Chaos Is Just A Misunderstood Twerp

Listen to Kate read: Chaos Is Just A Misunderstood Twerp

Where we learn that chaos
is not random nor particularly bad.

Admittedly, I am a big – way way way WAY Big – stickler for people understanding the exact definition of the words that they use to communicate with. I don’t know if this means that I simply have a deep appreciation and respect for the English language or if it just means that my hyper-focus ADD tendencies are in overdrive when it comes to linguistics. I can, and I do, humbly accept it’s the latter.

This stickler thing of mine isn’t a formalized list as much as it is me, as a very expressive person who should never ever play a game of poker, realizing that some words get used so often in everyday speak that – like a game of telephone that has gone off the rails – those particular words do not mean what you think they mean. So when I hear a word being used incorrectly, my non-poker face (un-poker face?) either squishes up as if I just smelled something foul, or I do a combo deep sigh+eyeroll, or I might even say out loud, “That is not what that word means” and subsequently realize that now I have indeed lost an ounce of confidence for that person who used that word incorrectly. I mean, I’m now doubting they actually know what they’re talking about. Ever. Into perpetuity.

Hi, I’m Kate and my Meyer-Briggs is INTJ 😅

Anyway. Chaos. If you hear someone say “Things are getting chaotic!” tell me what emotions that brings up for you. Do you feel uncomfortable? Nervous? Anxious? Depending on the context it’s used in, perhaps you might even feel some anger? 

I get it. That person likely used that word intentionally. The word chaos in all its permutations has become the go-to word when talking about something that is, or is about to be, out of control. You hear that word and it implies nothing good and everything bad.

Chaos is a great word to use for those that like to add a lil drama to the story they’re telling. Yet, what if I told you that chaos isn’t always a bad thing?

Apparently random but recurrent long-term behavior in a deterministic system

Harper Collins Mathematics Dictionary

The absolutely wild thing about the definition of chaos is there’s a few similar but different versions of it. But for now, for our joint benefit, let’s just stick with a basic un-pedantic mathematical definition, ‘kay?

This definition describes that when chaos appears it totally looks like it’s something random that has occurred, and recurrent behavior is another way to say there’s a noticeable pattern.

Then, there’s that word deterministic; it describes a system that is ho-hum everyday, there’s no big meteorite (actual or figurative) that has appeared, nothing that is a complete no-one-ever-saw-it-coming surprise. The behaviors of the standard events of the day are known.

So when someone says “This is chaos!” what they typically think they’re saying is akin to “This is out of control!” What they’re saying, definitively, is, “This looks random yet it’s actually not coming out of nowhere cuz there’s some sort of pattern that’s developing  – which can be seen upon reflection – and this is all occurring in a typical ho-hum day. Oh, and actually, it’s probably also not completely out of control.”

In more ways than one, “chaos” was a misnomer, both for the theory and the phenomena it addressed… “chaos” turned out to be a brilliant stroke of evocative branding on the part of its inventor (the mathematician James Yorke) and its early promoters, and it drew into its vortex diverse areas of inquiry and avenues of exploration…

Chaos – or, more accurately, mapping the road to chaos – becomes a matter of finding a pattern and a degree of predictability in the changes.

“Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science” by Martin Meisel
(pg. 21)

Basically, true chaos rarely comes out of nowhere. There’s actually a pattern to it and the steps of that pattern develop in a straight and continuous fashion. When chaos first shows up, though, it’s just a blip of something slightly different that happened during the same-old same-old. 

Chaos may just pop up on a Tuesday that feels like any other Tuesday.

It’s actually a core characteristic of its movement that the results of it look random but, by its very definition, those results are not random. Sure, it might look like a one-off  “huh, that was different, that was new” moment when it first appears, but upon reflection, that different perspective may alter your prior take-away.

I see chaos as a process that – though it eventually settles into one of its six situational states of being — there is a detectable period of time where it is ‘deciding’ (based on current influences that are directly affecting it) what the state of this chaos will be, and where it will sink its hooks in to start its arc of trajectory, that pattern that develops in a straight and continuous fashion.

I’ve absolutely experienced some chaos in the workplace, back when I was a small-business owner, and you know – it actually did show up on a Tuesday. All it looked like in that moment was an employee letting me know that they and their partner were soon to be first-time parents and they wanted to know what our Family Leave policy was. My immediate reaction, after I probably shouted “Mazel!!” was “Well, you’re our first employee that I’ve known to be in this situation, and I need to review how this is addressed in our employee handbook.” 

I wouldn’t ever – then or now – say that that was a random inquiry. I might call it inevitable, but not predictable as far as the timing of when it occurred. 

“The behavior of a chaotic system appears random, but is generated by simple, non-random, deterministic processes: the complexity is in the dynamical evolution (the way the system changes over time driven by numerous iterations of some very simple rule), rather than the system itself.”

From the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 
“Glossary: A simple guide to chaos and complexity”
Author(s): Dean Rickles, Penelope Hawe and Alan Shiell
(pg. 933)

At those moments when someone declares that chaos is happening, what may visually appear to be an erratic behavior IS evidence of the pattern. So, then, what prompted this behavior to happen at this time? As referenced in that first book quote, the impetus for that pattern is actually what we should be looking for, especially if you’re feeling like you’re in the midst of some chaotic behavior and you’re looking to identify it.

I wholeheartedly believe that for the past decade, the workplace has been in a state of chaos because of the sweet sweet chaos that Gen Y and Gen Z ignited. And I think it’s all right and it’s a change whose time has come (and I say this as a Gen X’r). Change is constant, right?

A person is predictable; people are not. Their delicate interrelationships amplify some patterns and extinguish others, without any clear rhyme or reason.

“Math With Bad Drawings” by Ben Olin
(pg. 339)

I love this quote so much because it suggests, for those human-interaction patterns that are commonplace, the ones that are essentially repeating and that actually are deterministic, that in the majority of all human relationships out there those human-centered events are exactly the ones you may continue to evaluate as possible chaotic events. 

I dunno, knowing that something will be random
and unpredictable is – in and of itself – quite predictable. 

And there’s comfort in that knowledge. It’s what I say when I talk about this blog – that by discovering how and where math shows up in our lives, you’re granted this great opportunity to then use that knowledge as fuel in making the best choices for yourself. Understanding the why in some particularly confusing situations can actually help ascribe meaning to those things.

I believe that when true chaos happens, it’s kinda like the universe is holding us all accountable for something. There’s gotta be some deep repeated rumblings that got it going in the first place. The giddy-up that gets chaos (and, really, all types of complex disorders) going in the first place is a period of instability and equilibrium is just trying to get a grip. When you can identify chaos’ point of arrival, you can also estimate (though never completely predict) the trajectory of its arc.

“A chaotic system could be stable if its particular brand of irregularity persisted in the face of small disturbances…locally unpredictable, globally stable.”

“Chaos: Making A New Science” by James Gleick
(pg. 48)

If you haven’t detected it yet – and you might not if you are reading this as opposed to listening to me reading this – I’m a fool for chaos theory. I find the whole of it fascinating and the pattern that it takes on in the face of instability to be inspiring. For those who are reading/listening to this and thinking, Errr, ‘scuse me, you’re leaving out a lot of important stuff, like strange attractors and the concept of “sensitive dependencies on initial conditions”, I’m just going to say ya: baby steps and small bite-sized pieces, yo. There’s plenty of time to share all of that, including the ensuing chaotic behavior that all began on that Tuesday in the workplace.

Thanks math, you’re the best.

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