The Chaos Theory of Careers: A New Perspective on Working in the Twenty‐first Century

Sara Shinton (Shinton Consulting Ltd, Galashiels, UK)

Journal of European Industrial Training

ISSN: 0309-0590

Article publication date: 1 November 2011



Shinton, S. (2011), "The Chaos Theory of Careers: A New Perspective on Working in the Twenty‐first Century", Journal of European Industrial Training, Vol. 35 No. 9, pp. 931-934.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Book synopsis

Aimed at careers professionals, this textbook begins by looking at the influences and connectivities affecting the universe; it reminds us of the huge changes in society experienced during the twentieth century and then brings us onto more conventional ground with an overview of the common models in career choice and guidance. Within a few pages, the authors present the limitations of these theories in such a complex, ever‐changing and unpredictable world.

A review of career development research leads to recent thinking in the field, highlighting the emergence of instability, lack of control and order, non‐linear relationships and interconnectedness in career theories. After describing the strengths, similarities and limitations of existing theories, the authors set out their case for a career perspective based on chaos theory.

The chapter that introduces the chaos theory of careers, first takes us through the development of general chaos theory and many parallels are drawn between the scientific and careers communities which the authors assert have both experienced a decline in certainty and demonstrated limited capacity for prediction over the last century. Each step in the formulation of chaos theory is linked to similar leaps forward in career theory and key principles are firmly placed in the context of career development. At the heart of chaos theory is complexity, which allows many different perspectives to be embraced, even those that contradict and oppose one another. The other core concepts are self‐organisation, which causes systems to seek out and form patterns; and change, viewed in terms of adaptation and resilience. With these three core concepts clearly presented to the reader, the book moves into further explanation and enhancement of the theory, with empirical evidence presented, then advice for practitioners on how to apply it.

The chapters which continue to develop and elaborate on the principles present a very thorough case for the value of the theory, drawing on a huge range of existing thinking to demonstrate how very different approaches and ideas can be developed and accommodated. Elements of chaos theory which will be familiar to all, such as fractals and the butterfly effect are used to illustrate the concepts of self‐organisation and change at the heart of the work.

The second half of the book gives the reader a range of strategies for applying the theory with clients, with particular emphasis on the value of the holistic viewpoint of the theory. As different (opposing) perspectives are embraced in a chaotic world and blended in its dynamic system, strategies and techniques from all sides can be incorporated and distinctions between them blurred. Tried and tested techniques for applying the concepts are presented in detail, giving readers a chaos theory toolkit to use within their own interactions with clients.

The chapters exploring the application of the theory include a detailed look at the relevance of chaos to the spiritual dimensions of career choice and development. In addition to familiar dimensions such as calling, meaning and purpose, the authors draw attention to neglected spiritual areas and show how the chaos theory works to integrate and include all elements of spirituality in career choice and development. The theory is finally applied to organisations which have been exposed to change, complexity and uncertainty in the same way as individuals. Chaos theory is related to goal setting, strategic planning, career paths, creativity and leadership, presenting the broad value that the authors' feel the theory can bring to organisations.

The book closes with a review of the limitations of the theory & invites readers to enter into dialogue with them, encouraging challenges and suggestions for future applications.


The authors present a convincing case for their assertion that chaos theory addresses the impact of uncertainty on twenty‐first century careers. Chaos theory introduces new themes into careers work as it did in the scientific world, namely embracing uncertainty, the importance of chance and humility, and recognition that the order we try to impose on nature is often too simplistic. This comprehensive study embraces all the themes of chaos theory and includes practical suggestions for translating theory into practice.

Drawing upon their extensive knowledge of career research, each element of chaos theory is connected to the work of the careers professional by relating it to existing theories and practice. The chapters which introduce and elaborate on chaos theory do so in an accessible and engaging way, with nothing for the non‐scientist to fear. One of the many interesting things about this book is the unabashed application of scientific principle to careers theory, which makes for an interesting read. Even though the book drills down into theory in significant detail, at no time does the relationship between chaos and careers feel contrived or forced.

Although the book sets out the limitations of theories which try to present career planning and choice in absolute terms, it never allows the subject to surrender control of their career to external forces, even when looking at the impact of chance on career choice and development. A chapter on “attractors” (the factors which influence the system, so gravity or intermolecular forces in scientific terms) offers an interesting framework for understanding clients who fail to engage with their career development or are limited in their thinking, but also challenges the practitioner to understand their own career attractors which may be influencing their approaches and preferred tools. In chaos theory, identifying the attractors which dominate a client's thinking is the start of a process which helps them to accept the limitations of trying to control their system, see the value of more open thinking and negotiate uncertainty.

Clearly, many practitioners will recognise their own good practice here – the application of elements of many theories and approaches to meet the needs of their client and the recognition of uncertainty – but this book draws so much work together under such an interesting theoretical framework, that it is one I will be recommending to my own colleagues in the field. The final chapter invites the reader to be part of the development of the theory and welcomes challenges, critical evaluation and debate. I look forward to seeing wider application of the theory in such areas as cultural diversity and resonance, as well as the further development of existing online tools which support the volume.

In the authors' own words

In this book, much attention has been devoted to the implications of complexity for the career development practice of counsellors and the careers of their clients. Attention was drawn to the ultimate inadequacy of closed systems thinking in the face of complexity and the need for open systems thinking characterised in chaos theory terms as the strange attractor: that is, thinking and acting in light of the constant interplay of stability and change, order and disorder, plans and chance. The necessity of thinking paradoxically, of seeking out connections between logic and creativity, the acknowledgement of mystery and transcendence, and the value of humility and luck readiness were highlighted as integral to all our responses to the implications of complexity for career development (p. 203).

About the reviewer

Dr Sara Shinton began her career as a scientist, researching physical chemistry to post‐doctoral level. A year developing materials to enhance communication and employability skills to undergraduate chemists led to a move into careers guidance and academic development. Since 2000 she has run a consultancy which works with academic institutions, funding bodies, learned societies and research development organisations to improve the careers of researchers. Sara Shinton can be contacted at:

Related articles