How to handle chaos in your career

How to handle chaos in your career

Welcome to the fourth article in our National Careers Week series – the theme for 2022 is “Career. More than just a job” and we’ve taken an in-depth look into what your career actually is, and what you can do to take control over it.

Today, we’re talking about career chaos, and in other posts we’ll look at:

  1. The difference between career, job, and work
  2. What it means to be a lifelong learner
  3. What you can do with your core skills
  4. What is digital literacy and what does it mean for your career?
  5. When is the right time to start learning about careers
  6. How to find career-related information you can rely on


Chaos is such a harsh word. But one of the most exciting new thoughts into career development looks at how chaos, or unplanned moments, can impact on your career. It’s a different way of looking at things, and you could find it helps you understand your career.

The Chaos Theory of Careers has been developed by two career theorists (Robert Pryor and Jim Bright) and applies chaos theory to career development. By acknowledging that we can’t control everything, and that chance events can have just as much impact as anything else, we accept that living with chaos is inevitable, at least to some degree.

It’s liberating to realise that we can’t plan everything. Instead of lamenting when things don’t go to plan, chaos theory allows us to accept that change is normal. It actually gives us the power to be on the look out for opportunities, so we can jump on them when they occur and not blindly stick to the path we’d originally planned.


We don’t know what’s coming


If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t control what’s going to happen. Even before the pandemic, the world of work was changing – pre-pandemic studies show we can expect to change jobs on average around every three years – and many jobs look nothing like they did five, ten or fifteen years ago.

Take lawyers, for example. Twenty years ago a career in law looked likely to set you up for life, but advances in AI and legal tech have changed the face of the profession. Lawyers who used to spend their time looking up legal documents and drafting documents have outsourced those tasks to technology, and the pool of entry-level jobs is shrinking. Instead, lawyers spend their time guiding clients, mediating disputes, and providing advice.

Lawyers who grab the opportunity to incorporate new technology into their practices will find it easier to stay in business than those who cling to the old ways.

We need to embrace change when it occurs, and thrive in the chaos.


What are chance events and why are they important?


Chaos theory talks about ‘chance events’ – these are unplanned and unexpected things which occur to change the course of your career. There are big chance events, such as meeting the love of your life in another city, and smaller chance events, such as seeing an ad for a new course online.

Any event which you didn’t expect, but which changes the course of your career, can be considered a chance event.

For many people, the pandemic represents a huge unplanned event – anyone working in hospitality, tourism, and the arts has had their career derailed to some extent. On the flip side, virologists are suddenly in-demand, as are vaccine developers.

Losing your job is a major chance event, which forces you to rethink your career. Being able to reframe this type of event down the track could help you deal with something you can’t change, and allow you to see any positives that may come from it.


Can you identify any chance events that have impacted on your career?


It’s not always possible to spot these events at the time, and especially when you’re dealing with a setback.

But when you look back on your career to date, including time you spent in education, can you see any pivotal moments?

Chaos moments could look like:

  • A conversation with a teacher about a career
  • Getting knocked back from a course, which led you to find something else
  • Meeting a friend with new interests that you now share
  • You or a loved one getting ill or injured, which changed your availability
  • Losing your job due to downsizing
  • Going on holiday and deciding to move there permanently
  • A job offer in a new location
  • Starting a new relationship which changed your priorities
  • Technological changes in your industry

If you can identify any chance events, think about how you felt then, and how you see it now – were there any positive outcomes you can identify?


What can we do about it?


You don’t have any control over whether or not these chance events occur, but you do have power over how you respond.

There are three key things you can do to help you prepare for and manage unplanned events:

  1. Build your transferable (or core) skills
  2. Create backup plans
  3. Take your time with decisions, and
  4. Avoid setting highly-specific long-term goals


Build your transferable skills


We all have a set of core skills that help us perform in any job, such as the ability to turn up on time (planning and organisation). You may not be able to find a course for all of these skills, but you can take some time to identify where your strong areas are, and take steps to round out your experience.

Make an effort to collect evidence of these skills, so you have something you can use to back up your claims in future job interviews.


Create backup plans


Goals are great, but have you thought about a plan b? Things don’t always work as we would like, but having a handy backup plan (or two) can prepare you for the unexpected and make it easier to adjust when things change.


Avoid setting highly specific goals


Being clear with your goals is super important, but don’t fall into the trap of excluding other just-as-relevant possibilities.

A really-relevant and depressingly-common example of this is where aspiring doctors set their hearts on neurosurgery (usually with no better reason than it pays the most) and end up moving sideways into one of the other prestigious, exciting, and almost-as-well-paid medical specialities. Sometimes these aspiring doctors end up leading their field in medical research, or training the next generation of young doctors, but lament losing their original dream.

If, instead, they’d set their sights on a career in medicine which challenged them and allowed them to help others, they would see any one of the possible variations from neurosurgery as a positive. Being fixated on one specific goal can even blind you to other possibilities, so while I always advocate for robust goal setting, don’t let it take over.


Embrace chaos


If you’re finding all this a bit difficult to wrap your head around, ask a friend about things that have happened in their career that took them down a different path. And get comfortable with the unexpected.


Next up


Next in the National Careers Week Series we’ll be looking at digital literacy.

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