Chaos surfing: from surviving to thriving in chaotic times

“Better to be a dog in times of tranquility than a human in times of chaos,” says an old Chinese proverb. Ha, the lure of immutability! We do, indeed, instinctively dread chaos as a threat to our stability; we fear the unpredictable risk and uncomfortable change it brings about, and we try hard to maintain a fragile equilibrium in our lives.

But nature shows us that life itself depends on chaos. And, because we’re human and able to override some of our instinctive behaviors, we can learn to embrace chaotic times, going from paralyzing anxiety to thriving curiosity.

The edge of chaos

Many people consider chaos as what we cannot control. Scientists define it in a different way: to them, chaos is what is so​ sensitive to initial conditions that it makes it very difficult to understand its underlying patterns and interconnections. The dynamics of chaos are so complex, they appear to be random and unpredictable.

Chaos Surfing

In their book Surfing the Edge of Chaos, Richard Pascale, Mark Milleman, and Linda Gioja explain that there are four cornerstone principles to chaos in nature that we can also observe in chaotic times in our lives and at work:

  • Equilibrium is a precursor to death. “When a living system is in a state of equilibrium, it is less responsive to changes occurring around it,” they write. This state of equilibrium is highly dangerous, putting the system at risk of not adapting quickly enough.
  • Innovation usually takes place on the edge of chaos. It’s when they face a threat or are excited by a new opportunity that living systems tend to come up with new ways of living through experimentation and mutation.
  • Self-organization emerges naturally. As long as a system is sufficiently populated and properly interconnected, a new self-organization will emerge from chaos.
  • Living systems cannot be directed towards a linear path. In dynamical systems, an attractor is defined as a set of states toward which a system tends to evolve. The direction is discovered rather than dictated by the living living system.

These principles are crucial to keep in mind when surfing the edge of chaos.

Norman Packard, a chaos theory physicist from the Santa Fe Institute, coined the expression “edge of chaos” to describe a transition space between order and disorder that’s fertile for adaptation and innovation.

Why the edge of chaos, and not the middle of chaos? “As long as one operates in the middle of things, one can never really know the nature in which one moves,” wrote philosopher William Irwin Thompson. Only by exploring the edge of chaos can we truly learn and grow.

The edge of chaos is a place for liminal creativity. It allows us to redefine the frontiers of our knowledge, to dance with disruption, and to reinvent ourselves. Instead of futilely resisting change by trying to stay stationary, this liminal space is an opportunity to respond to the threat of disequilibrium by constantly experimenting, learning, and adapting our ways of thinking.

What’s more, the living systems that successfully change their inner properties to better fit the edge of chaos not only survive — they thrive.

How to thrive in chaos

Living systems tend to initially respond to chaos by attempting to restore stability. However, problems arise when we try to apply a traditional solution to an adaptive problem. When new rules are emerging and the path forward is uncertain, we need to discover our goals instead of dictating them. In that spirit, here are four strategies you can experiment with to practice chaos surfing:

1. Make a pact. Trying to force a specific outcome in chaotic times is like trying to herd butterflies. However, just like chaos theory has its attractors orienting a system in a particular direction, you can orient yourself by defining a pact with yourself.

Make a commitment to dedicate a certain amount of time or a certain number of repetitions towards a project you care about. Similar to a compass, a pact encourages you to show up and surf the chaos, letting a new self-organization emerge over time. It needs to be purposeful, actionable, contextual, and trackable. Examples of such pacts include:

  • Writing for one hour every morning before everyone wakes up
  • Publishing one newsletter every week about a topic you care about
  • Studying for a JavaScript certification for two hours every Sunday

As you can see, there is no finish line; no success metrics except for whether you show up or not. Each pact is simply a little experiment, a chance to learn about the world and about yourself. Focusing on your output rather than the outcome will rekindle your sense of agency without falling prey to the illusion of control.

2. Create an anchor ritual. To grow and learn, we need to soak in the chaos without completely destroying our living system. We all know how important habits and routines are for our mental and physical health, and millions of books have been sold on those topics. But the reality is that these keystones often fly out of the window when we find ourselves trying to navigate the sea of chaos.

Instead, choose one — and one only — anchor ritual, such as journaling, gardening, dancing in your living room, consciously breathing and stretching, doing a few pushups, drawing or coloring, sending a voice note of gratitude to a friend, etc.

Chaos can be anxiety-inducing. Acting as a life buoy in times of uncertainty, your anchor ritual needs to be simple, enjoyable, and practical, so you can turn to it anywhere and anytime you feel overwhelmed.

3. Practice metacognition. In a fast-changing environment, your initial pact will eventually become obsolete, whether it’s because of a contextual change, or because your own aspirations have evolved. But you won’t realize you’re not playing the right game anymore if you’re not actively paying attention.

Put simply, metacognition is thinking about thinking. Instead of blindly repeating the same behavior day after day, metacognition consists in taking time to reflect on what’s working, what could be improved, and what you want to focus on next. By observing and reflecting on your thoughts, you will become more adaptable to chaos, ensuring that you adapt your actions to the currents around you.

And remember that while a pact can be amended to adapt to a new context or new goals, entirely abandoning your pact is also a valid decision. Experimentation and mutation are the only actions to stick to when surfing the edge of chaos.

4. Don’t do it alone. As Pascale, Milleman, and Gioja explain in their book: “Self-organization arises from networks that are fueled by nodes and connections.” In a collaborative setting, everyone contributes to the creation of new nodes and new connections between existing nodes, leading to novel ideas and bridges across islands of knowledge, thus collectively reshaping the system.

Instead of suffering through the mass mutation, you can shape those liminal moments by learning in public and practicing networked thinking. Ask questions, collect feedback, connect with people outside of your circle of competence and share your discoveries with the world. Not only will this improve your chances of success and make the journey more enjoyable, but you will also make friends along the way.

In the sea of chaos, your pact is your rudder and metacognition is your captain’s log. Your anchor ritual offers one pillar of certainty in the never-ending turmoil — a haven of calm to turn to when fear and anxiety threaten to overpower your curiosity. While some lone sailors may survive the storm, you’re much more likely to thrive if you join forces with others.

That’s what chaos surfing is all about: make a pact, create an anchor ritual, practice metacognition, and don’t try to do it all alone. Try these strategies, and not only will you survive, but you will thrive.

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