clearly, our careers are influenced by parents, the social environment we are brought up in, gender, age, political and economic climate, interests, abilities, geography and many other events (Patton & McMahon, 1999). The emphasis is on understanding the influences, and how these aspects have shaped and continue to shape the subjective experience of the world of work and our place in it.

Experience as a psychologist, suggests that we tend to discuss our career choices in terms of metaphors, euphemisms, myths, legends, stereotypes and heroes/villains. We construct stories to deal with the challenges of complexity, change, and chance that we can face. In doing so, they point to a form of reasoning that is different than the forms that are typical of“scientific psychology” (Pryor & Bright, 2004)

How to utilise Career Chaos Theory?

Alright so we have a compelling theory, how can we help ourselves and clients manage the chaos of their careers? Firstly we can be encouraged to reflect on the different aspects of their lives, such as family circumstances,  childhood, our hobbies, books we read, key events and tragedies. Whilst acknowledging more general environmental factors, such as global political issues and concerns. We can then be encouraged to utilise circumstantial factors when recalling previous career decisions and how they progressed and developed (Pryor & Bright 2004). All this can build confidence in our intuitions and hunches that perhaps a career opportunity may just be worth perusing.

Applications in this way can help with:

  • Better career management crafting
  • Overcoming the feeling of being “stuck”
  • Allowing self to become a “luck victim”
  • Support to develop “luck readiness”
  • Balancing life roles
  • Self-marketing and creating personal brands
  • Promoting lifelong learning
    • Being an open rather than a closed system to learning opportunities

In general, narrative coaching techniques can help emphasise the role of the “story” and the emergent constructs in understanding our own careers. Principally why we do what we do. maybe incorporating many “tools” such as mind maps, metaphors etc as well as diaries and journals. In conjunction with the narrative coaching and tools, all help to encourage us to explore the order and disorder of our experiences (Bright & Pryor, 2005). Exploring how they have arrived where we are and where we might well be going. This model then allows and makes a virtue of the subjective meaning, the sometimes random nature of career choice and work that we do.

Strategies for Uncertainty

With Career Chaos Theory we can begin to develop strategies to deal with change and uncertainty at work. Such strategies can help to minimise risk or employ more positive strategies to embrace and thrive on chance and uncertainty.  Once these facets are introduced, people acknowledge that chance serendipitous events, sometimes outside of our control, can dictate our career choices without us knowing of the alternatives. Moreover, studies suggest that career choice confidence, self-esteem, self-efficacy are improved, whilst the model encourages career exploration by challenging those sometimes tricky irrational career related beliefs.


Introducing Careers Chaos Theory may have helped to put some understanding around the sometimes ad hoc nature of our career choices. It may be reassuring to many young people starting out at work to know that they will be OK in their career choice strategies. Just try to be open to the opportunities that present themselves. More mature people may look back on their career path and reflect that “if only I had just said yes instead of no” things would have been different. Well yes, they probably would have been, who knows. The point is the choice was made under the facts at the time we saw them. Hopefully, we make more informed choices and embrace calculated risks next time.

By discussing happenstance and career chaos in our lives, it can often serve to relax us and remove the self-limiting beliefs such as the should’s, musts and have to’s. Some people can carry the heavy baggage of career decisions and history in strictly rational and objective terms. When we present career histories in rational terms, they are very often overlooking or ignoring the opportunities of chance events. As a result, the opportunities can be lost to discuss strategies to stimulate engagement of future positive chance events (Bright & Pryor, 2005).

Ask yourself questions about unplanned and unpredictable events when reflecting on your past career choices. We all tend to normalise these chance events by citing instances that show that these events have played a major role in our working lives. Perhaps allowing yourself to develop strategies that capitalise on chance events in the future, will help to see the chaos in our careers as part of our natural sense-making. Helping to relax into utilising the many different influences and choices we face throughout our careers and lives.

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Patron, W., & McMahon, M. ( 1999). “Career development and systems theory: A new relationship”. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Pryor, R. G. L., & Bright,. E. H. (2004). “I had seen order and chaos but had thought they were different.” Challenges of the chaos theory for career development. Australian Journal of Career Development, 13(3), 18- 22 .

Bright J.E.H. & Pryor R.G.L. (2005). “The chaos theory of careers: a users guide”. Career Development Quarterly, 53(4), 291-305


Pryor, R. G. L., & Bright,. E. H. (2011) “The Chaos Theory of Careers” Routledge

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