Applied Chaos

Using the Chaos Theory of Careers in Counselling

I would like to thank Dr Jim Bright of Bright and Associates for contributing this guest posting as a follow-up to an earlier post of mine on The Chaos Theory of Careers. — David.
Romanesca broccoli

A fractal cauliflower (or broccoli) – how applied can you get?

A bit of background

The Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC) characterises individuals as complex systems subject to the influence of complex influences and chance events. However, over time patterns emerge in our behaviour that are self-similar but also subject to change.  Career trajectories/histories/stories are examples of such complex fractal patterns.

Our careers are subject to chance events far more frequently than just about any theory other than CTC and Happenstance Learning Theory would suggest.

Our careers are subject to non linear change — sometimes small steps have profound outcomes, and sometimes changing everything changes nothing.

Our careers are unpredictable, with most people expressing a degree of surprise/delight or disappointment at where they ended up.

Our careers are subject to continual change. Sometimes we experience slow shift (Bright, 2008) that results in us drifting off course without realising it, and sometimes our careers have dramatic (fast shift) changes which completely turn our world upside down.

We (and therefore our careers) take shape and exhibit self-similar patterns, trajectories, traits, narratives, preoccupations over time.

We (and therefore our careers) are too complex to be easily captured and put into simple boxes, interest or personality codes. Even much vaunted narrative is an over-simplification.

Constructivism proposes that we are pattern makers; we can find connections and structure in almost any stimuli. CTC has at it’s heart the idea of emergent patterns.  In seeking to understand these exceedingly complex and ever changing patterns we all will construct meaning from our experiences of these patterns and the constructions that we place on our experience of reality (Pryor & Bright, 2003). In contrast with several recent theories, we contend that there is more to reality than just constructions of it (See Pryor & Bright, 2007).

In summary, CTC and any counselling process based upon it will have to take into account the following concepts:

  • Change — e.g. Bright (2008), Jepson & Chouduri (2001)
  • Chance — e.g. Chen (2005), Krumboltz & Levin (2006); Bright et al (2005), Bright, Pryor & Harpham (2005)
  • Complexity — Patton & McMahon (2006); Lent, Brown & Hacket (1996); Bright et al (2005)
  • Fractal patterns — Bright & Pryor (2010); Bright & Pryor (2005); Bloch (2005); Savickas et al (2009)
  • Emergence —  Pryor & Bright (2004); Bright & Pryor (2010); Morrowitz (2003)
  • Attractors — Pryor & Bright (2007); Bright & Pryor (2005)
  • Constructivism — Savickas (1997); Savickas et al (2009)

CTC Counselling – A step by step guide

What follows is simply an illustration of what I might do with my clients. I do not want to encourage a cook-book approach to counselling, as I vary my approach radically from client to client, day to day.

I am not going to bother with the basics like rapport building, etc. I will assume you already know about the critical importance of this element.

My typical sessions last 3-4 hours, with a 1 hour follow up a week or so later.  For those of you lucky to get 20 minutes, please do read on, there are still effective things you can do in that time frame. I have indicated some ways of saving time for each step.

Step 1: Managing expectations.

I like to use the question: ‘If everything goes well for you in this how will things be different for you at the end?’  While this might look suspiciously like goal-setting, what I really want to do is to deal with any unrealistic expectations.  The most obvious one being: ‘I want you to tell me what I should do.’

I may get out some cards at this stage to assist the process – for instance Signposts cards – a series of colourful images containing trigger phrases such as ‘Standing in uncertainty’, ‘Returning home’, etc., that can reveal true needs.

Time Saver: Get clients to e-mail or fill in a form ahead of time with this information.

Step 2: Assisting clients to understand the chaos in their lives

I use questions similar to those on our Exploring Reality Chaos Checklist (Register here to try it for free or check out similar questions on this post).

This is important because often my clients come to me because they are looking for a certain plan and believe their failures to date have been largely a matter of choosing the wrong plan.  They believe the solution is simply to apply the correct plan.  I want to dispel this idea and normalise their experiences.

Time Saver: Get clients to think about these questions in advance.

Step 3: Discussion of failures

Often this initial discussion leads into discussions of failures at work and sometimes, more generally, in life.  This doesn’t have to be depressing. Sharing stories of career fiascos can put failure into the context of uncertainty — showing that it is inevitable — and within the context of learning — which can’t happen without it.   What I am doing here is gently trying to introduce to the client the ideas of change, chance and uncertainty.

Time saver: This step can be omitted if time demands it, or if the client is not open to discussing failure, or perhaps too vulnerable.

Step 4:  Patterning.

Here I want to get the client to engage in reflection to help them better understand their career patterns. There are several different ways of achieving this that I use. The most common techniques I use are:

  • Savickas’ Career Style/Story Questions (Savickas, 1997)
  • Amundson’s Metaphor, Pattern Identification, Careerscope/Career Crossroads & Drawing Techniques (Amundson, 2009), Bright & Pryor Circles of Influence (2004).
  • Career Collages (e.g. Adams, 2003; Pryor & Bright, 2010)

Time Saver: Get a client to reflect on some general questions such as: ‘Who did you admire growing up and why? What do they mean to you now?’  Or ask them to complete a collage before arriving on the topic ‘Me Over the Last 3 Years’ (the timeframe can be extended for older clients).

Speed collage:  Limit time to 10 minutes, and 10 images.

Online collage: Limit time to 10 minutes – cut and paste images from google image search.

Five-minute life: ask them to write bullet points based around ‘That’s the story of my life’ (max 200-300 words).

Storyboarding:  Use Bill Law’s Storyboarding ideas, in a speeded up version.

Step 5: Client Patterning the patterning

I ask the clients to describe the repeating pattern (fractal) that they see  emerging from these exercises. What are the key themes to emerge? What are the matters of concern and how do they relate to the stated objectives outlined in step 1? It is common here for clients to appreciate that what they claimed they expected to do in our sessions is now less important than working with the emergent patterns that are newly aware of.

Time Saver: This could be almost the opening part of the counselling session if the client has done the pre-homework.

Step 6: Counsellor Patterning the patterns – gently

In an ideal world clients will spontaneously see links and patterns from these exercises, but most fall short of a rich description (I am sure if I saw them for more sessions this would be less of an issue).  So at this stage I might gently probe along a few lines of enquiry that have come to me as a result of the patterns I can see.  I do not put my ‘cards on the table’ because I want the client to own their interpretation.  However I might encourage further exploration with phrases such as: ‘Can you see anything else in that story?’ or ‘Is there another way in which that story/image is important to you?’  I might also encourage the clients to make links between different stories or different images in a collage that they have yet to identify which probes such as ‘How are these two similar?’ etc.

For some clients, these can all draw a blank.  In such situations I may revert to their resume and ask them questions about their career history, and how certain jobs were similar or different.

I think it is important to consider your role, treading carefully, not making assumptions, acting humbling, always aware there is plenty more to understand.  More Columbo than Sherlock Holmes. It’s especially useful to recall Columbo when there is an tempting tendency to jump to conclusions or to neatly tie up a client’s story.  Client’s are rarely straightforward, indeed it is often the complexity of their problems that motivated them to come to see me in the first place.

Time Saver: With practice, the counsellor will learn how to get to crux of things pretty quickly.  One way to do this is to ask the client to nominate three points or themes that have emerged for them that they’d like to work on.  If the client finds it difficult, the counsellor could suggest some themes very tentatively. For instance ‘I am not sure, but I wondered whether you see anything in the various references to/ pictures of …?’

Step 7: Identifying the Attractors

Throughout steps 4-6 I strive to listen for the characteristic cornerstones of Chaos: change, chance, complexity, emergent patterns and evidence of self-limited thinking associated with an over-reliance on the closed-system attractors Point, Pendulum and Torus. (See the comments on the earlier post or visit The Factory Blog for more information on attractors.)

So, I will be listening for evidence of an undue attachment to goal-setting (Point Attractor thinking).  In CTC goal setting is not necessarily to be welcomed in all situations, because it may serve to narrow down options, or it can lock people into predictable forms of behaviour that are confounded by a changeable situation.  Point attractor thinking may also be in evidence when clients obsess about one particular factor (such as money) to the exclusion of almost everything else.

I will be on the look out for examples of Pendulum Attractor thinking. Often this is evidenced by dichotomous black/white either/or type thinking.  The client who tries to simplify their dilemma to one of two competing choices, or the client who prematurely jumps into a cost-benefit analysis of options.

Torus Attractor thinking is evident when there is a strong tendency of a client (or counsellor) to impose a set of rules or a routine on their situation. Clients may have been unsettled by a break in their routine or a changing set of policies.

Ultimately what we are trying to do here is to avoid characterising the client in the closed-system terms of the point, pendulum or torus attractors.  Equally, the more the client is open to understanding themselves in the open-systems terms of the strange attractor as a person who is continually changing, exhibiting self-similar behaviour but with the potential for change, the more they will be able to embrace the creative possibilities that uncertainty brings.

Step 8:  Considering the converging qualities of the client with assessment

Once I feel I have a good sense of the emerging qualities of the client, I want to not only try to confirm these using radically different methods — what Newell and Simon (1972) call converging operations, but also to get a sense of how the client fits into the rest of the world.  For these reasons I give them some psychometric tests to complete.

Some of the things I find useful to measure include the usual suspects of Vocational Interests, Work Reward Expectations, and Personality.  In addition, myself and Robert Pryor have developed two measures specifically to tap into some of the dimensions of CTC.  These are the Luck Readiness Index (LRI) and the Change Perception Index (CPI) (Bright & Pryor, 2008; Pryor & Bright, 2008).

The LRI measures: Flexibility, Optimism, Strategy, Curiosity, Risk, Persistence, Efficacy and Luckiness.  The  CPI measures: Continual Change, Need for Control, Small steps (non linearity), Radical change (phase shift), Pattern making (emergence), Driver Goals (Point Attractor), Driver Roles (Pendulum Attractor), Driver Routine (Torus Attractor), Driver Change (Strange Attractor), Bigger Picture (Purpose and Spirituality).

I may also use card sort variations on these such as the Congruence Interest Sort, Signposts cards, Optimism Boosters.

Using these in combination we can begin to capture the more stable and non-unique aspects of a person’s fractal.  The normative results may shed light on our interpretation of the client’s story, and I am continually looking for points of correspondence and reinforcement as well as discrepancies to consider work that is currently viable for the client.

I will often discuss interests in general terms because I do not want to reduce a client’s complexity to a simple vocational recommendation (at this stage).  I link example careers explicitly to my line of reasoning that has emerged from a consideration of all of these different samplings of the client’s fractal.

Sometimes, there may be little or no registered interest in a particular vocational interest category, but the client’s story, background or other things in their pattern clearly point to their wanting and being able to work in a particular field.  Their measured non-interest does not invalidate the test instrument, their interest may be highly specific and focussed. They may have some other issue, such as self-confidence or hesitancy to take risks.  I have no qualms to “go against” the test score, but always make a point of very clearly explaining my reasoning for doing so.

Time Saver: Some of these tests can be done on line outside of the normal scheduled time.  Consider reducing the number used.  If the client has been tested recently, or does not like testing, consider omitting this step, but consider the threat to the validity of losing the different perspective that be achieved through testing.

Step 9:  Report writing

The focus of this article is on counselling so I am not going into any detail about the client reports that I write.  However they are handwritten and reflect the copious notes I’ve taken during the interview and they synthesise the patterns to have emerged there with those revealed by the testing.  The document serves as a record of what went on and I try as much as possible to reflect the client’s thinking in this report rather than me ‘diagnosing’.

Time Saver: Don’t write reports! Provide verbal feedback, or key bullet points. Report writing is an advanced skill, and should not be undertaken without extensive training and mentoring.

Step 10:- Follow-up discussion

I start the follow up session by asking the client to reflect on what happened in the first session.  I also want to know how their thinking or indeed circumstances have changed from the first meeting.  It is very common for clients to have reflected quite deeply between sessions and some even instigate courses of action before the second session!  Occasionally this is a concern as it might reflect a desire to jump to the first or easiest course of action, which may have been one of the underlying issues with the client in the first place.

More commonly the client demonstrates that they have moved a considerable way since the last session.   I usually allow them 10-15 minutes to talk about their opinions and experiences before finding a segue into introducing the report.  I like to be able to pick up on what the client says, and then to reinforce it with reference to the report. I want to use the report to support the client, not have it read out solemnly like a judge’s verdict.  The report is there to provoke further thinking, to suggest ideas.

At this stage I may use the Creative Thinking Strategies card sort (Bright & Pryor, 2005, 2009) to assist clients in moving from probable outcomes to explore possible outcomes and then consider developing nascent plans to address the possibilities.  The cards are designed to address common issues that clients experience in careers such as dealing with uncertainty.

I may also use other card sorts here too including Optimism Boosters, Signposts cards, Shadows cards, Magic Happens cards.

Time Saver: Ask the client at the beginning to ask questions: e.g. What do you want to ask me about the process so far?  What do you want to concentrate on?  This can focus the discussion and shorten it.


As I have tried to indicate throughout, I vary my approach and techniques used with each client.  This extends to the ordering of these steps.  Sometimes I start with Step 4, and almost work backwards through steps 3, 2 and 1 (this is interesting because a person’s expectations can change as the process evolves and they begin to see the potential and power of what we are working on together, in this way I try to be responsive to the dynamic and ever changing nature of the counselling process).

In medical-legal settings, such as workers’ compensation cases, or motor vehicle accident claims, it is important to consider before and after the accident, incident or illness.  Thus steps 3-6 may be repeated for the before and after aspects of the persons life.  This can provide insights into how things have changed as a result of the incident in question. Similarly this can be useful for other clients who have experienced ‘tipping point’ type life events.

Further Reading

The Factory Blog

Link to a companion piece to this article providing some background to the Chaos Theory of Careers

Also clients can be encouraged to watch my YouTube video Where will you be? that provides an overview of the key elements of CTC.


Pryor, R. & Bright, J. The Chaos Theory of Careers. Routledge, New York. To be published  January 2011.  Contains an extended coverage of practical counselling strategies, tools and techniques as well as a review of the empirical evidence supporting the theory, and more.

Amundson, N. (2009). Active Engagement. 3rd Edition. Ergon Communications. Richmond:BC

I’d recommend reading Norm Amundson’s books on Counselling. In particular, Active Engagement, Metaphor Making and The Physics of Living.  They are excellent texts that provide a creative counselling approach that is entirely compatible with the Chaos approach.  I’d also read Savickas’ career construction theory. A good summary is in Savickas (1997) but more recent ones are also available.  Also be sure to go and hear these two men when they speak – worth every penny.


  • Bright, J.E.H, Pryor, R.G.L, Chan, E.W.M. & Rijanto, J. (2009). Chance events in career development: Influence, control and multiplicity Journal of Vocational Behavior, 75(1), 14-25. DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2009.02.007
  • Pryor, R. & Bright, J. (2009). Game as a career metaphor: a chaos theory career counselling application British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 37(1), 39-50. DOI: 10.1080/03069880802534070
  • 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.
  • Pryor, R.G.L. & Bright, J.E.H. (2008). Archetypal narratives in career counselling. International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance, 8(2), 71-82.
  • Pryor R.G.L., Amundson, N., & Bright, J. (2008). Possibilities and probabilities: the role of chaos theory.  Career Development Quarterly, 56 (4), 309-318.
  • Pryor, R.G.L. & Bright J.E.H. (2007). Applying chaos theory to careers: Attraction and attractors. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 71(3), 375-400.
  • Bright, J.E.H. & Pryor, R.G.L.. (2007). Chaotic Careers Assessment: how constructivist and psychometric techniques can be integrated into work and life decision making. Career Planning and Adult Development Journal, 23 (2), 30-45.
  • Pryor, R.G.L. & Bright, J.E.H. (2006). Counseling Chaos:  Techniques for Practitioners. Journal of Employment Counseling, 43(1), 2-17.
  • McKay, H., Bright J.E.H. & Pryor R.G.L. (2005) Finding order and direction from Chaos: a comparison of complexity career counseling and trait matching counselling.  Journal of Employment Counseling, 42 (3), 98-112.
  • Davey, R., Bright, J.E.H., Pryor, R.G.L. & Levin, K. (2005). Of never quite knowing what I might be:  chaotic counselling with university students. Australian Journal of Career Development, 14(2), 53-62.
  • Pryor, R.G.L. and Bright J.E.H. (2005). Chaos In Practice: Techniques for Career Counsellors. Australian Journal of Career Development, 14(1), 18-28.
  • Bright J.E.H. & Pryor R.G.L. (2005). The chaos theory of careers: a users guide. Career Development Quarterly, 53(4), 291-305.
  • Pryor, R. G. L. & Bright, J. E. H. (2003).  The chaos theory of careers. Australian Journal of Career Development, 12(2), 12-20.
  • Pryor, R. G. L. & Bright, J. E. H. (2003b). Order and chaos: a twenty-first century formulation of careers. Australian Journal of Psychology, 55(2), 121-128.
  • Savickas, M. L. (1997). The spirit in career counseling: Fostering self-completion through work. In D. Bloch & L. Richmond. (Eds.), Connections between spirit and work in career development: New approaches and practical perspectives. (pp. 3–26). Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing.
  • Loader, T. (2009). Careers Collage: applying an Art therapy technique to career development in a secondary school setting. Australian Careers Practitioner, Summer, pp16-17.

, , , , ,

  1. #1 by John king on 21 September 2010 - 23:58

    My career might look chaotic but actually it’s regression to the mean. Parents: Careers Advisers. Me: Careers Adviser. But if you had sampled other points you would end up with something that looks chaotic: videojockey, market analyst. Perhaps the appearance of chaos is caused by people not quitting their jobs often enough to give them sufficient samples to make accurate career measurements?

  2. #2 by Liz Wilkinson on 24 September 2010 - 11:52

    Excellent blog post. I like your metaphor for attractors. Please can you say more about the Torus attractor? I’m sure Torus appears in KB!

    • #3 by David Winter on 24 September 2010 - 14:32

      For the rest of you: KB = Killer Bunnies (and yes, the Torus Ring is a level 8 weapon)

  3. #4 by Thomas on 15 December 2011 - 21:21

    Mr. Winter, I haven’t had a chance to read you bio but as a career counselor in training I have to thank you for making career chaos theory “actionable” to me. I’ve found traditional career theory inadequate in addressing the real life chaos finding and keeping meaningful employment that also can support personal survival. Thanks for helping me to find a way to provide truly useful career counseling.

  4. #6 by Louise on 2 September 2013 - 09:03

    I am currently studying Career Development and have enjoyed reading about the theory of CTC. The counselling tips are very helpful, thank you.

  5. #7 by dillytante on 2 November 2013 - 22:47

    A great post. I am studying Occupational Psychology and everything I have read about career counselling has been a bit dry so far. This was really interesting though.

    How is career counselling actually applied in the UK? I know it is fairly regular in US schools but as a UK ‘Millenial’ (as I think the popular term is now) I don’t recall having any careers advice. I certainly could have done with some (still could!).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: