Career Development From Chaos to Clarity – The Chaos Theory of Careers


By Lori Jazvac.

In my research, I have come across an interesting theory, which reflects a client-centered approach: The Chaos Theory of Careers. At Vanderbilt University, Dr. Jim Bright, the co-author of Chaos Theory of Careers, sheds light on a perspective that seems to resonate today. In fact, you may have touched on this theory at some point in your career coaching without even realizing it.

How Does Chaos Theory of Careers Work?  

While seen as an offshoot of planned happenstance, the Chaos Theory of Careers allows for greater flexibility, allowing us to simply embrace uncertainty as the core principle. Unlike past career theories, this particular holistic theory posits that our career paths are not always linear, measurable, or predictable. They change and evolve, sometimes in leaps and bounds in unexpected ways. There are so many complex factors today outside of work that shape our careers that we must consider.

The Chaos Theory of Careers suggests that we do not always need to weigh and measure factors such as interests, skills, and personality traits, letting these factors dictate which path our clients should choose. We cannot apply this methodology to the changing world of work within an unpredictable freelance economy in the 21st century.

The Main Principles of the Chaos Theory of Careers:

  • Be open-minded and curious. Encourage exploration and a proactive attitude. Spontaneity will lead you to discovering interesting career possibilities that you would not have anticipated. Trust in the explorative process for self-discovery.
  • Experiment with new things and look for clues. Take risks. Go with the flow. Use your intuition as a guiding force for making sound decisions.
  • Take baby steps. The more that you focus your energy on taking small steps, the more likely that you will see results.
  • Understand the bigger picture. When we look at a situation from the outside, it may not be immediately clear to us. However, in hindsight, assessing the meaning of these patterns can help to synthesize our experience and understand the rationale behind our decisions.
  • Receive constructive feedback whenever possible. Find out what works and what does not in your career development.

Advantages of the Chaos Theory of Careers

The Chaos Theory enables us to understand and identify the various unpredictable small or large changes that have the ability to impact the course of our careers. Such shifts can then lead to radical changes.

Chaos theory dispels the myths behind traditional career ideas and theories. Sometimes there is not a “right plan,” and obstacles can be seen as an inevitable part of a career journey.  We must take advantage of leveraging complex influences and maximizing chance events to propel us forward in the face of uncertainty. In fact, taking action in good faith can empower us with a more liberating stance on approaching career development.

Career Practitioners: Applying the Chaos Theory of Careers

  • Aid clients with understanding the “chaos” in their lives to gain clarity.
  • Engage in storytelling and sharing experiences while seeing the value and meaning in these experiences.
  • Help prepare clients to deal with changes and transitions in their lives. Support clients in appreciating their unique selves and their brands.
  • Discuss failures and triumphs; look at different perspectives when talking about failures. What most clients deem to represent failure may actually reflect a blessing in disguise or an opportunity for creative transformation.
  • Identify typical patterns, the recurring themes in these patterns, and the implications.
  • Encourage clients to keep a detailed log and track random events. Journaling experiences can be quite cathartic and reveal certain signs that we need to pay attention to about our career paths.
  • Celebrate successes and acknowledge failures or drawbacks with a positive and empowering attitude.

For more information about career theories, please view Career Development Foundations.


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Great insights. Thank You. I only wish it was not called the Chaos Theory. It almost has a negative perspective in the title. The way you describe it, it is very bright and inspirational.

Thanks, Lotte. The name of this particular theory is a bit ironic. However, by accepting and following the principles of the Chaos Theory and embracing uncertainty and change in its entirety, it can move us to a greater sense of clarity through self-discovery and exploration — one step at a time.

I will be covering this theory in my chat on ‘Applying Career Development Theory’ at the CareerPro Conference in November.

I also recommend the book on ‘The Chaos Theory of Careers: A New Perspective on Working in the 21st Century’ by Robert Pryor and Jim Bright on Amazon.

Hi Lori,

I am a counselling psychology student. I have been looking for information to understand this career counselling approach easily and I found your article very concise and clear. Excellent summary of chaos theory and explanation of the counsellor’s role in the process.

I was wondering about the date of publication of this article since I would love to cite it in a project I am working on.

Thanks so much!

Thanks for your comment, Susan. This article was originally published on October 6, 2016.