The Chaos Theory of Career Development
Religion & Liberty Online

The Chaos Theory of Career Development

ChaosTheoryCareers[Note: This month hundreds of thousands of young people will be graduating from high schools and colleges across America. Because I’ve had an unusual vocational path, I thought I’d offer them some unsolicited career advice. Admittedly, its not ground-breaking guidance. But I figure someone might benefit from hearing that they don’t have to have their career path already planned out in order to be successful.]

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question that people begin asking you around the age five and will haunts you 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 truthfully (“To be honest, I have no absolutely no clue.”) we learn to respond with a pat occupational objective. But as Jeremy Dean of PsyBlog once noted:

 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 [February 2007] in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour , believe they have provided further support for the Chaos Theory of Career Development.

Vocational researchers examining “chaos theory” 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 World War II 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 web. The vocational roles I currently have did not even exist twenty years ago. Sometime during your life you will likely spend time in a career that does not exist in 2014.

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). Be flexible and recognize that the hopes and desires you have now — at the age of 18-25 —will change radically over the next ten years. This is not “giving up on your dreams”; this is realizing that the dreams you thought your future self would want were not really what you wanted at all.

Limited options — At an early age boys tend to want to be fireman or police officers, while girls want to be doctors or teachers. Children have an extremely limited awareness of the vocational options available. 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. There is a good chance your future job title will be one you never could have imagined because you never knew it existed.

But while we may not necessarily be able to completely control the trajectory of our careers, 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 44), I’ve had thirty six distinct jobs. Almost all of them, however, can be lumped into one of four clusters: low-skill service jobs (e.g., limo driver, golf caddy, waiter), apprentice-level skilled labor (oilfield electrician’s assistant; irrigator’s assistant; farrier/horseshoer’s assistant); mid-level manager (various military jobs); or jobs dependent on communication skills (web editor, SAT tutor; research director for a presidential candidate, adjunct professor of journalism). 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 the path your career takes.

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 getting hired as a sacker at Piggly Wiggly to my role here at the Acton Institute  — has come from someone who already works in that field knowing and recommending me to an employer. 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: A Guide to Christian Ambition and the Desire to Influence the World. As Hewitt 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 the age of 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. He’s given you skills and interests that will allow you, if you seek his guidance by reading his Word and obeying his commands, to find your way. Our Creator clearly sees your path even if, from your current, limited perspective, it may look like chaos. Trust God and step out boldly, for you have an exciting journey ahead of you.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).