Chaos and happenstance play as much of a part in careers as planning
Things both good and bad happen in our careers that we do not expect and have not planned for.
The idea that we plan our careers by thinking carefully and logically about what best suits us and then simply implementing our strategy is probably the most commonly held view of how our careers work. "Plastics" was the career advice given by a well-meaning family friend to Dustin Hoffman in the film The Graduate. The 1967 movie reflected the societal expectation that all graduates (and school leavers) should have a clear and firm plan for their lives. This expectation is pretty much still in place today, but should it be?
When we start looking closely at careers as real people genuinely experience them and not as some mythologised logical, linear and ever-upward trajectory, a different picture emerges. It turns out that careers are a lot less predictable than we imagine.
Think about your own career - is what you are doing now, what you believed you'd be doing when you were 15 or 21? The career path of most of us better resembles a drunken man's stagger through the world of work than a neat, calculated and straight line.
Careers are riddled with chance events. They are also subject to a complex array of different influences. Career decisions are not the result of cold, rational and logical thought processes, rather they emerge from a melting pot of personal history, circumstance, interests, experiences and more.
The rise of foreign economies has dispossessed many Australian workers. Whether it is using an iPad to order your meal in a restaurant, driving a Chinese car, or sending your dictation to India to be typed, the way we work, and hence our careers, are changing continually.
Here are some facts about careers and their trajectories:
■ At least 70 per cent of us will experience a chance event that significantly alters our career.
■ A US study found that over a period of 25 years about 60 per cent of us will change occupations and will report higher levels of well-being because of it.
■ A 2005 report from Monash University showed that after one year 29.7 per cent of enrolling students had changed courses, universities or had dropped out.
■ Federal government figures suggest 26.2 per cent of apprentices dropped out in 2009-2010.
We may think we make our own decisions about our careers but all of the following factors have been shown to be influential in our choices: where you live, your mother, your father, your siblings, politicians, the media, the web, your health and injuries.
What all this means is that shift happens in our careers continually. Sometimes it is the result of planning but often it is not. It means that "planning a career" is a less viable and useful thing to do. The appropriate reaction to this is not to become fatalistic or despairing but to recognise that our careers are the result of a complex, dynamic system of influences, people and the environment.
Emerging from the complex interaction of all these different things will be a career pattern that has periods of stability but is subject to unpredictable and sometimes radical change.
The appropriate reaction to the complexity of our lives and careers is to place more emphasis on learning the skills of planning - how to make a plan, how to change a plan, how to copy someone else's plan and how and when to abandon a plan. It means developing the skills and mindset to embrace uncertainty and realising that unplanned events - both good and bad - are inevitable.
This will help us to be resilient and persistent in the face of bad-chance events and ready to take advantage of any good-chance events that come our way.
Those who react to uncertainty by trying to control and predict everything by risking nothing are likely to be either confounded in their efforts by the forces of change and complexity, or they will limit their careers to such an extent they risk never fulfilling their potential. Successful people live their careers on the edge of chaos, a place where they are sufficiently open to change to engage, learn and transform.
The Chaos Theory of Careers describes the realities of working in the 21st century in a complex, changing and unpredictable world. To be successful in our careers now, we must be more open than ever to new possibilities, continual learning and the need creatively to reinvent or recast ourselves as circumstances permit or demand.
It is no longer necessary or even desirable in a world defined by change to have too firmly decided what we are going to do with our lives, because shift happens. Perhaps we should adopt the approach of Peter Ustinov who said, ironically, on his 75th birthday: "I really must decide what to do with my life."
The Chaos Theory of Careers: A New Perspective on Working in the 21st Century by Robert Pryor and Jim Bright is published by Routledge and is available from Palgrave Macmillan and Amazon.com.