It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point and the main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help get to grips with the theory. There are also links it the bottom to get your further research started.

Chaos Theory of Careers

Pryor and Bright 2011

An easy way to remember what this theory is about:

Small changes or unexpected events can have big and unpredictable effects. Manage what you can manage, prepare for what you can’t manage, learn to accept what is unavoidable.

 

Definition

You may be familiar with the natural sciences theory with the same name and the chaos theory of careers follows the same principle: reality is unpredictable and when a butterfly flaps its wings here a storm may happen the other side of the world. Not literally of course, but you get the idea. When something small happens that’s random, then this could have a big effect. Translated into careers guidance language: when you plan out your career, a small thing may cause it to turn out to be very different by the time you get there. Or you may not get ‘there’ at all and arrive somewhere entirely different and unplanned.

 

What is this linked to?

  • It goes without saying that this is linked to the equivalent theory in its fundamental idea to the same theory in the natural sciences. How does it compare to other theories in the field of career guidance?
  • You can see a strong link to the principle of theories based on happenstance. The difference is that it seems to take things a step further. The chaos theory of career guidance is very much a reactionary theory. It argues against the set principles of traditional career guidance and looks for a new way of tackling the subject that’s more in line with the society we live in and argueably with reality.

 

Traditional career planning

Traditional career planning and development is depicted as:

  • linear
  • predictable
  • according to some theorists, it even happens in isolation of other internal or external/social/cultural factors
  • provides certainty

This may work to some small extent in a predictable labour and eductional market, but quite soon, you would find yourself planning for, or adapting to, the unexpected. Both negative influences, such as illness or redundancy, as positive influences, opportunities and promotions, happen and disrupt the individual’s plans and expectations.

 

Towards a different perspective.

Career planning and development, accordong to Pryor and Bright, is recognised as:

  • not occuring in isolation but is influenced by a myriad of influences, such as family, society, culture, the economy etc…
  • these influences make career planning and development unpredictable and planning for the unplanned is key
  • predictability is therefore impossible and decisions are made with unpredictability and their temporary validity in mind

This doesn’t mean that career guidance is pointless, however. Quite the contrary. It’s ever more important to prepare for the unexpected and career practitioners support clients in developing resilience, planning for the unexpected, accepting change and uncertainty and the skills needed to cope with this.

In my experience and in my practice, it doesn’t need to stop there. How else would you plan your next step? How I use Planned Happenstance and Chaos Theory is by supporting clients adapt and expect uncertainty, but at the same time I support them in planning step by step, rather than for the long term. If a client needs to plan for the long term, because it unsettles them not to have a long term plan, then I work with them supporting an open and flexible attitude towards this.

 

Important to realise is that unlike other theories, in Chaos Theory, as well as in Planned Happenstance, influence isn’t static. It doesn’t occur in one given moment during the planning process and then remains static, as it does in structuralism, for instance. Structuralism claims that social structures influence career choice and development and is unchangeable, even though theorists do develop their theories and views over time. Chaos Theory is different in that it argues that there are a range of influences with varying and every changing influence over time, hence the unpredictability within career planning and development, as opposed to the predictable influences of age in developmental theories, the relative constance of the social learning process or the ever present action of social structure. 

What about the difference between Chaos Theory and Planned Happenstance? I interpret the difference between the two as one of intensity of change and unpredictability. Both argue impermanence and chance but I see Chaos Theory as at the extreme end of this, where a small and seemingly insignificant event, a butterfly flapping its wings as it were, can have significant positive or negative consequences to which the client has to respond instead of react.

Some factors, such as health in the visual above, will never create events that provoke or cause change. Other factors will have an effect at different times in someone’s life and some factors multiply their effect by happening at the same time. Some, such as gender, will not be ‘happenings’ that occur at a certain moment but will serve to strengthen or weaken the effect of an event happening.

Example:

A more positive example, which illustrates Chaos Theory in a clearer way is when someone has a chance encounter with someone who does something unexpected, and they decide to follow this up, learn a new skill and then through another chance encounter are able to build this into a new and more satisfying job.

 

How does this work with clients, if it’s all unpredictable?

Well, if you think about it, it’s not all unpredictable and we can’t assume things will change in the future and not bother (planning, developing or helping clients plan and develop). Something we can do therefore is to make a distinction between what is within our power to control and manage and what isn’t.

What we can control and how we can use this to help clients prepare for the many factors that cause positive or negative disruption:
  • Personality: we can help clients understand themselves better, where their strenghts and weaknesses are, what their personality is like, including their preferences and dislikes. In addition we can help them understand how all this interacts with the world around them. Someone who has a neurotic personality may not perform well in an area of work where stress management is important.
  • In that sense we can help them become aware of what they have to offer. Many of the school leavers I see, and sometimes their parents, feel they don’t have anything to offer because they have no work experience. After using writing a CV or personal statement as a tool for exploration, most walk away with a better idea of why an employer would be keen to offer them a chance.
  • Because the world is unpredictable according to the Chaos Theory of careers, we can help support the client in preparing for or mediating this unpredictability.
    • we can support them in coming up with a backup plan or two and help them see the importance of this if needed
    • clients need to be resilient and have a positive attitude to cope with change throughout their lives. We could use role modelling and techniques like motivational interviewing to help them build up that positivity and ability to cope with change while staying postive.
    • we can help frame setbacks in a way that is positive by turning them into opportunities
    • many clients, especially young clients, have a partial view of the job market as it is ‘out there’. We can reframe and contextualise their expectations to fit in with the job market as it really is
    • practical skills are important in accessing (unpredictable or unexpected) opportunities and we can help them develop very practical techniques to see and take advantage where it’s presented to them
    • we can also help them develop the research and observation skills so they keep up to date with changes in their field, in the world of work and in society at large

So you can see that even if it at first looks like we should give up, there is a lot of benefit we can offer clients. What is taking a side role rather than a central role is the matching kind of career guidance from before. However, if this can offer a valuable insight and valid starting point from which to explore with or for the client.

 

Critique

What do you think of the Chaos Theory of careers?

A very different career for modern times with its modern insecurities and constant change. Let’s see how we can find out what its strengths and weaknesses are:

  • How different is it from other approaches? What does it leave out and what is new? Which theories are similar?
  • Does what it leaves out make it weaker? Or is what it leaves out no longer relevant? (Think how far removed this is from Parsons’ work.)
  • How does it really fit in with reality as you know it? Is it a good fit or are there things missing?
  • How would you in your practice be able to help clients using this theory?
  • Is career planning all about planning for the unpredictable?

 

Useful links:

Further reading:
  • Arthur, N, Neault, R, McMahon M, ‘Chaos Theory for Career Counsellors,’ Career Theories and Models at Work: Ideas for Practice, CERIC, 2019.
  • Jazvac, L, ‘Career Development from Chaos to Clarity – The Chaos Theory of Careers’, accessed February 2020, (www.careerprocanada.ca).

 

Videos:

Clear lecture on how Chaos Theory works and how it makes sense for career planning: