In Face of Chaos, Transition Only a Hindsight


1.movement, passage, or change from one position, state,stage, subject, concept, etc., to another; change: the transition from adolescence to adulthood. (

gear shift
Image by noloran via Flickr

I wrote my first entry on the SFU Career Services blog about 2 years ago, and would you know it – it was a post about transition.  At the time, I was in the middle of an internship at Career Services, and thought that sharing my own story of a not-so-smooth transition out of undergraduate studies to “that which comes next” would be valuable.

I’ve thought about what’s transpired since that day 2 years ago, and how I can look at those events through a lens of transition, of change.  In the post I wrote back then, I discussed how there are some connotations associated with the word transition that, to me, are misleading when applied to a school-career context:

“Transition connotes a sense of smooth, structured change.  Something seamless and easy.  Something tangible and concrete.  Something that you can really get your hands on and just do. To me, transition is a word that better applies to the gear shifter in your car than the impending crisis of finding employment and (gasp!) a career.”

I remain in agreement with my original position.  “Transition” in many cases implies an oversimplification of a process that in reality is non-linear, unpredictable, and very often painful.

Since that day two years ago, I’ve essentially finished a Master’s degree (if only that pesky thesis thing would take care of itself!), gained about a year of counselling experience, and gotten into career advising.  Looking back on that time, it does seem like there was a logical progression to it all, but I’m very aware that that’s not how it felt at the time.  There was uncertainty, fear, anxiety, self-doubt, and a very unhappy bank account.

I think we’re so drawn to the term “transition” in the career development field because of the misleading effect of memory.  In retrospect, things always seem way more predictable than they really were.  There’s a term for this in psychology: hindsight bias.  It’s used to describe how we often believe we “knew” an outcome would happen after the fact, and it’s been strongly supported in scientific research.

I think hindsight bias applies nicely to the love affair that many career development theorists and practitioners have with the word transition.  Not surprisingly, the people who are doing all the theorizing have all been through most of their transitions already (see, I can’t even stop myself from using the term!).  So, when they think about their own path and the events that took them from school to career, they’re likely to view those events as if they had some idea that things would turn out that way.  This then influences their ideas of how it is to go through those changes.

As someone who is very much still transitioning, I can share in the feelings of occasionally overwhelming uncertainty and fear that Generation Y students/job seekers are subject to.  We live in an age of uncertainty and change.  We are unable to predict with any degree of accuracy what our next 10 days will look like, let alone our next 10 years.  We can be reasonably certain that, over the course of that time, we’ll experience new things, progress in certain ways, but there is no discernable or predictable end point.

So why bother talking about transitions if all I’m going to do is debunk the myth that they’re a smooth, predictable process?  Is all hope lost?  Should we all just become hippy anarchists and give up on our ideas of our future?  Of course not.

The Lorenz attractor is an example of a non-li...
the Lorenz attractor - a chaotic system

Not all theories of career development treat the idea of transition in the traditional way.  Many are taking the unpredictability of life into account – namely the Chaos Theory of Careers and Planned Happenstance theory.  There is an acknowledgment that our future is unpredictable and that we live in chaotic systems, yes, but also an emphasis on what we can do, the actions that we can take, to create new possibilities and be open to change.

What does that look like? Identifying interests, following curiosities, removing blocks in your path, expecting the unexpected, looking for opportunities in unlikely places, being open-minded and optimistic.  Ditch “the plan” in favour of “the action.”  It’s not where you’re going, it’s where you are.

It’s chaos out there, but in the end that’s a good thing.  Such is the topic of a talk my wonderful colleague Penny Freno will be giving tomorrow morning to kick off Career Services’ annual one-day conference: Backpack to Briefcase.

I’ll be there.  Heck, I might even be able to write about it (can someone say “live tweet?”).  If you’re interested, I’ll be trying to post regular updates on my twitter account: @lindenforest.  Otherwise, have a great weekend!

*Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.

Images: here and here.