Chaos Theory of Careers
Pryor and Bright 2011An 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.
DefinitionYou 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 arguably with reality.
- according to some theorists, it even happens in isolation of other internal or external/social/cultural factors
- provides certainty
Towards a different perspective.Career planning and development, according to Pryor and Bright, is recognised as:
- not occurring 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
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 strengths 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 positive.
- 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
CritiqueWhat 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?
- 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).