The Oxford dictionary defines chaos as “complete disorder and confusion. In physics, it is behavior so unpredictable as to appear random.” Every time I hear the word chaos, I think of Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park (watch here). His cadence is, uh… well it’s… it’s enjoyable.
In an effort to understand our interpretations of chaos, I asked some folks I know for their definition of it. One of the first responses I received was from a student of mine. She defines chaos as “an imbalance in a majority of things going on in my life, whether I’m just very busy or things aren’t going as planned. Also, when I have too much going on in my head, I can’t focus on one thing, or a certain goal…I end up focusing on a small detail and not the whole.”
I like Julia’s definition of chaos because it’s neither positive nor negative, but instead focuses on the manner in which chaotic events impact our perception of our respective whole.
Our life experiences are what contribute to our interpretation of chaos, and whether we react to it as being positive or negative. If you are a glass-is-half-empty person, chaos will most likely appear to have negative connotations in relation to your life. We feel as though the circumstances of our life are nearly always out of our control, we will respond defensively when we feel we’re under attack, and we’ll be in a constant state of fight or flight. This is an emotional response to chaos.
If we look at chaos simply as events that can, do and will occur in our lives, we have a greater probability of seeing the positive impact of chaos, or, at the very least, of using the chaotic events around us as a means to change our perspective. This is a logical approach, not a response, to chaos. By removing emotion from each stimulus (chaos), we have the ability to meet the stimuli in an offensive, not defensive, manner. The most successful entrepreneurs in the world approach chaos in this manner.
Chaos, Habits, and Soccer Practice
We humans are creatures of habit: wake up at 5:00, work out, shower, have coffee, commute to work, work all day, have the same sandwich from the same deli, commute home, pick up the kids from soccer practice, make dinner, sit on the couch in front of the television, go to bed. Repeat, ad nauseum.
We crave the regimentation. It gives us a sense of structure and order. But, why do we do this? Is it the nature of our lives and the function of modern society? Or, is it a response to the chaos that surrounds us? Perhaps it’s both. One of my favorite quotes about chaos comes from the artist M.C. Escher: We adore chaos because we love to produce order.
I’ve been dealing with a large quantity of chaos in my life recently, and wondered if it was possible to categorize it. After days of some serious list-making, categorizing, and complete mental frustration, I came up with the answer: YES, it can be categorized, and, as former CIA analyst Morgan Jones mentions in his book The Thinker’s Toolkit, (here)
“…The word analysis means separating a problem into its constituent elements. Doing so reduces complex issues to their simplest terms. (page xi)”
In my analysis, the simplest terms were positive chaos and negative chaos. Let’s break those down…
Negative Chaos – an emotional response
“Chaos is an overwhelming amount of negative stimuli creating conflict and stress that cannot be controlled by the individual.”
For most of us, like my friend Rick who supplied his definition above, the word chaos equates to negatives. The panicked chaos of losing, or not being able to find, a job. The frustration-based chaos caused by dealing with challenges in relationships, whether personal or professional. The chaos of helplessness in despising our living conditions but feeling incapable of changing them.
Those bits tend to go hand-in-hand, don’t they? Job loss creates chaos in money issues which tend to wear on relationships, and add to feelings of a lack of control in our quality of life. That’s a pretty big snowball barreling down the hill at you. When we look at chaos in that manner, we see it as happening to us as opposed to around us. We go on the defensive; we become Mary or Marty Martyr; we wearily wallow in the quagmire of crap. We need to get a fucking grip! We’ll get back to this in a moment.
Positive Chaos – a logical approach
“You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
There have been very few times when I’ve discussed chaos with people when it elicits a positive reaction. It’s not very common to hear someone say, “I have so many amazing opportunities coming at me that I’m completely overwhelmed by the realization that whichever one of these chaotic choices I chose will be fantastic!” I don’t know who is having that conversation, but I want to be part of it.
The truth is, there really is such a thing as positive chaos! Old relationships that fell by the wayside suddenly spring back to life. The one who got away pops up out of nowhere––single, childless, and handsome as ever. The colleague with whom you struggle to work alongside announces they’re moving on from your company. Career opportunities for growth or change are not only possible, but now tangible.
Through chaos we find organizational skills, emotional fortitude, and the creation of some of the most amazing works of art in human history. We find the multitude of possibilities we oftentimes do not see through our regimented lives.
As with negative chaos, the positives are linked as well. You may be reading this thinking, “Nicki, these things are not chaotic. They’re wonderful things that have just simply happened.”
You’re correct. But, so am I. Alright, well, we’re both correct. They’re wonderfully chaotic things happening.
A colleague of mine defines chaos like this: “Chaos is uncontrollable, or not yet controllable, variables… usually in large quantities.” If we take Andrew’s definition of chaos, it’s applicable to negative or positive types, much like Julia’s take on it. Any flood of events in our lives can throw our daily, structured routines into chaos. They simply upset the status quo.
Consider a scenario where the status quo of your day-planner life is upset by the group of guys you used to hang around with 20-years ago suddenly plopped into the mix. Though their abrupt, unexpected reappearance is fantastic, how on earth are you going to make time to see them? How will you explain your absence from them for the past umpteen years without sounding like a hermit, a crazy cat lady, or a total ass bite? Where, oh where, will you pencil them into the day-planner?!
This is positive chaos! Not only are you thrilled to see this group of old friends, but it forces you to look at your daily life in a logical manner, to reprioritize things if you want to sustain these relationships, and perhaps get yourself out of a regimented rut. I am convinced that the Universe sends us these chaotic opportunities as a wake-up call to look pragmatically at our lives, and weed-out the crap!
I mentioned we’d revisit the negative chaos. Consider this example from Plato’s The Republic. In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato has Socrates telling of a group of people chained together, living in a cave, the whole while staring at the blank cave wall.
The only visions they have occur when someone or something passes between them and the fire. The shadows are then illuminated onto the cave wall, and this is all the people know of “reality.” Plato likens our perception of the world around us “to the habitation in prison, the firelight there to the sunlight [in the real world], the ascent and the view of the [real] world is the rising of the soul into the world of the mind.”
In other words, we do not know what we do not seek to know. If we always look at chaos as a negative influence in our lives, we will never see it as anything else. We must choose to see chaos as something other than how we always see it.
The Universe sends us subtle messages, but we don’t notice them because our lives are too noisy, too busy, we’re too important, the kids have soccer practice, violin lessons, we need to take the cat to the vet, wash the car, close the Vermont deal (anyone? anyone? Bueller?). When everything suddenly appears to be at a fever pitch, like we’re on the turbo-charged merry-go-round from Hell, that’s the Universe smacking us right upside the head with a sledgehammer and saying:
HELLO, NUMBSKULL. HERE IS SOME CHAOS SINCE YOU DIDN’T PICK UP ON THE SUBTLETY. GET OUT OF THE CAVE AND OPEN YOUR EYES.
I’m not yelling; I just thought the Universe should have a bigger voice than mine.
Within Chaos Theory lies the Butterfly Effect, which states that a small change in one state of a nonlinear system can cause large differences in a later state. So many fancy words: if you make a choice to do one little thing, it has a ripple effect and the repurcussions of which will be felt down the road, often in a much larger way.
If the Universe is continually sending us the same opportunities, but we repeatedly react to them in a way that dismisses them, the outcome is not going to change. However, if the Universe sends you that same opportunity tomorrow, but you are now viewing the frantic world around you as having the potential for exponential change, the outcome will be different, because it has to be different. By changing your perspective on what you perceive as chaos, you change the way that chaos affects your life, negatively or positively.
I always like to give my readers an example from my own life, especially if it gives you the opportunity to laugh at me, so here we go. I’ve been a working musician for 25 years, and recently felt sick to death of it because I am here, doing the sametypes of jobs, and still complaining about them in the same way, year after year.
Why did I expect a different outcome by repeatedly doing the same thing?
My perspective was what had to change. I realized what it was about my current jobs that make me unhappy, and saw that one of those things will soon no longer be a factor. Why did I keep dwelling on that if it would hold no relevance in just a matter of months?! Negative chaos, that’s why. Emotional response instead of logical approach.
Once I changed the way I looked at the situation, I knew how to change what I could change, and let the rest of it go because it really wasn’t going to affect my life. I could finally plot the course of my career in a new way, and my happiness has come right along with it. Logical approach instead of emotional reaction.
The regimentation of our lives is fundamentally opposed to dealing with things that upset that order. This is why we so often look at chaos as having a negative impact in our lives. It can be the one small flutter of the butterfly’s wings that seems to change everything thereafter.
Take a look at your chaotic situations from a fresh perspective, without emotion, and give yourself the ability to see the potential in each “chaotic” opportunity being presented to you:
1. Examine the chaos you perceive in your life.
2. Decide how it is affecting you, your career, your family.
3. Remove the emotional response to it and look at it through a logical approach; is it positive or negative chaos?
4. If it is negative, look at the details and decide what you have control over and what you do not, and react accordingly.
5. If the chaos presents itself as a positive, reassess your current situation and decide if there is room for change, amendment, or improvement.
Chaos can be the road to wonderful things, regardless of the positive or negative factors. It all has to do with the manner in which we respond to it. And remember…