Chaos theory, if it can be conveyed in a thought, is the idea that it’s possible to get completely random results from normal equations — and the reverse: it’s possible to find order in what appears to be completely random data. In the day-to-day workings of life, particularly among disciples of routine, chaos might be described as things appearing out of control, disorderly or hectic. Yet as Paul Cezanne observed, “We live in a rainbow of chaos.”
Although chaotic systems appear to be random, they are not. Beneath the random behavior patterns emerge, and suggest or actually reveal an inherent order. Understanding this is the first step toward using chaos to your advantage, or finding the pattern of order that awaits beneath the facade of your apparently chaotic situation.
Why are we bothered by chaos?
Reasons vary from person to person and situation to situation. Many people are bothered by the sense of the uncertainty or not knowing, while others might be uncomfortable dealing with the seeming lack of calm, or the release of control that accompanies chaos.
Compounding matters, we live in a linear culture characterized by linear thinking and domination, where order and logic are valued, and control is equated with power — which is too often mistaken for leadership. For example, the typical “happy ending” of American-made movies also points to our general sense of wanting everything to work out simply, easily, and in accordance with a very narrow definition of “happily” — and in a short amount of time. These are not the typical traits associated with chaos.
Despite the parade of enlightened or successful people throughout the ages praising chaos as a condition necessary for genius, innovation and the like, it’s difficult for many people to believe that they can jump the hurdles that precede these results and simply “go with the flow” of chaos. Whether the facade of order and ease is not actually representative of reality, which is often well beyond total control, is irrelevant. There are plenty of people who are quite happy to bob along in the sea of denial, even if the price is a deep-seated sense of anxiety over the falsity of this way of living and working. Heading for the shores of truth and personal responsibility seems too challenging a swim. And yet the effort is worthwhile for those that attempt it.
How can chaos be beneficial?
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” With this belief, chaos can be a benefit to business and a springboard to personal mastery. How?
For business, chaos can bring about:
- New ideas: Looking for new solutions to existing problems, for example, can be the jolt your group needs to invent a new process, product or service. Remember the sayings, Necessity is of the mother of invention, or, We can’t solve today’s problems with the same approaches that got us here in the first place?
- Better decision-making: For some people, the pressure of chaos ignites a top “survival skill” to prioritize activities and spend one’s energy reserves on the most important items on the list. Use this reaction to chaos to decide what’s most important for you or your group to concentrate on, and forget the rest — or re-evaluate why they were on the list in the first place. As with many such skills or disciplines, this one can be learned by those prone to procrastination or panic in the face of chaos.
- Higher efficiency: Chaos can produce higher efficiency. For many of us, when the “nervous system” (pressure, stress levels, anxiety, etc.) kicks in, we focus like never before to accomplish the tasks at hand. If you’ve already prioritized your list (noted above), you are primed for a serious bout of intense focus on those activities you identified as most important. This concentration and commitment can increase your efficiency enormously — especially when compared with the swarm of to-do’s that you had on your previous list. In contrast, more leisurely and less pressured periods can hold the danger of complacency and laziness.
- Greater clarity: It’s during the toughest times that true leadership gifts can emerge. Such leaders revisit their vision to rejuvenate their thinking, recharge their energy and refocus on their reason for owning and/or leading the enterprise. Chaos might catapult you into an abyss of unknowing or uncertainty where the old answers don’t match new questions. But it also poses new challenges to working toward that vision — creating an opportunity for greater clarity about what you’re doing and a stronger commitment to why you’re doing it. As the saying goes (or can go, for those open to looking), when one door closes, another opens.
Chaos can help you increase your personal mastery skill by:
- Flexing and building mindset-management muscle: The test of one’s mettle is through turbulence. Without chaotic circumstances, we’d rarely test and refine the practices and tools that help us manage stress, communicate more effectively, or lead more appropriately. Each instance of chaos is an opportunity to improve mindset-management techniques. As the lead character in the movie The Contender says, “Principles only mean something when you stick to them even when they’re inconvenient.” By sticking to it, working the problem, and facing the challenge, you can emerge from periods of chaos with greater wisdom and skillfulness.
- Busting through assumptions: Chaotic situations can bring us face to face with our greatest strengths, and demons. One such demon is our storehouse of cherished (and often unconscious) assumptions. When you have the opportunity to recognize the assumptions that you make under stress (about yourself, others, etc.,), you’re better equipped to eradicate the assumptions and move forward with a stronger sense of self and understanding of others.
- Increasing critical and creative thinking: While chaos might seem to create barrier after barrier to success, regardless of the goal, it also gives us the opportunity to heighten our awareness to new and different options, the courage or necessity to take a risk, and can help expand the way we see a situation. There has rarely been a new invention or way of thinking (or working) that didn’t face seemingly insurmountable challenges from the established paradigm or status quo. If there’s a will, there’s a way — and chaos has a tendency of bringing out the best of solutions, if you can find the skill and courage to see it through.
So, the next time you think you’re being pulled by an undertow of chaos, remember what civil rights leader Septima Poinsette Clark said, “I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift.”
Reflection Points & Discussion Starters
- How might a seemingly chaotic situation that you’re currently facing be a gift to you and perhaps to others in your organization or community?
- How would it change your perspective if you were to see chaos or uncertainty as a package that contained wonderful gifts and opportunities?
- In times of seeming chaos, what are your anchors or lighthouses that help keep you centered in what’s most important, so that you don’t lose your way just because the seas seem a bit choppier?
For help in clarifying and making progress towards your own vision for inspired leadership, conscious enterprise, or big-vision entrepreneurship, contact us at Ivy Sea to explore the possibilities.
This article was originally featured at Ivy Sea Online and is reprinted with permission.
© 2006 – 2014, Jamie Walters. All rights reserved.