Pandemic Disruption Meets the Chaos Theory of Careers: A Method for Advising Clients in a Tumultuous Employment Landscape

By Susan Botts Rose

The early 2020 outlook appeared hopeful as the United States enjoyed historically low unemployment rates (BBC News, 2020) and the economy grew steadily (Torry, 2020). Seniors in high school and college diligently worked toward graduation and Americans went about life as usual. In March when COVID arrived, workers lost jobs at alarming rates (Tappe & Kurtz, 2020), employees were forced to work remotely, businesses shut down and “senioritis” was displaced by despair as graduation traditions rapidly vanished.

Although the global pandemic was the most immediate and glaring employment disruption on the horizon, other significant forces contribute to an interruption of the status quo in the employment world. One force is the impact created by artificial intelligence and machine learning. According to Adam Saunders, a business professor at the University of British Columbia, “Recent advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which brought us Watson and self-driving cars, mark the beginning of a seismic shift in the world as we know it” (Saunders, 2018, p.1). Another force is technology’s effect on the face of work, as automated systems either replace humans or change human roles in countless ways (Mughal, 2016). This has been exacerbated by the pandemic during which many workers are working fully or partially remotely, changing the nature of their work. This change has resulted in isolation, a complicated blending of work and family life, and learning how to accomplish a familiar job in an unfamiliar virtual environment.

The Chaos Theory of Careers

This is not the first time the labor market has experienced significant changes, but a relatively new career theory, the Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC; Pryor & Bright, 2014), is an excellent match for navigating clients through these unpredictable realities.

Often applied in areas of science and math (Dizikes, 2011), the term chaos theory was first introduced by MIT meteorology professor Edward Lorantz who discovered that a small change can have a significant impact. Pryor and Bright (2014), created a career theory around this same principle when their research led them to realize that careers rarely take a linear path. While the term chaos may conjure up negative connotations, in this theory it reflects positive and orderly ways to view the unpredictable.

Jon Schlesinger (2016), summarized the CTC in three phases:

  1. Complexity - Exploring the intricacy of a client’s own career history and discovering patterns. During this process the client may create Wandering Webs (Brooks, 2017), or narratives, and examine these to uncover recurring themes or threads in their stories.
  2. Chance - Developing a mindset in which clients are open to risk and new possibilities. Emphasis is placed on the significance of chance events in our lives and the importance of viewing these as opportunities rather than roadblocks (Krumboltz & Levin, 2010; Pryor & Bright, 2014).
  3. Change – Action is encouraged for the client, even if it is a small step at the beginning. This action may consist of experimenting with various activities based on malleable plans they created following the self-discovery phase of this process.

Chaos Theory for Careers in Action

In CTC, a willingness to experiment with new roles is encouraged. Openness to reinventing, based on current circumstances and centered around a person’s unique strengths, is central to this theory. Many historical American figures exemplified chaos theory in action.

Photo By History In Hd On UnsplashThroughout her life Mae C. Jemison, the first African American female astronaut, continues to exemplify the principles of the CTC as her life circumstances evolve.  After completing a bachelor's degree in engineering, she went on to earn her medical degree.  Following a career as a general practitioner, she volunteered for the Peace Corps in Africa.  Never forgetting her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut, Jemison achieved this goal, flying and conducting research aboard the spaceship Endeavour in 1992.  Among numerous other pursuits, she now heads her own company that focuses on promoting an interest in science education in minority students (Biography.com Editors, 2021).  Mae’s path, while clearly not linear, demonstrates the complexity aspect of the CTC along with an inherent pattern of choosing paths related to science, helping others and improving the world.  We can surmise that certain chance events led to some of her career decisions.  Her consistently impressive actions in pursuit of her accomplishments demonstrate her openness to viewing chance events as opportunities.

Careers Professionals Employ CTC

Tremendous change is continuously being forced upon people. Reinvention is a must for a multitude of workers whose jobs are disappearing. Employing strategies from the CTC can help resilient clients develop the self-efficacy and positive mindset needed to explore new opportunities.

Some examples include:

  • Relocating to a more desirable part of the country when work became remote.
  • Designing private classroom pods to combat the difficulty of online learning.
  • Enhancing restaurant carry-out business
  • Creating and selling engaging virtual teaching materials for young children learning online.

Primary principles of the CTC involve helping clients to:

  • Reinvent themselves throughout the course of their working lives.
  • Identify, capitalize on, and remain positive about chance opportunities.
  • Exercise resilience.
  • Find occupations that are meaningful for them (Pryor & Bright, 2014).

Prepare for the Storm

Reinvention sparked by chance events may not always be as outstanding as Mae Jemison’s illustrious career, but as the Chaos Theory of Careers proposes, a small event can lead to big changes. Unanticipated events in the career world will continue to happen. The CTC method of advising clients, which is built around this reality, will help workers be prepared for these events and, hopefully, recognize them as new possibilities.




BBC News. (2020). US jobs growth beats expectations. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-51417460

Biography.com Editors. (2021, January 6). Mae C. Jemison. Biography. https://www.biography.com/astronaut/mae-c-jemison

Brooks, K. (2017). You majored in what?: Designing your path from college to career (Revised ed.). Plume.

Dizikes, P. (2011, February 22). When the butterfly effect took flight. Technology Review. https://www.technologyreview.com/2011/02/22/196987/when-the-butterfly-effect-took-flight/

Krumboltz, J. D., & Levin, A. S. (2010). Luck is no accident: Making the most of happenstance in your life and career (Second ed.). Impact.

Mughal, S. (2016, March 9). 6 ways technology has changed the job market. OxGadgets. https://www.oxgadgets.com/2016/03/6-ways-technology-has-changed-the-job-market.html

Pryor, R. G. L., & Bright, J. E. H. (2014). The chaos theory of careers (CTC): Ten years on and only just begun. Australian Journal of Career Development, 23(1), 4–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/1038416213518506

Saunders, A. (2018). Technology's impact on growth and employment. OpenMind. https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/articles/technology-s-impact-on-growth-and-employment/

Schlesinger, J. (2016). Chaos and your career: A framework for chaos theory of careers in college career centers. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/chaos-your-career-jon-schlesinger/

Tappe, A. and Kurtz, A. (2020, April 3). The US economy lost 701,000 jobs in March -- worst report since 2009. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/03/economy/march-jobs-report-coronavirus/index.html

Torry, H. (2020, January 30). U.S. economy heads into 2020 with steady growth. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/fourth-quarter-economic-growth-11580386835



Susan RoseSusan Botts Rose, Ed.S., CCSP, is an Educational Specialist and Certified Career Services Provider. Susan has many years experience in brain based learning, special education and school administration. She is known for helping students and clients discover and communicate their unique strengths, and use these to achieve success. Her focus is on high school students transition to college, college students going into the working world, and clients going through career transitions. She can be reached at susanrose@strategiesforcareers.com 

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Diane Farrell   on Monday 03/01/2021 at 05:36 PM

I enjoyed your article. Your summary of Chaos Theory and your examples were clear and helpful.

John Long   on Monday 03/01/2021 at 09:56 PM

Excellent article Susan, timely and easy to digest. THANK YOU!

Elizabeth Craig,MBA,CCSP,FCD-I,GCDF-I,BCC,Master Career Strategist   on Tuesday 03/02/2021 at 11:25 AM

Hi Susan, FANTASTIC NCDA Career Convergence article! Thanks so much for revisiting the Chaos Theory of Careers. You summarized CTC so well for our use as career professionals providing useable examples and principles to help our clients. Kudos! Elizabeth Craig

kimberly M Zanders Scales   on Tuesday 03/02/2021 at 12:06 PM

Awesome, Great way to express chaos and adaptation for facilitation!

Kim Davis   on Wednesday 03/03/2021 at 08:33 AM

I enjoyed the article, and your explanation of Chaos Theory and how it is present in today's workforce was right on time!

Gina S. Calvano   on Monday 03/08/2021 at 08:42 PM

Great article Susan - very informative and practical for explaining the theory to career counseling clients and helping them to apply reflecting on the concepts within their own careers.

Linda Sollars   on Friday 03/12/2021 at 12:02 PM

Excellent summary of CTC in action. I particularly liked "Preparing for the Storm" as you state, "a small event can lead to big changes".

Aileen Palmer   on Saturday 03/13/2021 at 07:47 AM

What a detailed and easy to understand/apply explanation about CTC and how it applies today! Thank you for sharing your insight and knowledge.

Jim Peacock   on Friday 04/02/2021 at 09:33 AM

Huge fan of Happenstance and the Chaos theory. Thanks Susan for doing such a great job at explaining CTL. And you are correct, this theory is more applicable now than ever.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.