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Published 09 August 2012 03:50, Updated 10 August 2012 07:38
The problem with people is that we just don’t know what is good for us. We think certainty and security in our work is something to aim for, but chaos is what brings us the greatest satisfaction.
This is counter-intuitive. Chaos is bad, right? It is the unexpected flinging itself at us left, right and centre. But it is also exciting, challenging and helps us grow, says psychologist Jim Bright.
“It is something that is assumed to be bad but I think that without change people become stale and they become very routine-ised and, before long, they have no intrinsic satisfaction in their work,” he says.
In fact, one-quarter of all workers say they are “stuck in a rut”, according to a survey released in August of 2600 UK workers by recruiter Towers Watson.
These are the people who are just going through the motions and no longer have the energy or the confidence to try their luck elsewhere. And when there’s an unemployment rate of 8.1 per cent in that country (5.2 per cent here), it is no wonder they try to stay put.
However, chaos and change are – ironically – a constant.
In an online survey of 1500 workers, Bright found that 90 per cent say an unplanned event had a big impact on their lives. An injury, a chance meeting, a war, or environmental disaster can trash all your well-laid plans.
Putting the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to one side, there is another fast-growing trend adding to the sense of chaos – the increasing casualisation of the workforce.
Up to 25 per cent of workers in this country are already in what the unions term “insecure employment”. Employers call them “contingent jobs”. These people are casuals, contractors and consultants.
Permanent employment is being chipped away by employer demands for workforces they can shrink and grow at will and employee desires not to be tied down to a permanent job.
While there are concerns that non-permanent work is not for everyone, Bright says research shows that people who have a higher rate of change in their work have greater career satisfaction.
“People who made the changes are actually the happiest,” says Bright, who wrote The Chaos Theory of Careers, with Robert Pryor, an adjunct professor at the Australian Catholic University.
Bright says some people who are unwillingly forced into change through circumstances beyond their control (such as retrenchment) often say, at a later date, it was the best thing that could have happened to them.
Apart from the fact they were forced to try something new, and may have been surprised to find they liked it much more than they had anticipated, the move may have changed their world view for the better.
Bright’s survey shows that about 80 per cent of people have had a crisis or “conversion experience” that has changed their lives in a significant way.
Michael J. Fox, the 51-year-old Canadian-American actor became an activist for people with Parkinson’s disease after being diagnosed with it at the age of 30. Despite the ravages to his body, Fox has said the experience has enriched his life.
“The experience of dealing with the reality of a diagnosis with an incurable progressive illness … once I recognised that and accepted it, that opened [life] up for me in terms of possibilities,” he told The Age in May.
“You see the entirety of your life in a way that you don’t when you myopically focus on your career, or what your last movie did.
“All of a sudden it’s all bigger, the stakes are bigger, the implications are bigger and the possibilities are bigger.”
In the jobs market, a varied career can be a good thing.
“They develop networks and they are forced to obtain new skills and they become better at dealing with unplanned change when it happens,” says Bright, managing partner of Bright & Associates.
Traditional networking was the source of new career opportunities for 41 per cent of job candidates last year, says recruiter Right Management.
“Don’t underestimate the importance of keeping things fresh,” Bright says. “There is the skills growth and the opportunity to break out of a routine – that is what holidays are all about.”
This is good for employers, too.
“From an employer point of view, picking people up and moving them around produces more flexible employees,” says Bright.
“One of the reasons uncertainty is good is that people get practice dealing with instability. They learn what to do and how to manage their emotional responses. The more you do it, the better you become at dealing with it.”
One of the most common complaints from business leaders is that their people are resistant to change.
One of the reasons is that humans are notoriously bad at predicting how we will feel about things in the future. We often don’t know what we will like until we have actually tried it.
“We have an inability to know what we want,” says Bright.
He says 90 per cent of people have wanted something, obtained it, and then found out they preferred something else.
“We think we are really happy doing what we do but, really, it is because we are too afraid to try something new.
“If you think about your favourite cuisine, for instance, there was a time when you ate it for the first time.”
After all, who would look at an oyster, glistening in its shell and anticipate they would love the salty taste and strange texture. Or okra. Or mouldy cheese.
“We have a strong bias towards familiarity,” says Bright. “Familiarity actually breeds affection, not contempt.”
When chaos lays waste to all our strategising, what then is the point of career planning?
“I think it is effective if it gets people to reflect on their careers and get an objective opinion,” says Bright.
“But moving away from the plan helps people to be continually revising.”