What Chaos Theory Can Teach Us About Life Transitions
By Jonathan Kalan, co-founder of Unsettled
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a fascination with the unknown. As a kid, I can remember hours spent listening to a tape my aunt had given me for my birthday that told the adventures of “Jonathan’s Space Odyssey”, some pre-recorded narrative that likely records thousands of kids names, and swaps them into a story of deep space exploration to make them feel unique.
I didn’t mind. I was endlessly curious about the cosmos, and dreamed of being an astronaut. It helped that my father, who had worked on some of the early Apollo missions at NASA, knew a thing or two about the topic and was all too willing to indulge my curiosity with long tales of exploration.
While I never ended up becoming an astronaut (it looked way too hard) or launching into space (yet), I still feel something light up inside of me every time I face, or even think, of a journey into the unknown. It’s an addictive combination of dopamine and adrenaline-fueled curiosity that has driven most of my adult decisions.
As a result, I’ve gone through my fair share of transitions in life. I’ve switched careers, and often entire industries, every few years. I’ve worked as a foreign correspondent in conflict zones and an office manager cleaning toilets; an employee at multiple startups to eventually founding a few of my own. I’ve sought a life rich in experience, high in expectations, and driven by a pursuit of understanding, not necessarily a singular outcome. I never wanted to be the best at anything; I simply wanted to do things differently.
I gravitated away from traditional career paths not because I hate having a boss (though true), or because I can’t sit still in an office from 9-5 (also true), but mainly because I hated the idea of generally knowing where those paths could take me. A promotion, a corporate ladder, a pension. It all felt too predictable. There was nothing about it that fueled that fire of curiosity inside of me.
While the apple fell pretty far from the tree in terms of my actual scientific understanding, I like to think that my life – and in fact many of our lives – follows a similar trajectory as Chaos Theory, a mathematical theory that attempts to explain how complex and seemingly unpredictable systems (like the universe and weather patterns) have behaviors that can, in principle, be predicted. Within their apparent randomness, there are always underlying patterns, feedback loops, and elements self-organization that are determined by an initial set of conditions or moment in time.
The further from the initial point or moment a “chaotic” system evolves, the more unpredictable the path becomes. The Butterfly Effect is a perfect example – a butterfly flaps its wings in Wichita, and through a series of chain reactions it could cause a tornado in India years later. It seems impossible to predict, but in theory it could be predicted. There are just too many variables and possibilities to account for along the way.
Our lives follow a similar path. We are brought into this world with a foundation of values, beliefs, principles, experiences, and an innate inertia based off those elements. To me, that’s our “initial condition”.
As we move through life, even though we often feel more settled, the reality is the possibilities of what we can become are actually increasing. Every new day and every new decision – from what we have for breakfast to whom we marry – holds infinite realm of possibilities that become harder and harder to predict based on our initial condition.
Facing such an insane amount of uncertainty can be daunting. Sure, we could just resign to the fact that we’ll never know what’s going to happen next in our lives. Or, we can take a different approach.
Like Chaos theory, this approach is a formula rooted in time.
When I reflect back on what’s allowed me to transition so frequently and find myself so comfortable with the unknown, it’s a personal strategy I’ve developed over the years that I call the three-month rule of transition.
It’s helped me when quitting jobs, switching careers, or when I’ve simply reached a point where I have no idea “what’s next”, and perhaps it may be of similar help to you. It doesn’t always have to be three months, but that’s just what works for me.
Three Month Rule of Transition
How to slow down, and give yourself enough time to embrace the unknown.
1.) Define your personal runway
In the startup world, “runway” is really just a fancy term for “the time you have until your ass is broke.”
If you’ve just quit your job, are changing careers, or are going through some major transition, consider yourself a startup. You are trying something new, chartering new territory for yourself, and diving into the unknown with the hope that you’ll come out on the other end richer – professionally, personally, and perhaps even financially.
So, you have to define your personal runway. To live your current lifestyle, how many months can you afford to not work? If you tone down your lifestyle (ex. skip the bars, because beer is cheaper from the corner store…), how many more months can that buy you? If you pack up your apartment, sublet your room, hit the road, stay with friends… how much more time can that buy you?
In the end, your personal runway should come down to what are you most comfortable with, and what are you willing to change, to give yourself the time you need to discover what’s next.
This is usually better to define before you take a leap and decide on making your move. But sometimes life doesn’t always work out that nicely, and the greatest plans fail. So be realistic with yourself.
I’ve always aimed to have at least 6 months of “basic quality of life” in reserve. So I cut that in half, and give myself three months to go through an intentional period of transition.
2.) Month One: Accept The Chaos. Do What Feels Good.
The goal of your first month is simple: Do not commit to anything. Every morning when you wake up, do what feels right. Give yourself permission to have zero expectations of yourself. No deadlines. No requirements. Simple in theory, yes. But challenging in practice. In your mind, it will feel like absolute chaos. Embrace it. Accept it. Be impulsive, and explore as many of the things you’ve wanted to try as possible.
If you wake up one morning and want to paint, go paint. If you feel like going to the circus, go to the circus. Feeling creative? What about that book idea you had a year ago – write a few pages and see what happens. Feeling restless? Go for a bike ride, or try that weird sport you’ve always wanted to try. Feel like eating ice cream for breakfast? Seriously. Just go for it. Invest in what makes you feel good, feel alive, and feel happy. Even if it’s a little self-indulgent. It’s only a month.
The key here is to absolve any expectations of a sense of progress. Go with the flow. Experiment, and enjoy a month without any intended outcome.
3.) Month Two: From Chaos Comes Clarity
The first month will seem like chaos. Ideally, you’ll be having fun, but it will probably feel aimless, directionless, and purposeless. That’s because it is. Your only purpose was to give yourself permission to live a month without a clear sense of purpose.
As you enter your second month, the goal is to begin focusing inwards on yourself. To reflect on where you’ve been, what’s important to you, and what you’re looking to get more of in life.
When you reflect on your first month, what did you find yourself enjoying most? What patterns can you find in your behaviour of what you gravitated to? When you look back beyond the past month, what other patterns can you see?
If you look deeply at all of the seemingly disconnected and chaotic parts of your life, and all of the things you enjoy doing – physically, mentally, spiritually – there are always underlying patterns you can begin to detect. But you need to give yourself time to explore them, to connect the dots.
The second month of your transition journey should be about recognizing and mapping your own patterns and trends. Find the themes. For example, if you’ve found yourself constantly moving, outside, and active, perhaps your work and life need to be designed around more physical movement – and not sitting at a desk for 12 hours a day.
As you go through the month, still exploring and trying new things, work to create buckets or themes around things you enjoy. Don’t just think about the “thing” you enjoy, but the “process” behind that thing.
I’ll give you one example from my own life. I was a journalist for several years. I enjoyed journalism, but it wasn’t my true passion. What I found when I stopped “working” as a journalist, was that I enjoyed the process of being a journalist much more than the industry itself. That is, traveling, meeting new people, hearing their stories, crafting narratives, and sharing those stories with new audiences. My passion wasn’t the profession of journalism. It was the process of learning and sharing new perspectives. It was a theme of discovery.
By the end of your second month, you should aim to have 3-5 themes that resonate with you, and can serve as conditions or constraints for what you want to do next.
4.) Month Three: The Pursuit
After two months of experimentation, self-reflection, and looking for your trends, it’s time to begin the pursuit. That is, being more intentional and narrowing down an infinite number of possibilities into a few specific paths to pursue.
Exploring your own personal trends and themes – what makes you happy, feel motivated, feel inspired, – how can you set yourself in a direction to build a life around those things? You might be running low on cash now, so perhaps it’s identifying a broad industry or specific kind of job you want. Or, you may decide you want to start something of your own and begin mapping out what that journey looks like.
Chaos theory ultimately teaches us that uncertainty and unpredictably will always be a constant in life. And while three months may be less than a blink of an eye in the history of the universe, it’s a significant amount of time in our lives.
If we can take that time to simply better understand our initial set of conditions – those innate qualities that drive us, inspire us, cause our dissatisfaction or give us joy – we may have more control over our direction than we think. At the very least, we’ll have a greater understanding of the path that lies behind us, and how we can learn from our own internal patterns, feedback loops, and elements self-organizing to navigate the uncertainty which lies ahead.
Jonathan is a lifelong student of the unknown. Former foreign correspondent, photojournalist, editor, and media/tech entrepreneur. Currently co-founder of Unsettled, the first month-to-month global housing community for creatives, entrepreneurs, and independent workers.