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A Splash of Chaos


I want to introduce to you a principle for strong adulting that I’m calling "Optimal Chaos". The idea is this: the best way to grow is to place yourself at the edge of chaos. In other words, if you avoid chaos altogether, you remain stagnant, and if you dive head first into extreme chaos, life can unravel very quickly. This may sound obvious, but even so, failing to calibrate chaos is a common cause of suffering for many inhabitants of Adultland.

Let's dig a little deeper into what that means and how you can apply it.

Imagine an Order-to-Chaos Continuum with -10 being perfect order and +10 being utter chaos. Order is that which is familiar, known, comfortable. Chaos is the opposite. What I’m suggesting is that routinely placing yourself somewhere between 0 and +1 is the optimal way to grow.

Consider a 3 year-old boy who’s very attached to his mother. He could stay by his mother’s side forever - that would be on the extreme of order. However, if he did that, he’d never learn how to function in a social world, so mom has to expose him to chaos - that is, the unknown, the unfamiliar - if he is to grow socially.

One (reckless) way to do this is to drop him off at a park by himself. That might work….aaaannd it also might traumatize him - that’s taking him all the way to +10 on the continuum.

Another approach is for mom to take the kid to a park and watch other kids play, then go back home. That’s it. The next day, they go to the park and mom plays with him near other children. Then the next day, mom backs away a few feet after a few minutes and watches from a bench. This progression continues until her son feels perfectly comfortable in new social contexts. In the latter approach, I would say that mom is utilizing the principle of Optimal Chaos.

We often hear people say that it’s important to “embrace discomfort”. This is precisely why. You can’t grow without it. Growing is expansion - it’s exploring new territory. New territory is fundamentally scary. After all, you don’t know where you are! Thus, growth can’t happen without some amount of suffering.

Where is the Edge of Chaos?

Sometimes, life throws you way over the edge and it’s beyond your control - you lose someone you love, you get laid off, your friend betrays you. In those extreme scenarios where some aspect of your world is shattered, you can still grow - often immensely - but you're also likely to suffer immensely. These "growth opportunities" are unavoidable, but if you want to intentionally cultivate growth, consider staying away from extreme chaos and instead explore the edge.

Let’s look at a couple examples…

  • Romantic Relationship - Let’s say your relationship isn’t going well. You feel disconnected and resentful. A +10 action might be immediately filing for divorce or breaking up. You may still grow from that, but it will be an ugly path. A +1 action might be having a new, difficult conversation with your boo. It will be uncomfortable, but may enable you to reconnect and have more necessary conversations.

  • Facing a Fear - If public speaking terrifies you, a +10 action could be booking a speaking gig in a month. It very well could help you get over your fear...or you might spend a month overwhelmed with anxiety, only to cancel or bomb. A +1 action might be speaking up during a meeting in which you’re usually silent.

  • Work Dissatisfaction - perhaps you feel uninspired at work. You could go in tomorrow and quit (+10) or you could start applying for other jobs and also start a conversation with your boss about what you’d like to change in your current position (+1).

I’m not discouraging you from taking bold steps that terrify you. Everyone’s tolerance for chaos is different, and sometimes extreme chaos is the only viable path forward. The key is to zero in on where that edge is for you so that you can be conscious of how you’re approaching your decisions.

Find Your Edge

What is an area in your life where you might benefit from shifting your spot on the Order-to-Chaos Continuum? Is there a place you’re stagnant and playing it safe? Is there an area where you feel completely disoriented and might benefit from scaling back the uncertainty?

You may also gain insight by looking at your order-chaos picture more holistically. If, for example, you are on the chaos edge and growing steadily in work and relationships, it might be overwhelming to simultaneously push yourself into new territory at work. Play around with it and see what works for you - find out what keeps you growing without overwhelming you.

What will you do to integrate the principle of Optimal Chaos into your life? I’d love to hear from you or read your comments below.