Expect the Unexpected: Leveraging Chaos to Your Advantage

An eagle will often circle above a large flock of birds resting on the ground, feeding, and mingling with each other. It will circle closer and closer, moving downward but won’t isolate a single bird to hunt.

It will simply wait.

Eventually, the eagle will cause the birds to panic. Thousands of closely cropped birds will rush into the sky, flapping their wings in a frantic flurry, looking to escape the deadly bird’s grasp.

The eagle will simply wait. And then — when the dust settles, it will look down and see several injured birds who were damaged during the chaos. It secures an easy lunch without having to chase and burn energy.

Chaos is inevitable. But just like eagles, we can leverage chaos to our advantage. 


Understanding chaos theory

Chaos theory states that we’ll find underlying patterns and feedback loops within a seemingly random, chaotic set of circumstances. It’s a system that is more predictable than we think. And even when it isn’t, that unpredictability can be accounted for. 

In life, there’s more interconnection than we realize. Often, we could have forecasted our bad luck had we done more analysis.  

At its most infantile level, look at how teenagers act about getting to school on time. They set their alarm until the last possible moment. If one thing goes wrong, they’re going to be late for class. They’ll be begging the teacher not to dock their grade. 

People don’t plan for externalities enough. They give themselves no cushion for disaster.


Leverage chaos with forecasting

When I went into corporate life, I was perplexed by how careful every manager was about each detail. The longer I was there, the more I understood it: these people saw stuff go down. They’d seen the damage that a tiny lapse in detail could cause. And even more—they knew sh*t rolls uphill to their desk.

And so, managers forecast what can go wrong and plan how to deal with it. They hold group meetings and ask lots and lots of questions. They express their concerns to see what others have to say.


Netflix and the chaos monkey

Perhaps no company leverages chaos better than Netflix. It’s one of the most cutthroat companies to work for. Each year, managers go before a committee and testify that if any of their direct reports want to quit, they’ll do everything they can to keep them on board.

If they can’t testify to that, the person should be fired. It’s an intense workplace by all measures and, by some accounts, quite toxic. But it’s anything but chaotic.

In fact, they use chaos to make it less chaotic. They know that their business is very simple:

We pay them for cool shows. End of story.

Anything that stands between their end goal is a threat to their business model. 

Now, because they have a streaming service, which works on complex systems where internet speeds fluctuate and servers act chaotic, they must test their system to create redundancies.

Netflix deploys what is called a “chaos monkey.” The monkey is actually a person who’s paid to go into the system, implement destructive code, and break different things on a whim without warning. 

Like an airplane, Netflix aims to have no single point of failure. There should be redundancy for every minor part.  

When a chaos monkey goes in and discovers a deficiency, they identify who came up short and hold them accountable. I can’t imagine being paid to break things in an office. It sounds like a dream gig. But it’s very important. 

It’s the same reason the government will go to a hacker headed for prison and say, “Hey, would you rather stay here or come work for us?” By deliberately attacking your points of weakness and your exposure to risk, you position yourself to perform optimally. 

Netflix’s strategy was so effective that all of Silicon Valley now uses some version of it. 


Be proactive and acknowledge areas for improvement

Leveraging chaos to your advantage is about being proactive, looking into the future, and understanding that the world is random and full of actors who are incompetent or have ill intentions. 

With writing, I’m often asked for advice. People don’t realize that writing actually involves dozens of skills: word choice, meta-construction of your content, flow, ideation, etc.

It’s helpful to isolate where you’re weak and work on that skill set. Your mind is a tornado that sometimes doesn’t cooperate, especially with creative endeavors. If you can fortify the points where you tend to fail, you can set yourself up to thrive. 


It doesn’t matter how tightly you prepared

Sometimes, the universe just has other plans. The best example of chaos theory is weather patterns. It’s why most forecasts suck and why it’s better to assume anything can happen (especially if you live here in Florida). It can go from not a cloud in the sky to rain in sheets within a few hours. 

Always keep an umbrella in your trunk. And don’t get down on your luck if your beach day gets ruined. 

Just look at this hurricane forecasting model:

hurricane forecasting model via the weather channel
via The Weather Channel

How do you even do anything with that picture? It’s like the forecaster was given a multiple-choice test and circled every answer. 

However, that noodle chart is a perfect example of how we can use chaos theory. As each day goes by, those noodles will get less and less erratic but still carry the risk that a storm can suddenly take a turn in any direction. 

The big idea is that catastrophizing can help. Not to the point where you end up in therapy. Just enough to keep you frosty. We’ve villainized stress beyond reason. 

It’s good to have an edge within you. That means you’re on your game. 

I don’t know if there’s a heaven, but I know we aren’t there yet. We’re children of chaos, spawned into a system that’s churned out universes in violent galactic explosions and also created slow-moving fields of flowers to walk through and feel at peace. 

Both of these things can exist and be true. Enjoy the flowers. But leverage chaos and plan for the random monkey wrenches.