The Chaos Theory of Careers – Theories Every Careers Adviser Should Know

The Chaos Theory of Careers alongside Krumboltz Planned Happenstance theory represents one of the newest development in careers thinking. The theory borrows its conceptual backbone from the growing and expanding theory of Chaos. Chaos Theory has its beginnings in Mathematics and especially the work of Edward Lorenz. Lorenz observed various mathematical phenomenon where small changes in initial conditions led to widely different final results. This made these system very difficult to predict leading Lorenz to coin the term Chaos Theory.

The basic idea is that small and apparently insignificant changes can lead to big long term differences. For example the film Sliding Doors  which explores how an event as insignificant as just failing to catch a tube train can have significant long term consequences.

Pryor and Bright, Chaos Theory of Careers

Pryor and Bright (2011) have taken the principle that small changes can have large consequences and applied it to career development theory. They criticise existing career development theory as failing to understand the uncertainty that chaos theory describes,

“The common claim [of Career Development Theory] is that a life can be encapsulated, summed up, captured in a three-letter code, or in a narrative, and that past behaviour predicts future behaviour… we would be right to be humble about our capabilities to understand the trajectory and cautious in making any long-term deterministic predictions about the future. The Chaos Theory of Careers draws attention to the limitations of our simplifications and the challenges of living uncertainly in our predictably complex world.”

To give an illustration to describe this I remember talking to friends who worked in the City of London in 2008 about Lehman Brothers going bust. They worked across the street at the time and recounted watching graduates in newly bought suits on their first day of work walking into Lehman Brothers to be told their was no company anymore and so no job. All their planning, researching, networking, applications, interviews etc. meant nothing as the company they had chosen to work for in effect disappeared overnight. The idea that they could control and plan their careers turned into a myth.

This may seem like an extreme example but Bright and Pryor challenge us to think through how often chance events have affected our careers, how often choices we made did not have the effect we wanted and how often we moved forward in our careers not by careful planning but by seizing hold of opportunities that suddenly arose.

This does not mean that things are random but instead are part of complex systems. We live in a world of cause and effect but one where these causes and effects are so multiple and interconnected that fallible humans cannot adequately understand or predict them. Both the systems of the world of work and of who we are and the networks we live in are beyond our prediction.

Pryor and Bright use the illustration of a fractal to discuss this. Fractcal are an example of a dynamic systems were a never-ending process creates a pattern that appears simple but on close examination becomes infinitely complex. This illustrates the contradiction of human existence that is filled with routine but is yet beyond prediction. Also, like the continued emergence of a fractal, our lives are not predictable but can be understood as they emerge out of a dynamic process in a complex system.

Chaos Theory and Career Development

It may be tempting to assume that Chaos Theory eradicates the possibility of career development as a life skill. But in contrast Pryor and Bright’s theory turns out to be very practical. They move the practical side of career development from prediction and control to living well with uncertainty.

Pryor and Bright identify a range of ideas for what career development looks like from the perspective of Chaos Theory but we are going to look at just one of these here. The Luck Readiness Index (LRI). Luck readiness is defined by Pryor and Bright as “…recognizing, creating, utilizing and adapting to opportunities and outcomes occasioned by chance.” It is an index of eight attitudes described below. The aim is to describe a type of person who can deal with uncertainty and chaos.

  • Flexibility- Prepared for and ready to respond to change, does not find it hard to alter thinking or behaviour, not threatened by the unfamiliar, adaptable.
  • Optimism- Sees opportunities rather than problems, takes the best out all situations, hopeful, open to new experiences.
  • Risk- Confident to make decisions on the face of change, recognises but is not deterred by chance of failure, not dominated by fear
  • Curiosity- Explores and seeks new knowledge and experiences, disciplined in efforts to learn, learns from study and others.
  • Persistence- Able to endure boredom and failure, obstacles not seen as discouragement, confident and tenacious in seeking their goals.
  • Strategy- Seeks out opportunities to improve chance of reaching their goals, believes chance can be both influenced and expected, plans ways to win no matter what the situation.
  • Efficacy- Believes that luck, circumstances, problems and others need not determine their destiny, seeks to take control of their lives, focuses on opportunities and what they can control.
  • Luckiness- Believes or expects to be lucky.


Like David Winter I would say one of my problems with The Chaos Theory of Careers is that it is danger at times (especially with some of the discussion around fractals and attractors, which I chose not to touch on here for this reason) to take a good point about prediction and the future and make it overly complicated with some of the use of analogies and some of the wider discussion.

I also feel the big issue with The Chaos Theory of Careers is how much to adopt it. Does it map out a complete system of careers development or does it just offer one perspective that needs to be considered alongside other perspectives such as rational decision making and constructivism. I find some of the claims around Chaos Theory a bit overblown in terms of how all encompassing they are.

That said the Chaos Theory of Careers is very exciting. Like all theories it has elements of common sense “but of course…” about it while still being robust and enough and with real depth. I’ve been challenged writing this to think through how to make more use of it.


A “twitter” -brief summary of the Chaos Theory of Careers –

Pryor, R. G., & Bright, J. (2003). The chaos theory of careers. Australian Journal of Career Development, 12(3), 12-20.

Pryor, R., & Bright, J. (2011). The chaos theory of careers: A new perspective on working in the twenty-first century. Taylor & Francis.

12 thoughts on “The Chaos Theory of Careers – Theories Every Careers Adviser Should Know

  1. Thanks for the post, Tom. I have to confess to being a big fan of the theory and the book. I believe it provides a way of looking at work (and life) in a way that is more reflective of the realities that we and our clients face. The only things we can confidently say about the world is that it is complex, the future is uncertain, and change is constant. This theory provides practitioners with language and approaches to assist our clients to acknowledge and navigate these realities.

  2. I did not have a negative impression. I just wanted to disclose that I was not an unbiased commenter.

    I work in a university career centre and Chaos Theory influences almost everything we do, whether it be in 1-to-1 or group settings. It provides a lens through which we assist students see their university years as well as the work type possibilities available to them after graduation. It has also changed our relationships with academic areas and other Student Services groups and the types of programming we’ve developed.

    Given that this probably isn’t the forum to get into all the specifics, I’ve provided a link to a video we created for new students a few year’s ago.

    The video is in many ways a starting point to the types of themes we emphasize. How deep we choose to go into them depends on the session topic (group) or presenting issue (individual).

    Hope that at least partially addresses your question!

  3. It influences everything we do, from one-to-one sessions to group programming (I work in the university environment). Without getting into all the detail, Chaos tenets form the foundation of our programming – they provide the frame or lens for how we assist students (our clients) see their time at university and the types of possibilities they might be curious about after graduation.

    Not sure if that makes sense (but sense has never been one of my strengths!).

  4. Hi Tom.

    I found my initial reply to be a bit long – and I was surprised by the size of the video! Hence the second, more succinct post.

    I really appreciate the work you do on this site.


    • Hi Tony. Thanks for your posts and the video. I actually have used it before in some sessions I’ve done, I found it very useful. Glad you enjoy the blog.

      I was really interested by how you were describing your service. I find the idea of having a clear theoretical vision for an entire service very intriguing.

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