If you stop and think about it career planning is a lot like weather prediction. We start off thinking we’re going to stay with one particular job (or the day starts out sunny) but then we discover that we have to move to follow a spouse (the clouds are moving in) and the location we’re moving to doesn’t have any jobs in our field (thunderstorm warning). And, just like the weather, the further into the future we try to predict our career plans, the less clear and certain they are.

The notion that our careers are linear is based on some old thinking, primarily from the early 1900’s when Talcott Parsons, an engineer, developed this system called “trait and factor.” Your personality and characteristics were your “traits” the “factor” was the workplace. If you identified your traits you could be matched with the perfect job “factors.” As a sign of how old this theory is, he called it “matching men to jobs.” In other words, if you liked playing with trucks perhaps you should become a truck driver. It was a great theory when the United States was shifting from an agricultural to an industrial economy, and it formed the basis for much of the career planning field until this century. But the gaps and flaws in the system in the 20th century have become gaping holes in the 21st century.

Is anyone really working at the job they expected to ten years ago? Even if you’re in the career field you expected to be in, did you know you would work for your current employer ten years ago?

That’s why I like chaos theory as a metaphor for career planning. While the word “chaos” conjures up images of a wild roller coaster ride, an out-of-control, the truth is chaos theory says there ultimately is order. We just can’t always see it from where we stand. We look at their own career path with its sudden changes or unexpected occurrences and agree that, yes, perhaps it is about chaos. But if you also look over your past jobs and careers you can often see a pattern emerge: themes and patterns appear.

In the January 1994 issue of The American Psychologist, Dr. Scott Barton wrote: “The presence of chaos suggests that even if we are able to characterize all the variables in a nonlinear system completely, general patterns of future behaviors may be the best we can hope to predict.”(“Chaos, Self-Organization, and Psychology” )

You can use those themes and patterns to propel yourself to your next experience. Jobs dried up in your field? Don’t know what you want to do? Can’t identify a career goal? Traditional linear career theories would tell you it’s panic time. They all start with “set a goal.” “Follow these five steps to a job.” Yeah right.

Chaos theory says “chill.” It’s OK not to have a goal, because that in itself is a goal: your goal is to find your career goal. Chaos theory tells us to identify what we know, figure out what we don’t know, and start learning.

Chaos theory says the world is too complex to ever know all the variables that are going to affect your career plans, so start seeking experiences. Look for opportunities to grow, learn, and start to watch for the patterns. What are the themes in your career so far? What are the talents you have consistently used in all your jobs regardless of your job title? What threads tend to run through your life? Because those threads and themes will help catapult you to your next job or career.

So how does chaos theory help with career planning?

1. It’s a complex process. So look for patterns, look for connections, look for meaning. What do you enjoy? Where do you get your energy? What has been the source of your success so far?

2. Accept that you don’t control all the variables. Things are going to emerge. (There’s a bumper sticker that states that less eloquently: S… Happens.) The economy has just emerged, big time. Layoffs emerge. Control what you can.

3. Life isn’t always linear. In fact, quite often it’s nonlinear. Thing don’t happen in a specific order or on schedule. The “5 steps to a job” don’t always work. Sometimes jobs come along at the most unexpected places and times. You can work on different steps of the job search at the same time.

Chaos theory has served as the metaphor for career planning in my book, You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career. If you learn to harness the power of chaos theory (including that wonderful feature, the butterfly effect) you will truly be able to tackle any challenge the 21st century job search hands you.