What Is Chaos?

The word “chaos” is derived from the Greek χάος, khaos, meaning “the emptiness,” the void before the creation of the Cosmos, a state of non-being, the time before the separation of Heaven and Earth. Prima materia to the Romans. Om, the abstract and the absolute, everything and nothing, to Hindus. In Chinese, Wújí 無極, literally “without ridgepole,” refers to the infinite primordial universe, before Yin and Yang differentiate. Formlessness, though not necessarily calm.

“What we call chaos is just patterns we haven’t recognized.” – Chuck Palahniuk

Our modern understanding of the word “chaos” as a state of “complete disorder or confusion,” first appeared in Elizabethan times (1) , and suggested an exaggeration, sarcastic or satirical, of how organized something is. Or is not. Elizabethan snark, if you will.

Magnum Chaos, wood-inlay by Giovan Francesco Capoferri at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, based on a design by Lorenzo Lotto.

How do you train for chaos?

In his recent Creative Mornings talk, Captain Bobby Eckert (no relation) shared his life-long journey as a second-generation firefighter in the City of Camden, NJ, at the busiest firehouse in the state. His passion for this dangerous, vital, and thoroughly punishing work is boundless and infinite despite having cost him a marriage, despite the crushing mental and physical stress, the suffering of injuries too numerous to list, not least of which was a traumatic brain injury.

When Captain Eckert talks about chaos, he does not mean what you and I think he means. To me, the epitome of chaos would be a burning building. To him, chaos is any moment not spent with his ears melting in the guts of a raging inferno, the hotter and crazier the better. “That’s my happy place,” he says, “It’s where I am 100% laser-focused.” Where you and I likely consider our home life to be our refuge, our place of calm and predictability, this is what chaos means to Captain Eckert. His biggest challenges lie outside the biggest dangers he faces.

Eckert’s confidence is viral. You might take this as cockiness, but he is remarkably self-aware. He has spent time turning over the rocks in his life, looking at the muck, and learning from the process. His confidence comes from his years of experience, his training, and the support of the men and women he works with, whose lives he is responsible for, and whom he calls family. He is a devoted teacher of new recruits, breaking them down and slowly building them back up, tough-love style, one task mastered at a time, until a real firefighter takes shape and replaces the distracted Millennial constantly jacked into his or her “fucking phone.”

Life or death situations are not something most of us face on a daily basis in our various creative careers. So what does this have to do with me?


Who among us has not inherited a project gone off the rails that must be wrestled back into a deliverable, billable form? Or a client with capricious needs and a revolving door of stakeholders? Anyone else ever had a coworker who undermines the group, an energy vampire? Me too! Parallels abound, especially in terms of what he says about leadership. Eckert believes everything one does as a leader is contagious, the good and the bad: your positive (or negative) outlook, your cool-headedness in crazy situations, your sacrifices. Your ability to learn from mistakes.  

So, his advice? Make peace with the chaos. Stand outside it, see it, understand your fear of it, don’t judge it. Then you can start to see the order within it. Then you learn from the experience. Then you make the world better. Anyone else reminded of the creative process? Maybe without the burning rafters, but you see my point.

He spoke about how a random series of events, things you have no control over, can spin off terrible consequences. Yet the very same series of events can lead to amazing, positive outcomes that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Captain Eckert means chaos in its original sense: of emptiness, nothing; as that moment of potential energy, where anything could go any which way and he has no way of knowing. As he put it, “I will burn the side of my face off to get to your kids out of a fire. My life comes last.” Isn’t this really another way of saying, in that moment “I don’t exist,” I am formlessness, I am chaos?

  1. (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_(cosmogony)#cite_note-44)