I want to have a successful career. As a result, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to allocate my resources, skills, and time to having an impact. I look for role models, jobs that align with my interests, and work hard.
Yet until recently there was one thing I was not doing: seeking out chaos.
This is a radically important concept and one that I wish I had learned about earlier in my career. When you think about the big moments in life – where to live, how to get engaged and married, which candidate to vote for, or what professional paths to take, you likely are optimizing for security and stability. The same is all too often true about how we conduct ourselves in the workplace.
We want jobs that give us security, growth, and consistency. But by definition jobs like these have a high degree of predictability. If you know that something is secure, growing, and consistent, it definitionally lacks high variance.
Variance is Where Growth Happens
In probability theory and statistics, variance is the expectation of the squared deviation of a random variable from its mean. Informally, it measures how far a set of numbers is spread out from their average value. Where there is large variance, you can find gold.
Let me explain further.
Have you ever faced this scenario: you are faced with two paths, one less certain than the other? Which path do you pick? The path that is more likely to lead to the destination you want.
But people that are great at managing their careers don’t know the exact path they will travel. Rather, they are always seeking opportunities to add value. Where there is chaos – huge market changes, changes in management, uncertainty about competitors, new organizations, product launches – there is room to have impact.
Where there is high predictability there is stasis.
At Amazon, founder and CEO talks about the concept of avoiding a Day 2 mindset. Day 1 is the thought process that says everything is new and needs to be fought for. Day 2 is a mindset that says all is Ok. When one has a Day 2 mindset they stand still. They don’t innovate. They don’t fight to grow. Then they start to decline.
If you are reflecting on a career change – or how to grow within your existing team or firm – you should embrace ambiguity and flow towards chaos. Pick the job, title, path, or organization where things are the least clear. This will enable you to demonstrate the most value and have the highest impact.
Leaders have relentlessly high standards — many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and drive their teams to deliver high quality products, services, and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed. If you want to be a leader you need to show the world that you are capable of leading.
Does leadership occur in flat, static environments? Not really. It exists in dynamic moments when people are unsure of which direction to go or which policy to advocate for.
Bringing It All Together: Embrace Uncertainty to Accelerate Growth
In conclusion the outcomes of your career and upwards mobility will be dictated by different forces. Some of these forces are obvious: your skill and aptitude, the advocacy of your manager, and the needs of the business.
Some of these forces are less clear. For example, many people pick roles that are comfortable and have certain outcomes. These roles will enable less growth. Why? Because you will be less capable of changing outcomes.
In finance there is a key concept called Terminal Value. This value, which is often equal to GDP, is around 2 to 3% in the US. At this growth rate, a firm expands at the same rate as the general economy. There is nothing wrong with that but these firms are reaching the end of their growth – unless they reinvest themselves.
People are the same. Relationships are the same.
If your growth is fixed and low, change things up. Embrace ambiguity and move towards environments with more chaos – you will test yourself, develop as a leader, and enjoy more impact developmental outcomes as a result.