Career Search

Using the Chaos Theory in your career trajectory

March 28, 2018 by Brandman University

Any fan of HBO’s buzzworthy hit show “Game of Thrones” may recognize the line “Chaos is a ladder” from an aired episode. If you are unfamiliar, in this scene, the character Littlefinger is referring to his ability to capitalize the chaos that exists in other’s lives as an opportunity to climb a little closer to his goal. There is something we all can learn from him about riding the waves of chaos in our own careers. 

In life, as well as on the show, the winds of change are inevitable. The Chaos theory tells us that since the world of work is dynamic, complex and continually changing it may become increasingly difficult to predict the future of your own career path. Here is a quick snapshot of the main components:

COMPLEXITY: To understand this first component, think about the ripple effect. Seemingly, small decisions can have far-reaching effects on your career just as the impact of an object dropped in water can create several wide reaching circles as a result.

For fans of the show, think back to the way that the plot lines for each character became increasingly complex based on a single decision of another character. Your career path may be “non-linear” and “recursive,” meaning it may not follow sequentially progressive moves. However, each step can ultimately affect the next ones you take.

Our career journeys can be similarly complex when you consider changes in organizational leadership or even federal legislation that directly and indirectly affects the job market. Consider how the national conversation about healthcare has led to changes in policies and regulations, which continue to effect careers in the healthcare industry.

CHANCE:  Being open to new opportunities to learn or grow and taking calculated risks in your career can have a major impact on your professional trajectory.

Consider the potentially life-changing effect of accepting a position at a start-up organization that ultimately goes public and is wildly successful. On a smaller scale, volunteering to take on a new a project at work can also lead to a promotional opportunity at your current company, or even open the door to a completely new career.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics recently published data that shows, on average, adults aged 18-48 hold roughly 11.7 jobs over their lifetimes*. Think back on the first five jobs that you’ve had- and yes, I do want you to include the very first babysitting or lawn mowing job you earned money with. How much of your decisions were based on opportunities available at the time? Did some of them come to be because of your proximity to opportunity or through people you happened to know?

CHANGE: On “Game of Thrones,” as well as in your own organization, changes in leadership may mean drastic changes in your opportunities. We live in a time of rapid change driven by innovation and industry disruption due to advances in technology.

Consider how companies like Amazon or even Uber have changed the way you live and work, and imagine how much more these types of changes can impact our lives in the future. Reflect over the way you may have managed your own productivity over the last 10 years. Have new hacks, apps or tools changed the way you work today?

A recent study conducted by researchers at McKinsey & Company asserts that based on the currently existing technology, 45 percent of work activities can now be automated. Technology will continue to disrupt our careers with each coming year.

Effectively manage the effects of chaos on your career by embracing uncertainty, and be willing to approach your career with a fresh perspective. Use career disruption in your favor by expanding your skillset, and exploring new professional identities. For example, instead of defining yourself with your job title “First Grade Teacher” expanding your perspective to something like “Innovative Educator” or “Dynamic Presenter” can allow you to see your skillset transferring to various other industries.

Individuals in career transition often define themselves by their professional identities. You can develop a strong attachment to seeing yourself in a specific role or achieving a certain level that make it difficult to envision yourself outside of that box. A more empowering way to define your professional identity is in terms of your skills and accomplishments. Your unique experiences, accomplishments and contributions can provide clues about potential pathways in your career.

Unexpected change can provide opportunities to ask yourself some important questions such as, what other organizations or industries could benefit from your skillset and would value the results you are able to achieve in your current role? This may also be an opportune time to ask for feedback from others since getting an outside perspective can help you to recognize opportunities for growth and redirection. People in your network including colleagues, family or friends may also provide great insights into ways to pivot your strengths in a new career direction.

More Strategies for Successfully Navigating Chaos in your Career:  

  • Know yourself first. Identify and build on your current professional strengths, accomplishments and skills and be ready to promote their value in the context of organizational or industry changes. In what ways have you grown professionally? Do your personal values still align with the direction you are taking in your career?
  • Stay open to change. Assess your own openness to change, and maintain a growth mindset by committing to continual learning.
  • Assess your career. Conduct regular “pulse check” on your role in the organization, perhaps around annual review-time. How does your role align with organizational success, initiatives or future direction? How has your position evolved or changed over the years?
  • Never stop learning. Subscribe to industry relevant newsletters or networking groups to keep abreast on new approaches and creative solutions to issues. Being current on industry trends like cutting-edge software or pending federal regulations will provide direction for pursuing continuing education and development opportunities, like leaning how to lead change.
  • Improve your professional skills. What new knowledge or skills do you need to develop in order to prepare for inevitable change? Assess where you can leverage interests and past successes in specific areas by becoming an expert.
  • Strengthen your network. Our network of connections is a tremendous resource in navigating career transitions. Focus on developing stronger relationships with those currently in your circles, determine what new connections you need to make and challenge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone to expand your network.
  • Recognize chaos as an opportunity. Be strategic in applying creativity to navigate the inevitable complexity, chance and change along your career journey. Organizational restructuring may provide openings for potential advancement including greater responsibilities or creative solutions.


*BLS Economic News Release (July 2016)

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