THE CHAOS OF CAREERS: A Contextual View of Career Development

By Kahn, Lance W. | Career Planning and Adult Development Journal, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

THE CHAOS OF CAREERS: A Contextual View of Career Development


Kahn, Lance W., Career Planning and Adult Development Journal


This article examines the application of chaos theory to provide a clear comprehensive view of career development. Examples from career decision-making and career transitions are used to illustrate the general concepts of chaos theory, including sensitive dependence on initial conditions, aperiodicity and predictability horizons. The examples are further used to demonstrate the chaotic nature of careers. The article also proposes a reassessment of the theoretical constructs of career development. Implications and suggestions for practitioners are explored.

Most career theorists would agree that career development is an ongoing process and not confined to the outcome of one decision. Donald Super (1990) included cycling and recycling in his Life-Span Theory, despite specifically included age ranges, just as David Tiedeman (1961) reasoned that it was possible to return to an earlier period if information led the decision maker to believe that a wrong choice had been made. Other researchers have focused on specific internal and external influences on career decision making, such as familial influences (Chope, 2001; Roe, 1956) economic influences (Borgen, Amundson & Harder, 1988) and self-efficacy (Lent, Brown & Hackett, 1994). While these theorists may focus differently on the source and impact of the influences, little has been done to develop a theory that incorporates all possible influencing factors. Hershenson (2005) wrote that the lack of a complete theory with a comprehensive model of career development is because the career development process is too complex, too dependent on interconnected variables.

People making decisions on their career development are not solely influenced by one set of factors, but all factors- whether they are acknowledged or not. The simple sublime truth is that career decisionmaking, with its influences and projected outcomes, is incredibly complex. Recently, some writers and practitioners have brought the concepts of chaos theory to bear on the problems of integrating career development and comprehensive career decision-making (Pryor & Bright, 2003; Bloch, 2005).

There is a common misconception that chaos theory is used to provide meaning to random occurrences. Chaos theory is not about random behavior, but instead attempts to explain behavior in complex systems. Chaos theory is ideal in explaining behavior occurring on a large scale with an indeterminable number of variables. It is a theory that is well suited to the complexities of life and human behavior. In this case, the behavior is the method and process of career decision-making. A chaotic system will result in certain specific characteristics of behavior or roughly follow patterns of behavior that can be studied and understood. The best known of these characteristics is what Edward Lorenz (1993) referred to as sensitive dependence on initial conditions. This might be more commonly known as the Butterfly Effect or non-linearity. Sensitive dependence implies two things; one is that the behavior that will occur in the future happens as a direct result from the behavior in the current system. The other implication is that minute differences in input, or tiny changes in the system, can result in exponential differences in resulting behavior. This means that extremely minor behaviors can have enormous impacts on the future of the system. Reactions do not occur on a predictable or linear scale. Usually we think in linear terms of causeand-effect. If I turn on a sink faucet just a little, then a small amount of water comes out. If I open it even more, I expect more water to come out. This is a linear reaction. A non-linear reaction occurs when I open the valve all of the way, thereby creating turbulence in the flow of water. Instead of getting a proportional increase in water, I get less water coming out than before. For a comparable example in career planning, take an undecided freshman. In this example, the undecided freshman makes every appropriate effort to figure out what to major in. …

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