I was 21 when I tried executing on a project that was just too complex for me at the time. I was a young team lead without much expertise as a software engineer and without expertise in project management whatsoever. I found myself dealing on my own with what was — in retrospect — a time which I wasn’t growing, but rather fighting — myself and others.
The thing that caught me unprepared at the time was how much I lost my clear thinking during the episode. The decisions I made and discussions I had were filled with emotions and defense — and in retrospect many of the directions we took as a team were not the right ones. That left me lonely and stressed at work. I was way beyond the edge of chaos, and the personal and professional cost was profound.
It was only when my boss caught me for a chat, stressing that I’m doing a pretty bad job, and I should take a step back and rethink everything, that things changed for the good. I did the analysis again, built the value-proposition from scratch and was able to come up with a simpler plan to get us out of that mess. I was lucky, but we found the path back to order and made a big impact. And it’s only when we were back in order, that I could analyze what happened there, learn from it and grow. When deep in chaos, it’s just not possible to grow because you’re not thinking clearly enough.
The edge of chaos and order, a term I originally met while reading Jordan Peterson’s “Maps of Meaning” describes the limit, within an environment, after which uncertainty overcomes certainty (my words for it). Order represents stability, the known. Chaos represents that shadowy place where everything is unknown and stability drops. Peterson stresses that being able to find the edge, and staying there, is where meaning can be found. It’s about having the ability to explore chaos, but in small bites, and with order in reach. This “dance” between order and chaos is what allows us to challenge ourselves in a safe way and to find meaning. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” talks about something similar when describing how to get into Flow state and enjoy what you do. I find this as a way to grow as a human being and an engineer. And perhaps it’s all the same.
The uncertainty of chaos creates the challenge required to grow, while the stability of order gives the confidence that allows us to analyze the experience. “Dancing on the edge” is what I wish we would all seek, in anything we do. To have the ability to explore chaos in ways I don’t yet understand or know, succeed or fail — but then to come back to order and learn from the experience. At work — it isn’t easy to find positions that put you exactly on the edge, but if you do find one — growth is promised.
The definitions of order and chaos are completely personal. We should be aware of our own limits, and identify when we cross it. No one else will — that’s why managing up is so important. The feeling of having too much certainty or too much chaos has to be communicated and handled, and we should be the ones leading the conversation. Amazing managers will identify it for us, but we cannot count on it. If I was experienced enough back then to identify and communicate that I was way beyond the edge and cannot succeed or grow — the experience would have been much better (and I probably had more hair now).
I think I’m close to finding that balance, at least in my occupation. I’m still exploring it here, in the field of writing — although here everything still feels chaotic to me. Can you define your own border yet? Are you spending the right amount of time exploring chaos while keeping order close for stability and learning?