Imagine you are in a room alone with a Ping-Pong ball. If you repeatedly drop the ball from waist height, you can be fairly confident of correctly predicting that it will fall to the ground somewhere near your feet. We call this Scenario 1.
However, suppose now that an eager ball-chasing puppy is in the room with you and also that a strong electric fan is brought into the room, placed near you, and switched on. Now, when you drop the Ping-Pong ball, how certain can you be that the ball will land near your feet. Presumably much less certain, because the puppy might catch it or the fan might blow it off course. We call this Scenario 2.
Now suppose there is a pack of eager puppies in the room and a series of electric fans; someone has opened the window and a howling gale is blowing; and, furthermore, you are now obliged to stand on an electric treadmill programmed to randomly vary its speed! Now when you drop the ball, how confident are you that it will land near your feet? Indeed, how confident are you in making any prediction about where the ball might end up? We call this Scenario 3.
This engaging image is used by Jim Bright and Robert Pryor to illustrate the difficulty in predicting a compatible career selection for someone. In Scenario 1 things are pretty simple, stable and predictable; they equate this to the situations under which person–environment matching theories such as Holland would be applicable.
They related Scenario 2 to more complex theories such as Gottfredson‘s, in which there are a larger number of inter-related factors but it is still possible to give some broad predictions about the choices people might make.
In Scenario 3 it would be difficult to make any specific, long-term predictions about what would happen to the ball. For the first few seconds after it leaves your hands you might be able to say where it would be, but after that…
Pryor and Bright argue that career decisions and actions in real life take place in conditions that are much closer to Scenario 3. There are so many factors that could influence a decision and they interact in seemingly unpredictable ways. They then borrow some of the language of Chaos Theory to describe this complexity. Here are a few of the concepts.
Nonlinearity and recursiveness
In simple world of careers (no puppies), you can use statistical tools such as psychometric tests with confidence to predict satisfying careers for people, because you can easily connect cause and effect in a linear way. Small changes in conditions produce small effects and big changes produce big effects. The impact of different factors can be separated and they don’t interfere with each other.
However, in a non-linear world, small changes can produce enormous effects. For example, a single word could change the course of someone’s life.
As well as this, different factors interact with each other. For example, a small change in your total working hours might have serious knock on effects for your life outside work. This might mean that you have a more stressful home life. This, in turn, leads to you being more tired and distracted at work. Because of this you are less efficient and you get less work done, so you have to stay later, and so on…
Because of the feedback loops the impacts of these small changes are all out of proportion.
In a linear system, things change smoothly, but in non-linear systems things can transform suddenly. As you heat water, the temperature gradually increases as you add more energy. But when you reach 100 degrees, the temperature stops rising and water starts to turn into steam. You have produced a phase shift.
In a career, a phase shift can occur when a petty annoyance that you were able to tolerate gradually increases until it becomes the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’. What you could once cope with is now unbearable.
Emergence of order and fractals
In chaos theory things are not completely random. The underlying relationships between the factors often produce patterns that are recognisable if not entirely predictable.
In career terms, an individual may repeat very similar patterns at different times in their working lives. For example, they might start to get itchy feet in a job every time they master the initial challenges. It won’t happen at exactly the same time in the same way in each case, but the pattern is there.
The overall shape of a tree is very similar to the shape of one of its branches. The shape of a twig is similar to that of a branch, just on a smaller scale. This self-similarity is a characteristic of fractal geometry, which is an important component of chaos theory.
The patterns of behaviour that someone demonstrates in a particular situation, could indicate a larger pattern that is true for their life as a whole, and vice versa.
Unattractive attractors and unnecessary metaphors?
Whilst, I really like the insights into the complex and non-linear nature of career decision making that chaos theory provides. There is one thing about Bright and Pryor’s Chaos Theory of Careers that I find hard to digest. They make quite a lot of the concept of attractors. I’ve read this stuff several times and I still don’t get the point.
The Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC) is one big metaphor and there’s nothing wrong with that. A good metaphor can give us an insight into a complex situation. In general, a metaphor makes something complex and unfamiliar easier to understand by comparing it to something we are already familiar with. In CTC they do the opposite. They try to help you understand careers by comparing it with something even more complex and unfamiliar. It’s almost as if they were trying to dazzle us with a bit of science terminology to show how clever they are.
- Can you think of examples of non-linearity, phase shifts and fractals in your clients or in your own career?
- Do you have a better understanding of and apprecation for the idea of attractors?
- How chaotic is your career?
- Have you ever been in a room full of puppies and ping pong balls?
- Duffy, J. A. (2000) The application of chaos theory to the career-plateaued worker. Journal of Employment Counseling, 37(4), 229-236.
- Bloch, D.P. Complexity, chaos, and nonlinear dynamics: a new perspective on career development theory. Career Development Quarterly, 53(3), 194-207.
- Bright, J.E.H. & Pryor, R.G.L. (2008) Shiftwork: A Chaos Theory of Careers agenda for change in career counselling. Australian Journal of Career Development, 17(3), 63-72.
Related post: Twisting the Kaleidoscope