Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

Laid off? Bag the Goals. Start Wandering.

Chaos theory, wandering, and the job search.

JRR TolkienIt's official: The job market is at its worst in recent years. Read the bad news here. If you're a college student, you've probably seen the article that college recruiting is down 20% this year. Read even more bad news here.

If you're looking for a job you're probably frustrated, scared, and under pressure.  And if you're reading the traditional "5 steps to finding a job" kind of articles, you're probably more frustrated than ever because they all start with the same step: "set a career goal."

A key tenet of one the best coaching books on the market, Dr. Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is "Begin with the End in Mind." And that's great when you know what the end point is.

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I understand the notion that it's logical to set a goal and go for it, but what do you do when you don't have a goal? What do you do when you had a goal but it's unlikely you'll achieve it now (Wall Street brokerage jobs anyone)? Career changers who don't want to (or can't) keep doing what they've always done often find their goals are moving targets. And college grads whose majors don't relate directly to a job or who majored in a field that isn't hiring now get stuck on that word goal.


Here's my advice: WANDER.

What? Wander? That doesn't seem very helpful. Sounds a little aimless or unfocused. And isn't focus the key to success?


I developed my chaos-based career coaching system called "Wise Wanderings"TM from over twenty-plus years working with liberal arts students and career changers. I chose chaos theory because I found that approach worked much better than the traditional linear approaches.

When I first became a career counselor, I tried to follow the traditional rules. I gave my clients career tests, tried to help them pick a career, set clear goals, move forward in a lock-step method, etc. But it didn't work most of the time. Now lawyers, engineers, accountants: they usually did just fine with the traditional systems, as long as they wanted to stay lawyers, accountants, and engineers.

But many would say, "I don't want to (or can't) be a lawyer anymore." Others would say "I don't know what I want to do." Or "I would like to do a bunch of things-I don't want to choose." And, since they couldn't see a clear goal, they often froze in one place.

So since clear goal-setting isn't really an option, wandering is starting to look pretty good. And how do you wander? Well, it helps to have a great metaphor. If you think of yourself as "unemployed job seeker" it's hard to conjure up a lot of enthusiasm. It's back to the couch for some more mind-numbing daytime TV.

How 'bout becoming a "corporate anthropologist"? Or an "investigative reporter"? Or a "Detective"? Imagining yourself in those roles will help you de-personalize the process and make it just a little more interesting and enticing. Because what's the goal for anyone in those roles? Information. Answers. Clues.

And how might you get those results? Wandering. Start by wandering into your local public library. Rumor has it they have lots of potentially helpful information. See if your local university/college library will allow you to use their resources-some offer "guest" privileges. If not, check with your alma mater-sometimes alumni can get access to those invaluable databases and resources. Wander into groups or gatherings of people who might have ideas or job leads for you-- even if you don't expect them to.

I teach classes for the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin designed to help students connect their liberal arts major to the workplace. After all, what does one do with that major in philosophy? (Answer: A lot-- many of those philosophy majors are consultants and leaders in their professions. But I digress.) There just aren't many job postings specifically for philosophers. (Although if you're a poet, Hallmark cards might be interested.) In the first class I explain chaos theory and I encourage the students to start wandering. They are short courses--only seven weeks in length--but I'm always amazed at the progress the students make during the class. They make comments like "I went to a dinner with my dad and he brought along a colleague from work. We got to talking about our mutual interest in skiing and he asked me if I wanted to work with him this summer." Or "I went bowling with some friends and started chatting with the folks in the next alley and they told me about this great environmental organization I should look into." Or "since I started this class, I've found an internship for the rest of the semester and a job right after graduation. I really didn't plan any of this-I just kind of wandered into it." Hmmm...maybe they're on to something.


Where else can you wander? Anywhere. What's your passion? Go to a local meeting of other passionate souls-whether it's the Scottish Terrier meet-up group or the World of Warcraft convention. Talk about your passions. Listen. And then tell them what you're looking for. You don't know where someone might send you.


Now I know what some of you are saying-hey, isn't wandering kind of unfocused? Don't I need a goal? Sure. Here's your goal: Learn. Find something to do while you're looking for the "perfect" thing to do. Oh, and by the way, lose "perfect." Look for what works for the moment. Discover what you like about it and try to do more of that.


Believe me. Wandering works well.


Or as Tolkien so eloquently said, "Not all those who wander are lost."

Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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