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Robert Pryor and Jim Bright researchers based at the School of Education, Australian Catholic University have recently published a fascinating paper entitled Applying Chaos Theory to Careers’ in the prestigious academic journal – The Journal of Vocational Behaviour. This is a journal specializing in publishing rigorous academic research into all aspects of careers and work life.


Chaos Theory is based on some assumptions about the world, which are kind of obvious when you think about them, but are frequently neglected in our attempts to make sense to what is happening to us. These Australian authors argue that an understanding of Chaos Theory might be particularly helpful when dealing with a career crisis like unemployment.


Chaos Theory asserts that the world around us is both complex and interconnected. One recent reminder of these realities is; who would have thought that the inability of an unemployed American in New Orleans to pay their mortgage could lead to hundreds workers in a van manufacturer (LDV) being laid off thousands of miles away in the UK?  


Pryor and Bright give the example that an outbreak of SARS in China eventually resulted in Australian career counselors inundated with flight attendant clients made redundant by the subsequent downturn in Australia’s tourism industry.


The credit crunch is a harsh and brutal reminder of the twin pillars on which chaos theory rests – complexity combined with interconnectedness. It follows on from these basic foundations that small apparently innocuous changes can eventually produce catastrophic or enormous outcomes. This is referred to by mathematicians as a ‘non-linear’ characteristic of a system.


What this means is that the end result can be massive and not expected from a small change at the beginning.


The famous example in Chaos Theory is the argument that a butterfly fluttering its wings in one part of the world could lead to a hurricane in another. One of the essential aspects of this famous example, oft repeated in Hollywood Movies with pretensions to intellectual credibility, is that it’s about the weather, which is (a) a complex system and (b) massively interconnected.


However, no matter how much we may grumble that the news bulletin weather forecast has got it wrong yet again; so we end up drenched and frozen in our bikinis, it is also true there are general discernable patterns to the weather. For example there are the seasons and there is also climate. The Barbados Tourist Authority surely could not thrive if there wasn’t some predictability to the weather, even if it’s also in mathematical terms chaotic.


Pryor and Bright, the Australian authors of this paper on chaos theory as applied to careers, argue that the weather is a good example of a system where its useful to consider not that its truly chaotic and random, or that it is entirely ordered and predictable, but rather that it lies in-between. It is what is termed mathematically; on the Edge of Chaos. This is referred to ‘in the trade’ as ‘EOS’.


The job market and your career is also believe it or not more EOS, or On the Edge of Chaos, than indeed entirely predictable or random. The trouble is our brains tend to either try hard to see pattern in the chaos, in which case we erroneously assume it’s much more ordered and predictable than it really is, or we do the opposite and assume its much more random than genuinely reflects reality.


So if we lose a job because of events remote to our performance, as will be common in this recession, this knock-back with its massive emotional fallout means we can easily become disheartened and can easily fall into the trap of deciding; that given it’s all random anyway why bother making an effort to get our careers back on track? 


Conversely, those who tend to believe they have much more control over their destiny than they really do, in this predicament, are likely to overly castigate themselves for their perceived failure. They will take too much personal responsibility for their predicament, and this could lead to depression and disillusionment. They will wrestle with the problem that if they took the credit for their career success before, what alternative is there but to beat themselves up for the current tragedy?


Pryor and Bright argue that due to the multitude of interacting factors combining complexly the precise prediction of your career is unreliable, however, over time emergent patterns of order indeed become discernible, just like the weather.


They contend that the best psychological approach to thinking about your career, perhaps particularly in the face of a set back like job loss, is to adopt a particular style of thinking and perception that is borrowed from mathematics around Chaos Theory. The choices open to you when faced with the confusing and often disheartening predicament of a serious unexpected event in your career is, they refer to as, ‘open’ as opposed to ‘closed’ system thinking.


Those who think in closed system terms, and incidentally these are likely to be generally pretty successful people because of their aligned perfectionism, tend to seek to gain almost total control over the functioning of the system. This is driven by an expectation that their careers, the job market and the work place all function in ways that are predictable and stable.


However as we have seen perhaps a more profound analysis of the true state of affairs is that we live in a world that is more forever teetering on the ‘Edge of Chaos’ than anywhere else.


The alternative, and its an approach which more accepts our gingerly balancing forever on this edge of chaos, is referred to as ‘open systems’ thinking and this in contrast to ‘closed system’ accepts the limitations of our attempts to control the world around us and our futures.


Open systems thinking accepts the unexpected can and sometimes will happen. As a result we are frequently vulnerable to change over which we have no control. While we desire life to be fair, open systems thinking recognizes life came with no guarantees inside the box.


While we should indeed endeavor to control as much as we can around us, it’s also vital to grasp (according to open systems thinking) our limitations. Just because we may have experienced order, pattern and stability previously in a successful career, the reality of major transformation in our lives is forever present, according to Chaos Theory. It follows, then, the past does not guarantee the present nor the present the future.


Since a small difference may result in very (non-linear) major reconfiguration of the system, it follows the unplanned and the unexpected are not simply exceptions to the stability and order we experienced before, but are in fact part of its very nature.


Once this is accepted, Pryor and Bright conclude, instead of being seen as a perpetual threat to be warded off or a specter to be fled from, change can be seen instead as a reality to be created and influenced at best and accepted and submitted to, at worst.
Dr Raj Persaud is a Consultant Psychiatrist working in the NHS and in Private Practice and is author of many best-selling books including editing The Mind A Users Guide published by Bantam Press with The Royal College of Psychiatrists.




Robert G.L. Pryor, Jim E.H. Bright Applying Chaos Theory to Careers: Attraction and attractors Journal of Vocational Behavior 71 375–400


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