Embracing Chaos Theory of Careers

By Christopher Mesaros

The best prognosticators of our time are struggling to predict career trends ten years from now, let alone offer concrete visions of the workforce when all of Gen Z comes of age. The most helpful guesses point to freelance workers and positions that do not yet exist, which offers little clarity. It should not be surprising that college students could feel anxiety about having to define their professional identity for the rest of their lives as they are being told they could routinely live to age 120.

Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC; Bright & Prior, 2012) is a different approach to helping clients construct their identity and map out a potential path. Rather than insist that the world looks like the linear, trait-and-factor world of post-WWII America, CTC expects uncertainty. It is a better match for the reality that the students of today will face when they make their transitions. But how can future career counselors prepare clients for such a world? Prominent proponents of CTC recommend that counselors apply the following:

  • Reframe the pejorative “undecided” as “open-minded”
  • Encourage preparation, not planning
  • Emphasize adaptation over deciding (de-emphasize the finality of choices)
  • Try “fuzzy goals,” which are flexible and short-term
  • Grow client self-awareness and build transferrable skills.

All of these prescriptions sound wonderful, but there is just one problem: most of our culture still loves the mythology of the linear career path followed by the single-minded visionary. Think Tiger Woods, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and Oprah Winfrey. While their stories involve some twists and turns, we take the person they are today and extrapolate backward to see a cohesive identity, only nodding to uncertainty as a subchapter. The message we send is that uncertainty is to be feared and avoided, rather than embraced as a natural consequence of the complexity of our lives.

It is up to future career counselors to change the narrative. We must emphasize that no life is ever certain and no career path guaranteed. While Barack Obama summited his field to the highest political office in the world and stayed there for eight years, he still has decades of a career ahead of him with no roadmap for where to go next. Amazon was originally a bookseller; single-mindedness to that path would have resulted in a vastly different world than the one we have now.

Fortunately, some of our field's tried and true tools work the best for dispelling the old narrative. Informational interviews, and networking more broadly, can validate the client who does not see a clear path from their degree to a career. Decision games can help to illustrate the need for adaptability and the kinds of curve balls life can throw at us to disrupt our best laid plans. Emphasizing transferable skills from past employment or education can give novices routes to pivot, especially when paired with resources like LinkedIn or an e-portfolio platform that showcases their accomplishments in more meaningful ways than a traditional one-page resume.

However, we also need more innovative approaches to fight the current of cultural conditioning and expectation setting. Aside from our ingrained narratives about the person who knew their goals since age five and achieved through strength of will, we also tend to sell clients on correspondence between specific degrees and certain career fields, despite knowing better. “What can you do with x degree?” was a common refrain throughout one's schooling, which always meant “To which funnel do you belong?”

CTC rejects the idea that degrees acquired, rather than skills developed, are going to be the coin of the realm. This is not to say that degrees lose value; quite the contrary. The competencies and soft skills one gains in a liberal arts program are more applicable than ever. Rather, learning is truly becoming a lifelong endeavor and deviating from the well-worn career path is becoming more acceptable.

It is worth wondering whether simply changing the narrative and singing the praises of transferable skills will be enough. After all, it’s small comfort to a client struggling with what to do after graduation to point out that Warren Buffet was rejected by the Harvard Business School. One technique to help students prepare is create what Katharine Brooks (2010) calls “wandering maps” with which students envision all of the potential options open to them, not necessarily eliminating any, but expressing preferences. This is a way for them to envision possible lives without internalizing a sense of failure if Plan A doesn’t go exactly according to schedule (or doesn’t happen at all).

We also need to disabuse clients of the notion that career development is something that happens in a single course and is fulfilled immediately after school. The priority has to be focusing on personal branding and self-knowledge, putting them in a position to construct their own development as their careers progress and the workforce changes.

As Jim Bright (2013) says, the only certainty in a world of chaos is uncertainty. We owe it to clients (and future career counselors) to prepare them for this world by first appreciating it ourselves.



Bright, J. (2013), Chaos theory of careers explained. YouTube. November 2013. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BL2wTkgBEyk

Bright, J., & Pryor, R. (2012). The chaos theory of careers in career education. Journal of the National Institute for Career Education and Counseling, 28, 10-20.

Brooks, K. (2010). You majored in what? Designing your path from college to career. New York, NY: Plume.

Krumboltz, J. (2009). The happenstance learning theory. Journal of Career Assessment, 17, 143.

McKay, H., Bright, J., & Pryor, R. (2005). Finding order and direction from chaos: A comparison of chaos career counseling and trait matching counseling. Journal of Employment Counseling, 42, 98-112.

Schlesinger, J. (2016). Applying the Chaos Theory of Careers as a Framework for College Career Centers. Journal of Employment Counseling, 53, 86-96.

Stillman, D., & Stillman, J. (2017). Gen Z @ work. Harper, 65.


Christopher Mesaros Christopher Mesaros, GCDF, CCSP, is currently both a Senior LEAD Instructor at The Washington Center and an Instructor of Philosophy at Northern Virginia Community College. His areas of interest within the career services and andragogy realms include professional development, high-impact practices, experiential learning, gamification, and assessment. He also enjoys focusing on ethical leadership and designing simulations to mirror real world moral dilemmas. He can be reached at christopher.mesaros@twc.edu.


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JP Michel   on Monday 06/03/2019 at 06:35 PM

Great article Christopher. Do you have any good introductory articles that you share with students to help them understand this mindset?

KS at Collin   on Wednesday 06/05/2019 at 10:57 AM

Great article and concept. Will definitely use in my counseling. The decision game was a fun exercise although I ended up poor and divorced in the end! Need to rethink those choices!

Jon Rosenfield   on Friday 06/07/2019 at 10:37 AM

We've been incorporating CTC and using Brooks' text for several years - good stuff! I recently discovered a letter to a friend by Hunter S Thompson that addresses non-linearity (and some other forward-thinking perspectives on career development) quite nicely. It's more about shifting one's philosophical approach than practical strategies, but I think it can be used to help illustrate why linear models and long-term rigid goals don't make sense. His use of pronouns is beyond outdated, but this was written in 1958.


Dave McCall   on Friday 06/07/2019 at 02:06 PM

Fantastic article Chris. You bring up some great points that I believe will resonate with my college students well. Thanks so much for your publication.

Ann Villiers   on Sunday 06/09/2019 at 10:04 PM

Dear Christopher, Some useful points for career practitioners. Something to consider - as a career practitioner I'm concerned about the continuing use of hard/soft skills. There are sound reasons for no longer using these terms, as expressed in my National Careers Week article, Why we should stop using ‘soft’ skills, https://www.cdaa.org.au/documents/item/617. Regards Ann

Christopher D. Mesaros   on Monday 06/10/2019 at 08:50 PM

@JP Michel: my program typically doesn't present theory in our curriculum, so the way I introduce these concepts is usually through different activities like the decision games mentioned in the article. I also like Bright's use of the number of possible states of the Rubik's cube to illustrate the complexity of choices. One basic activity I have started doing involves asking them to declare certain goals they have and then asking them to pick only one that will come true, typically from different buckets (career, education, personal). This is then iterated several more times and debriefed with a conversation around Chaos Theory of Careers, albeit without explicit mentions.

@KS at Collin: that is one of the most common places my students end up, despite my attempts to weight the choices differently! There are 26 possible conclusions, but I realized that a game like that requires constant refinement. I was able to have some great conversations around what motivated their choices in the game, especially when they had to think about career versus family or money versus values.

Christopher D. Mesaros   on Monday 06/10/2019 at 09:20 PM

@Jon Rosenfield: Thank you for the read! I enjoyed the line "we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal." I also like the Pasteur quote about "chance favors only the prepared mind" for thinking about how to share an otherwise daunting perspective on careers.

@Dave McCall: Glad you found the article useful, and I hope your students do as well!

@Ann Villiers: I couldn't agree with you more, and thank you for calling attention to this. While I have always found this language too glib, the consideration of gender-biased language is important.

Jim Peacock   on Tuesday 06/18/2019 at 07:00 PM

I love it! This is what I call "intentional serendipity" Taking action and being open to discovering something by accident. It is how so many people find their next job.
I also tell clients they are not "undecided". They know what they do NOT want to do, so they know (on some level) what they DO want to do.
Thanks Christopher for a great reminder of Chaos

Chris Targett   on Saturday 06/20/2020 at 03:51 AM

A thought provoking read and one which resonates with careers practice here in the UK. Reframe the narrative is crucial as well as helping clients understand the principles of transferable skills. Thank you for the article, will be sharing in my network in the UK.

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