Talking about career chaos usually doesn’t win you any points with people in the midst of career exploration. But thinking about how to make use of chaos is a smart idea.
You don’t need a robust, scholarly understanding of chaos theory in order to have a useful framework for thinking about careers. You just need the understanding that large events can have large impacts on your career – but so can small events. Those small events have the ability to shape your career and move it in new, unpredicted directions.
What does that mean for you? For one, it means that the activities that seem like they should have a big impact (like applying to 150 jobs in two months) might not end up being as important as activities that seem as though they ought to be less impactful. That includes activities like having coffee with an old mentor, writing a thank-you note after an interview, opting to use a business directory you never used before to find new organizations to apply to, taking a chance by telling that person you just met about your job search, or heading out to a professional association meeting even if you feel that you have nothing to contribute.
When I consider the activities that have shaped my career, luck and unpredictably large outcomes from small events do indeed play a role. The small activities that have reaped big rewards for me: having taken German in high school (really), taking on a low-paying and infrequent gig as a tutor for students with learning disabilities while wrapping up my PhD, and staying in touch with one person I did an informational interview with, who happens to be much more influential in the career advising field than I was initially aware of.
So, where’s the practicality for you? After all, you can’t plan a small event that will have an unpredictably large and positive impact. However, you can gain some form of control over your career. One way to control your career, to the degree that’s possible, is to actively seek out experiences that might pay off. Don’t seek out experiences tirelessly – you can exhaust yourself trying to create luck – but do seek them deliberately, knowing that activities that might seem fruitless to those around you are, at the very least, giving you useful information, and are quite possibly laying the groundwork for future opportunities.
Another way to maintain control of the game is to be aware of your options. In a non-chaotic world, being aware of only one career path that you want to pursue is fine. After all, if actions lead to predictable outcomes, planning works perfectly. In a chaotic world, things change quickly – Lehman Brothers goes under, people with MSW’s begin to replace registered psychologists in hospitals, and User Experience Librarian becomes a job title. Being aware of multiple options that appeal to you can help keep you from getting backed into a corner. (As an aside, if every profession you’re considering requires a unique degree that you don’t have, it’s worth becoming aware of even more options.)
Is it time to panic if you only have one option in mind right now? Nope – just go ahead and book that coffee date, browse through Career Cruising while your university gives you access, look up some skills you like on a LinkedIn people search, ask someone in an interesting job to tell you more about it. Start taking a few steps towards greater control of your future, knowing that perfect control isn’t needed to find something that makes you happy.