The Chaos Theory of Career Development

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question that begins around age five and haunts us until adulthood, when it transmogrifies into, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
To avoid the disappointing and scornful glances that come from answering “I don’t know”, we learn to respond with a pat occupational objective. But as Jeremy Dean of PsyBlog points out,

Most of us like to think that we have chosen our occupations, rather than them choosing us. We have reasons for what we are doing, visions of where we want to get to. We have career planning, career goals – the feeling of control.
And yet if you ask people about their career decisions, almost 70% report that they have been significantly influenced by chance events. The two Australian psychologists who carried out this research, published next month in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour, believe they have provided further support for the Chaos Theory of Career Development.

Researchers examining chaos theory, notes the Dictionary of Vocational Psychology, tend to emphasize not the consistent, orderly nature of career patterns, but rather the importance of initial conditions and the impact of seemingly random perturbations on career development, that somewhat disrupt the ultimate trajectory of individual careers.
Some of these “random perturbations” include:

Technological changes — Changes in technology since WWII not only affect the way in which we do our work but can create entire industries virtually overnight. Take, for example, the changes produced by the internet. When I started college in 1987, the only people who knew about the web were the geeks in the Computer Science lab. Now almost every occupation is affected by the internet. My current job, for instance, is as a Director of Web Communication — a job title that didn’t even exist ten years ago.

Miswanting — People are bad choosers. A variety of studies show that we are terrible at predicting what will make us happy in the future, a phenomenon that has been termed “miswanting.” We think we know what will give us pleasure in the future (money, status) but when the future arrives we may find that what we really desire is another mix of goods (health insurance, job security).

Limited options — At an early age boys tend to want to be fireman or police officers. Girls want to be doctors or teachers. The reason is that the options children are aware of is extremely limited. While almost every child has seen where a nurse works, few have seen the offices of an investment banker. Even during college most students aren’t truly aware of just how broad the opportunities are available to them and so choose a path based on their limited experience.

But while we may not be able to control the trajectory, we can influence the initial conditions. From my own experience I’ve found that three conditions–skills, network, and mindset–are particularly significant for career development:

Focus on skill clusters — From the age of twelve until now (age 37), I’ve had thirty three distinct jobs. Almost all of them, however, can be lumped into one of four clusters: low-skill service jobs (e.g., limo driver, caddy, waiter), apprentice-level skilled labor (oilfield electrician’s assistant; irrigator’s assistant; farrier/horseshoer’s assistant); mid-level manager (various military jobs); or communication skill jobs (web editor, SAT tutor; communications director). The skill sets I’ve acquired, rather than my preferences, have often determined what work was available to me. Choose skill clusters carefully, for they will have a significant impact on your career trajectory.

Who knows you is more important than a resume — The career cliché “It’s not what you know but who you know” is only partially true. A better version would be “It’s not what you know but who knows you.” Almost every job I’ve ever had–from Piggly Wiggly to FRC– has come from someone who works in that field knowing me and recommending that I be hired. Expand your network, develop a good reputation, and your career will (mostly) take care of itself.

You have no idea where you are going, or when the trip will begin. — That’s the title of Chapter 1 in Hugh Hewitt’s invaluable guide, “In But Not Of.” As Hugh points out, “Your circumstances today may or may not be particularly promising, but circumstances change, sometimes slowly and sometimes in the space of a day.” The example he gives is that at age 40, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was teaching math, Karol Wolitya (John Paul II) was an obscure bishop in Poland, and Ronald Reagan was a washed up B-movie actor. Yet all three would eventually play a role in bringing down the Soviet Union. We don’t know where our lives will lead, which means we must be ready for whatever comes. Prepare for your call, rather than your career.

Above all, remember that while you cannot be anything you want to be, you can be anything that God wants you to be. From our perspective it may look like chaos. But it’s our Creator who prepares the path and plans our career.

Published by

Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • Justin Thibault

    Joe, great article! I’m sending this to my HR manager along with this one

  • Empployment Blog

    This is fantastic career advice!
    employment blog

  • John M said:

    That’s why I like books like “What Color is Your Parachute”. They make you sit down and ask yourself what your skills are and what you enjoy doing. When I decided to seperate from the service, I went through that book and really feel like it enabled me to make a concious choice about what I wanted to do.
    BTW, you mentioned the pope! Sacriledge! ;-)

  • andre

    This is interesting…I like how you titled it. So much of vocational advice, even in Christian circles is offered from a deterministic point of view. Do this, study that, carefully plan this and viola, the pieces will fall into place.
    We miss much of what God can do when we take that approach. What you’re saying here resonates…waiting, trusting goes hand in hand with preparing ourselves vocationally. More importantly, God is at work, and he has something prepared for us.

  • Daveleet

    Excellent perspective I’ve just shared with my team. I NEVER would have consciously chosen the career I am in now back when I started working, but years later, a thousand small (and also conscious) choices, and untold circumstances find me writing from the position in which I now find myself. For a long time, I’ve said that IT can be unsatisfying if you let it. I mean, where else can you plan in excruiciating detail to implement a future system only to acknowledge, in those plans, the immediate obsolescence of your configuration once you’ve successfully implemented it? And yet I find myself, for the most part, successful and broadly experienced in a field which I believe I never would have consciously chosen many years ago. Satisfied in it? Sometimes. Want something more? Definitely. Planning for that proactively? Certainly. Content with the lot I’ve been given and chosen. Yes.

  • DLE

    All of this may very well be true, but ultimately the very theory itself says none of it is helpful. The chaos that hires is also the chaos that fires. The chaos that makes an individual skill obsolete is the chaos that makes an entire skill cluster obsolete.
    The very randomness of the system makes it impossible for anyone to predict the future, so the training one has in a field may mean nothing for the job market ten years from now. So the fact that a child suffers from a limited perspective of potential jobs WILL NEVER CHANGE because the child, once he becomes an adult, is still subject to a rapidly changing job pool. He may have no knowledge of investment bankers as five-year-old, but that lack may or may not be valuable. Fifteen years from now, the job of investment banker may have been eliminated by the advancement of powerful computer algorithms that better scry the market. Therefore, the child’s lack of knowledge about the job may actually not be a detriment.
    All this bodes ill for us helping our own children to navigate the ridiculous job market. Truthfully, by the time my son is ready to enter the job market, he may be unable to compete on any level with market forces in third world nations that enable people in those countries to always outperform him on price. Those traditional jobs that kids know may be the only ones still available to American workers. Or not.
    Remember, it’s chaos. And it’s never been more chaotic. A person who picks the wrong field may be hampered his entire life. How’s that for a sobering thought!