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Careers Café

Control through chaos


Career planning typically revolves around big choices. Move to a bigger city or stay close to home? Do an advanced degree or two – or none? Pursue a secure job – or one that feels riskier but more rewarding?

Too bad that, just as minor changes in data can dramatically impact weather prediction calculations, small events in our lives can disrupt our career plans.

How unsurprising that chaos theory is a tough sell to people experiencing career uncertainty. If little things can throw off our career planning efforts, what’s the point of planning in the first place? How can you gain some measure of control over the chaotic movements of your career?

While there’s interesting stuff out there on the merits and limits of career planning, I’d like to look at the flipside of career chaos – not at how it disrupts plans, but how it can provide a measure of control when best-laid plans do what they’re reputed to do.

According to the laws of chaos, if you’ve made what seems to be a wrong big decision, you may not need to make an opposing and equally big decision to undo the damage. Think you should be in IT, but took history instead? There may be ways around that; the right small project(s) could open up a whole new world of professional contacts. Invested scads of time into a career you’re not sure you want, and don’t have the energy to change gears? Stumbling across the right mentor might lead to job offers.

If this sounds like a rainbows and unicorns approach to career development, take some time to map out your own career experiences so far – or talk with someone who is a few years ahead of you. When has luck played a role in a shift of direction or discovery of new opportunities?

In my own meandering path, the scads of time invested to preparing for an academic career met their match in the form of one mentor. She has opened doors to a small network of well-placed people and continues to be responsible, to some degree, for every job I’ve gotten (including recent freelance client referrals and the opportunity to teach a career course, starting this September).

I could not have planned to meet someone who would turn out to be so influential, but it is possible to plan to put yourself in the path of opportunities, and to follow up when something looks suspiciously like a positively disruptive chance happening. We can all use a little good luck.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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