Academic journal article Career Planning and Adult Development Journal

APPLYING THE SCIENCE OF CHAOS TO CAREER COUNSELING: A Primer

Academic journal article Career Planning and Adult Development Journal

APPLYING THE SCIENCE OF CHAOS TO CAREER COUNSELING: A Primer

Article excerpt

In 1988 I finished my doctoral work only to discover that the work I had done disproved everything I had come to hold dear about career counseling. I previously believed that developmental models, such as those of Erickson (1985) and Super, (Super, Savickas, & Super, 1996) offered a clear map for development that would allow counselors to predict which issues would typically occur at which age. Once we identified those developmental issues, we could then plan neat little interventions. The work of Levinson outlined in, Seasons of a Man's Life (1978) was especially enchanting. Levinson and others, however, primarily focused on the development of men. For my dissertation, I interviewed women to see how stages might neatly unfold in their careers. The age-related stage models quickly unraveled as the women I interviewed told their stories. Something was missing with developmental theory and I was frustrated. How can we understand the formative influences on career self-concept in a context that better describes the developmental process?

Serendipity led me to a NOVA special on the New Science of Chaos (1989). During that program the presenters reviewed the emerging concepts of chaos theory and developed a new nomenclature that captured the process that allowed systems to gain complexity. There was one startling assertion: chaos generates order. The quintessential example of chaos and system building was found in meteorology, through efforts to use computers to solve the ancient dilemma, What will the weather be like tomorrow?

The NOVA program detailed the efforts of Edward Lorenz as he struggled to build a linear computer model that could predict the weather. Lorenz programmed such variables as heat and the speed of convection currents into his computer and began producing the weather models. He then re-ran his program, rounding the numbers of his initial variables. Instead of a perfect copy of his first run, his second set of results offered a completely different version of the weather. The small differences in his initial conditions gave him dramatically different results, and chaos theory was born.

Sensitivity to Initial Conditions and Feedback

Predicting career outcomes and predicting the weather present major difficulties. Lorenz believed that he could build computer models that would accurately predict the weather into infinity, if only he had enough data and could control all of the variables. Much like a grand orrery, which used clock works to predict the position of the planets, Lorenz could turn the crank on his computer program and know what the weather would be like, anywhere on the planet, on any day in the future. He came to the disappointing conclusion that the sensitivity to initial conditions was so great, that any disruption could enter a feedback cycle, like a squeal through a microphone that grows from a little hum into a crescendo. At first the computer program could produce a sunny day. With a minor alteration the program could produce a tornado. Lorenz concluded that, given the right conditions, a butterfly flapping its wings in China could cause a tornado in Texas.

We generally never know what piece of cognitive dissonance will result in a crescendo in our career weather. We might apply the term Barrow (1987) used to describe the random chance that dissonance can enter a feedback cycle and create a reaction all out of proportion to the stimulus: dissonance roulette. We never can predict when our career self-concepts will be faced with information that no longer fits our career beliefs, dissonance roars, and we are forced to readjust our view of the world.

Weather systems, like the career self-concepts, can vary in the degree their structure is defined. A poorly defined weather system is more readily influenced by conflicting weather systems than is a hurricane. In fact, a hurricane is what every weather system aspires to become, when it grows up: clearly defined, with purpose and power. …

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