Four Ways to Navigate Career Chaos

Chaos concept

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Change is inevitable in higher education careers. Some of it is unexpected, such as the pandemic-induced 13-percent reduction of the workforce last year. Other changes are anticipated, like the impact from the 15-percent drop in student enrollment by 2025. As a result, the funnel for people aspiring to work in the academy is either shrinking, or the way certain occupations are professionalized will be disrupted.

It’s chaos.

Maybe that’s a good thing. There’s no denying that job loss is terrible, as are the ruined investments of time, money, and energy that people have put into their livelihoods. But people still have to move on and rectify their careers.

Chaos might provide the opportunity that higher education professionals, as well as the industry itself, need to reinvent themselves and adapt. Because the world is changing, we should be continuously reinventing ourselves anyway.

The Chaos Theory of Careers states that people who are developing their careers are part of complex, dynamic open systems, and as a result, they are subject to complexity, change, and chance.

“Change is at the heart of the chaos theory approach,” said Jim Bright, an organizational psychologist and co-author of “The Chaos Theory of Careers,” who explained the theory at Vanderbilt University in 2013. “[People should] embrace change, understand change, and thrive and survive on change.”

Are you one of those people? What are you doing to be more resilient and advance your career in spite of — or perhaps because of — change?

A cynical response to this chaos theory might be, “Well, if change is inevitable, why should we try to predict or even plan a career?”

“That is a typical, fatalistic response,” Bright said. “There’s no point telling people, ‘The world is uncertain, so let’s just lay back and let it wash over us.’ Because it turns out, you can make your own luck. It turns out, there are things you can do to increase your chances of the right thing happening.”

Here are four ways you can create your own luck and take advantage of the chaos:

Emergent Thinking

Higher education professionals are often conditioned to narrow down their options to make career choices. Just as we enable this convergent thinking for our students through credentialing and specializing skills, we funnel ourselves into roles to fit the career we want. This makes sense to shoot for goals that will count on the scoreboard of your profession, whether it’s journal citations or alumni donor contributions, but think beyond “the game” you’re playing. Instead, use emergent or divergent thinking to develop skills and achieve successful outcomes in different domains or contexts. Maybe it’s by partnering with industry or tapping different demographics of students to recruit. Higher education is a complex and resilient system that will change. Be ready to play a different game.


One of the tropes of the pandemic is that “we’re not all in the same boat, but we’re in the same storm.” Maybe you should get into someone else’s boat and bail their water or learn how they are course-correcting and navigating change. Networking with other professionals leverages your valuable weak ties and expands your possibilities to capitalize on chaos. The “weather” that higher education is encountering right now is unpredictable, but so are the people who work in academia. The more people we know and understand, the better we can detect larger patterns and recognize opportunities. Otherwise, we’re thrown asunder by a sudden gust of wind rather than adjusting to the climate.


Career trajectories are too often thought of and explained during job interviews in a linear, singular story. With all the chaos in your career, there are also more opportunities to craft stories for potential employers as well as your internal narrative that motivates you. “The more stories we can tell about ourselves, the more flexible our thinking and the more different perspectives we can take on ourselves,” Bright said. “And the more perspectives we can take on ourselves and our circumstances, the more possibilities we can see and the greater chance we can solve personal problems that confront us.”

Meandering/Hill Climbing

A final analogy for navigating chaos is hill climbing. The linear career path means you’re always looking to take the next step up, but in a chaotic environment you could be dropped onto terrain where you could be climbing the wrong hill, that is, a lower hill when the goal is to climb the highest hill that’s within your reach. Chris Dixon explained this classic computer science problem on his blog in the context of the job search. “People early in their careers should learn from computer science,” Dixon wrote. “Meander some in your walk (especially early on), randomly drop yourself into new parts of the terrain, and when you find the highest hill, don’t waste any more time on the current hill no matter how much better the next step up might appear.”

In conclusion

Despite job seekers’ efforts to “take control of their careers,” they sometimes lack awareness of careers as these complex dynamic systems. Rather than sink in the despair of career chaos, embrace the complexity, change, and chance, and then make them work for you.

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