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Embracing Chaos Theory of Careers
June 5, 2019

The following article is by Christopher Mesaros

The best prognosticators of our time are struggling to predict career trends ten years from now, let alone offer concrete visions of the workforce when all of Gen Z comes of age.

The most helpful guesses point to freelance workers and positions that do not yet exist, which offers little clarity. It should not be surprising that college students could feel anxiety about having to define their professional identity for the rest of their lives as they are being told they could routinely live to age 120.

Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC; Bright & Prior, 2012) is a different approach to helping clients construct their identity and map out a potential path. Rather than insist that the world looks like the linear, trait-and-factor world of post-WWII America, CTC expects uncertainty. It is a better match for the reality that the students of today will face when they make their transitions. But how can future career counselors prepare clients for such a world? Prominent proponents of CTC recommend that counselors apply the following:

  • Reframe the pejorative “undecided” as “open-minded”
  • Encourage preparation, not planning
  • Emphasize adaptation over deciding (de-emphasize the finality of choices)
  • Try “fuzzy goals,” which are flexible and short-term
  • Grow client self-awareness and build transferrable skills.

All of these prescriptions sound wonderful, but there is just one problem: most of our culture still loves the mythology of the linear career path followed by the single-minded visionary. Think Tiger Woods, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and Oprah Winfrey. While their stories involve some twists and turns, we take the person they are today and extrapolate backward to see a cohesive identity, only nodding to uncertainty as a subchapter. The message we send is that uncertainty is to be feared and avoided, rather than embraced as a natural consequence of the complexity of our lives.

It is up to future career counselors to change the narrative. We must emphasize that no life is ever certain and no career path guaranteed. While Barack Obama summited his field to the highest political office in the world and stayed there for eight years, he still has decades of a career ahead of him with no roadmap for where to go next. Amazon was originally a bookseller; single-mindedness to that path would have resulted in a vastly different world than the one we have now.

Fortunately, some of our field’s tried and true tools work the best for dispelling the old narrative. Informational interviews, and networking more broadly, can validate the client who does not see a clear path from their degree to a career. Decision games can help to illustrate the need for adaptability and the kinds of curve balls life can throw at us to disrupt our best laid plans. Emphasizing transferable skills from past employment or education can give novices routes to pivot, especially when paired with resources like LinkedIn or an e-portfolio platform that showcases their accomplishments in more meaningful ways than a traditional one-page resume.

However, we also need more innovative approaches to fight the current of cultural conditioning and expectation setting. Aside from our ingrained narratives about the person who knew their goals since age five and achieved through strength of will, we also tend to sell clients on correspondence between specific degrees and certain career fields, despite knowing better. “What can you do with x degree?” was a common refrain throughout one’s schooling, which always meant “To which funnel do you belong?”

CTC rejects the idea that degrees acquired, rather than skills developed, are going to be the coin of the realm. This is not to say that degrees lose value; quite the contrary. The competencies and soft skills one gains in a liberal arts program are more applicable than ever. Rather, learning is truly becoming a lifelong endeavor and deviating from the well-worn career path is becoming more acceptable.

It is worth wondering whether simply changing the narrative and singing the praises of transferable skills will be enough. After all, it’s small comfort to a client struggling with what to do after graduation to point out that Warren Buffet was rejected by the Harvard Business School. One technique to help students prepare is create what Katharine Brooks (2010) calls “wandering maps” with which students envision all of the potential options open to them, not necessarily eliminating any, but expressing preferences. This is a way for them to envision possible lives without internalizing a sense of failure if Plan A doesn’t go exactly according to schedule (or doesn’t happen at all).

We also need to disabuse clients of the notion that career development is something that happens in a single course and is fulfilled immediately after school. The priority has to be focusing on personal branding and self-knowledge, putting them in a position to construct their own development as their careers progress and the workforce changes.

As Jim Bright (2013) says, the only certainty in a world of chaos is uncertainty. We owe it to clients (and future career counselors) to prepare them for this world by first appreciating it ourselves.

Christopher Mesaros, GCDF, CCSP, is currently both a Senior LEAD Instructor at The Washington Center and an Instructor of Philosophy at Northern Virginia Community College. His areas of interest within the career services and andragogy realms include professional development, high-impact practices, experiential learning, gamification, and assessment. He also enjoys focusing on ethical leadership and designing simulations to mirror real world moral dilemmas. 

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