There is an old saying that seems particularly apropos these days. Man Plans, God Laughs. Despite our best efforts to follow through on plans, promises and commitments that we or our governments have made, we seem to be continuously challenged to cancel or alter them at home, work and school. If the last year has taught us nothing else, it has reinforced the idea that, other than the proverbial death and taxes, life is indeed uncertain.
How do we deal with uncertainty in particularly uncertain times? How do we plan a future when life seems so unpredictable? In an effort to make some sense of the unpredictability that continues to plague our lives, I went looking for ideas that might provide some answers.
One comes from Jim Bright and Robert Prior, two Australian professors, who examined the traditional theories of Career Development and found them lacking. In looking at the usual model of career exploration, based on matching one’s interests, personality, skills and values to a set of criteria, they contended that such assessments were too static and tended to reduce the myriad of influences that can affect one’s life to overly-simplified ones. In particular, these theories excluded three important elements that contributed to career outcomes.
First was the complexity of influences in people’s lives, not only the obvious ones of family, friends and teachers, but also the social, cultural, political, economic and environmental climates of the time. Second, they suggested that each of these influences is continually shifting and changing, which leads to an even greater difficulty predicting exact outcomes. And third, there are chance occurrences that happen that can significantly impact career outcomes.
This led to the development of the Chaos Theory of Careers, which in its findings, can apply to our current situation. It says that even at the best of times, we can’t predict our futures. Further it suggests that we have become too reliant on plans and that we need to consider a transition to behaviours that encourage openness to change, adaptability, flexibility and resiliency (traits, by the way, which are associated with a high level of Emotional Intelligence). It does not ask us to abandon the plan altogether, but to recognize that it may need to be massaged or adapted along the way and to be okay with that.
For those whose personalities are more spontaneous, who tend to go with the flow, this may be relatively easy. But for those who cling to tradition, rely on a plan to get anything done, wake up in the morning already formulating a list for the day, it can be disorienting and anxiety-provoking. If we like things to be predictable, our need to control may move into overdrive when they are not. But when so much of our lives feels out of our control, when ways of learning and working are changed dramatically from what we have known, when openings and closings of schools and places of work are modified at the last minute and when schedules of vaccine production, arrivals and rollouts are altered on a far too frequent basis, we are left feeling stressed and frustrated.
There are no easy answers. But perhaps it would be easier to accept if we recognize the reality that life is continuously changing and that the unpredictability and uncertainty that we are experiencing now has always existed. (It is just on a larger scale). It may also help to reframe the idea of change to a more positive view, recognizing that if things are not predetermined, then we can leave room for improvement. And it may help to motivate us to balance the parts of ourselves that need the structure of planning and organization with the parts of our creative selves that we may not access as frequently.
While the last year has forced us to confront the current realities, it has also shone a light on how little control we actually have, how trying to control life causes greater stress than it helps and how resilient and adaptable we can become when needed.