Chaos Theory of Careers and Edward Lorenz

On Wednesday 16th April 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts a meteorologist died. You may wonder why this event that appears so distant in time, space and relevance to your career development should be noted in this column. Well, the meteorologist in question was called Edward Lorenz, and he is commonly agreed to be the founding father of chaos theory. His great contribution was to demonstrate the limits in theory and practice of long range predictions in complex dynamic systems like weather patterns. In particular he is associated with the butterfly effect – the observation that small changes in the initial conditions of systems can have profound outcomes – described by Lorenz in the question, if a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, does it cause a tornado in Texas?
The relevance to career development is that the weather system is not the only dynamical system, it fact we are surrounded and composed of such systems. Indeed we can think of our careers in these very terms and that is what myself and my colleague Robert Pryor have been working on for the best part of the last decade – The Chaos Theory of Career Development.
The weather system provides a good metaphor for career behaviour. The first thing to point out is that when we try to understand the weather we think in terms of patterns – weather patterns. For instance most of us in Australia are all too familiar with the weather patterns such as an East Coast Low, a Southerly buster, and the bigger patterns such as El Nino and El Nina. All of these weather patterns may have had a direct impact upon the career development of some of us. It would not hard to find farmers, or suppliers of watering systems who have gone out of business due to the droughts caused by El Nino. Others can lose their livelihoods sustaining uninsured losses caused by the storms created by an East coast low or a southerly buster.
The second point is that while there are broad patterns in weather systems – for instance, Summer and Winter, trying to predict the weather for any specific period becomes extremely difficult, and trying to do it more than a week or so in advance gets closer and closer to impossibility as the time horizon moves out. Just consider what has laughingly passed for our summer this year or think about the mad scrambling of warning messages from the Bureau of meteorology given the thankless task of trying to predict the path of storm cells across a city. Finally, Lorenz’s butterfly example that seemed so crazy back in 1972 when he published it, doesn’t seem crazy at all, when we consider how small variations in ocean temperature near South America appear to be related to drought or floods in New South Wales.
In the past we have sought predictability in our career plans. We have visited career practitioners expecting some form of fortune telling. We have interviewed staff for jobs with the asinine question “where do you expect to be in 5 years time?” However these appeals to predictability are not borne out in practice, where it has been demonstrated time and again, that the vast majority of us experience unplanned events that significantly influence our careers, and that those who are in jobs that closely match their predicted interests are no happier or more productive than others in the same role but whose interests do not fit with the predictive model.

The Chaos Theory of Careers asserts we should consider our careers much in the same way we think about the weather. That there are broad patterns of relative stability, but at the same time there are significant patterns of instability and that trying to predict much in advance is futile. Rather we should adopt the same approach that we do with the weather. Continually monitor the patterns, develop coping strategies to weather the storms, and rest career plans on seasonal patterns. That means recognising that although you had planned for a “summer” job, “summer” actually turned out to be more like “winter”.
This approach to careers emphasises that we need to be actively engaged in planning and revising our careers on an on-going basis, and that developing strategies to embrace and thrive on unpredictability and change will be more successful than relying on a long term prediction or plan. Vale Edward Lorenz.